Thursday, September 27, 2012

Blog 8: Designing Graphic eTextbooks,
Part 1: Developing the Narratives

            Time to get practical!

            Theorizing about philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific applications in developing graphic textbooks is all well-and-good, but what is the best way to develop them? Today's blog will look at creating the stories, and Blog 9 will be about art on a digital platform. To be clear, this is not a blog entry about how to write. I will not begin to tell people how to write, and there are too many great books about creative writing out there for me to have anything different to add (Story by Robert McKee is one of the best). What I do want to talk about is how to develop them for the market.

Past is Prologue: Learning From Graphic Novels

            Some people question whether or not a serialized comic that is later collected into one volume should be considered a graphic novel. Serialization is not an uncommon practice in publishing and has provided creators a means of supporting themselves while producing larger works for centuries. For example, Charles Dicken’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), was originally serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany; Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984, and ran for twenty-four installments;  while Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1996) was published as a six-part serial novel before it was collected into one volume. It can be argued that what has been acceptable in literature should also apply to graphic novels. Yes, I know I said in Blog 2 that graphic novels are not literature, but it doesn’t mean that we cannot appropriate certain elements, and apply them to this literate art form. Why reinvent the wheel, right?

            Many of these questions regarding format for graphic narratives fall into gray areas. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then how do we calculate the “word” count in a graphic novel? When is a graphic novel truly of novel length? Since there is no mutually agreed upon way around this particular enigma, the appropriation of literary vernacular, such as short story, novelette, novella, and novel, needs to be addressed and adapted—with provisions. Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the professional organization that administrates the Nebula Awards, defines these literary terms on their website as follows:

• Short Story: less than 7,500 words;

• Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;

• Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words

• Novel: 40,000 words or more.

            In terms of storytelling there is no agreement on a balance between words and pictures for graphic narratives, and there should never be, because revealing the story drives both. Certainly, some creators can do more with less pages than others, and a few silent panels (a wordless sequence) can be filled with emotional and/or connotative meanings that would take pages in a text-only story, so no matter where we draw the line it will be an arbitrary one. Legendary comic book creator and graphic novelist, Jim Steranko believes that a “true” graphic novel needs to be at least 100 pages (Steranko, 2010). While 100 pages is an easy number to remember, it is also very calculated.

            Comic books have traditionally been printed in 16-page sections called signatures. The standard comic book pamphlet is 32 pages, or two signatures. This is followed by books with pages counts of 48, 64, and 96 – just four pages short of Steranko’s magic number. According to Steranko, a graphic short story would range from 1–49 pages, a graphic novella would be between 50–99 pages, and a graphic novel would be 100 pages or more. Though some consider Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s 1968 black-and-white comic magazine His Name is...Savage a graphic novel, at only forty pages it is, at best, a graphic short story.

            There will always be illustrated books that blur the line, that make us reassess just what is possible with this artform. How do we re/classify books such as James Gurney’s (1958–) Dinotopia (1992), Jim Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide (1976), David Michael Wieger and Terryl Whitlatch’s (1961–) The Katurran Odyssey (2004), Kyle Baker’s (1965–) Nat Turner (2008), Brian Selznick’s (1966–) The Invention of Hugo Caret (2007), or David Wiesner’s (1956–) Sector 7 (1999) and Flotsam (2006)? (And if you do not think that Flotsam isn’t really a comic book then have another look!) Whether you call them illustrated stories, visual novels, picture books, graphic novels, or long-format comic books, they all attempt to tell stories using pictures.

Creating Graphic eTextbooks

            It took Jay Hosler four years to write and illustrate Optical Allusions (2008). Hosler’s biggest concern is that “the process [for creating graphic textbooks] is labor intensive and very messy/ugly.” (Hosler, 2012) For Mark Schultz, who is not a geneticist, writing TheStuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (2009) took “forever” to research, and, if asked, would never attempt another project like it again. (Schultz, 2011) Graphic textbooks are time-consuming to create, and aside from Hosler and Larry Gonick (who has an MA in mathematics from Harvard) there are very few scholars who can both write and illustrate them. So, what is the best way for going about writing graphic eTextbooks for undergraduate students, and getting them published faster? (Here again, understanding that since all undergraduate textbooks will be digital within five years, I am only concerned with graphic eTextbooks)

            One solution to the time-crunch problem Hosler took with Evolution: TheStory of Life on Earth (2011). In that book, Hosler paired with the art team of Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon. The writing for Evolution took Hosler a year; however, the artwork was begun in parallel while he was still writing it. The total amount of time it took for Evolution to go from inception to publication was approximately two years. This method shortened the production time tremendously, but, here again, there are not that many scholars who understand the sequential art medium to the extent that they can write a lucid, readable, and, yes, entertaining graphic eTextbook. So, what is another solution to this problem?

What About the Alphabet Soup?

            In my opinion, Stuff of Life was a misappropriation of Schultz’s time and talent. Whatever monetary compensation Schultz received from that book probably did not make up for what he could have earned doing other projects. There are better ways to utilize the talents of graphic narrative writers in order to create well-researched graphic eTextbooks that can be used in introductory college classes. The best way, I believe, is to pair a graphic narrative writer with an expert on the subject. Note that I said “expert,” and not “professor.” Sometimes the alphabet soup after a person’s name does not matter when it comes to knowledge of a subject, and lived experience. For example, there is a dynamic local high school history teacher who has been teaching for thirty-six years. For creating graphic eTextbooks, ones that are intended to mimic the classroom experience, I would much rather ask a learned expert in the field to help write and design the book rather than someone with a newly-printed Ph.D. Pairing an expert (who can do the initial research and writing) with a graphic narrative writer (who can adapt the text for the artist/s) utilizes the time and talents of the creators more efficiently. Essentially, for the graphic narrative writer, this is no different from adapting a classic novel. This is what I was discussing in Blog 3 when I wrote, “one has to wonder why certain books, such as A Brief(er) History of Time (1998, 2008) by Stephen William Hawking (1942–), has not yet been adapted into a graphic textbook.”

            In terms of academic rigor, ALL graphic eTextbooks that are intended for undergraduate students must be peer reviewed by at least two reviewers selected by the editor. The identity of the peer reviewers must not be revealed to the expert (subject author), and all notes/corrections must be sent through the editor. The review and correction process must be completed prior to the graphic narrative writer ever receiving the manuscript. There is a prejudice towards the graphic narrative art form, a snobbery if you will, that, unfortunately, persists. Because of this, the credibility of the text must never be an issue. Granted, errors may occur, especially when new research and information comes to light, but the wonderful thing about digital textbooks is that they can be easily updated. Only by insuring academic credibility can graphic eTextbooks be accepted for undergraduate study.

Topics for Discussion

1) What existing books, like A Brief(er) History of Time, would you like to see adapted into a graphic eTextbook?

2) What subjects do you feel would adapt best to this medium? Which ones would not?
Next Blog: Designing Graphic eTextbooks, Part 2: Developing the Visuals

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Blog 7: Reading Sequential Art as a
Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill,
Part 2: Context

Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.
(Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.)
—Paul Klee, Schöpferische Konfession (Creative Credo), 1920

            Special Note: The panel I am using for this blog is from Feynman (2011) by Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick, and Hilary Sycamore.

Artists are interpreters of what they see or imagine. Even photorealism is an interpretation of a subjective reality based on the eye of the observer (and the talent of the artist). But what the eye can see also has physical limitations. For example, no one can see ultra-violet light, so there are no visual representations of it (although I’m sure someone will figure out a way to bamboozle the public into believing they have done it, and make a small fortune in the process). Yet most artistic limitations are not based on universal physics, but rather personal aesthetics. Artists, like everyone else, edit reality by enhancing what is important, and deemphasizing (or eliminating) the unimportant—it is how our brains work. (Zeki, 2005, 100) For sequential artists this happens all the time because the illustration is in service to the narrative; however, much of the information and/or details in that narrative must be conveyed visually in order to create meaning. There is a whole lot more to sequential art than just “talking heads.” So what does the brain “see” when it “sees” a page or panel of sequential art, and how does it derive meaning from this literate art form?

Gestalt Psychology

            In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes Closure as “observing the parts, but perceiving the whole.” (McCloud, 1993, 30) This is a sideways interpretation of Gestalt psychology’s Law of Closure, in which Kurt Koffka states: “It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing up is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.” (Koffka, 1935, 176) Koffka begins by referencing Aristotle’s oft-MISquoted quote, which many of you may have heard as: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In actuality, what Aristotle was saying about Unity was that things “have several parts [in] which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts.’” (Metaphysica, 1045a8–10. See Aristotle’s Metaphysics,13. Unity Reconsidered on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website). What both Aristotle and Koffka are saying is that when we see only part of something (as in single comic panels for example), there are more complex and dynamic relationships going on in the brain—more meaning-making occurring—than simply filling in the blanks.

            The Law of Closure works in another way for sequential art. When drawing a circle, for example, it is better to make the form with a broken line as opposed to a solid one. With a broken line the brain becomes more interested in the representation, more engaged with the drawing, since it has to actively complete the form. A broken line adds energy to a drawing, whether the illustration is as incredibly intricate as a work by Joseph Clement Coll (1881–1921), or as beautifully simplified to its vital essence as rendered by Charles Schulz (1922-2000). Within Gestalt psychology there are other “Laws” that have meaning to creators of graphic narratives, and artists in general. Among these are the Law of Continuity, the Law of Similarity, the Law of Proximity, and the Law of Symmetry. Gestalt psychology is all about perception and organization, and if you examine these “Laws” you will find corresponding lessons being taught in any foundational design class.

Cognitive Psychology and Dual Coding Theory

            Cognitive psychology focusses on how the brain acquires, processes, and stores information. Perception is a huge component of cognitive psychology, which is an equally huge component of sequential art. How we see what we see, and derive meaning from images, has as much to do with enculturation as it does with physiology. We are a long way from knowing how much of our aesthetic sensibilities are culturally-based and how much of it is how our brain is wired (and we may never know); however, what we do know from the study of cognitive psychology is how we can remember better, make accurate decisions faster, and become better learners. Some of the areas of research in cognitive psychology include form perception, pattern recognition, language acquisition, problem solving, and dual coding theory. Remember when I wrote in Blog #2 that we need to ask questions that help make this independent art form grow and evolve? Well, this is a good place to begin.

            Dual Coding Theory (DCT) was conceived by Allan Urho Paivio (1925–), a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. The two major components of DCT are logogens (verbal system units/words) and imagens (non-verbal system units/pictures). In DCT, meaning is derived from the relationship between these two components. Can you say, “Sequential Art?” Not surprisingly, in a 2009 article by Alan G. Gross regarding DCT’s verbal-visual interaction, the author used a page from Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art to illustrate this theory. (Gross, 154) Curiously, Paivio’s Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach (1986), which details DCT was published a year after Comics and Sequential Art. Not that Paivio or Eisner ever met, but it is fascinating that their two interrelated/interwoven/interlocking theories appeared in the arts and psychology at the same time (What was in the water back then?).

            There are two types of “Codes” in DCT: Analogue Codes and Symbolic Codes. Analogue Codes refer to images in our minds based on what see, or have seen, in the real world. Symbolic Codes are those things, such as writing, or icons, that represent a concept or idea. Symbolic Codes are divided into verbal and non-verbal subsystems, which are then divided into visual, auditory, and/or haptic sensorimotor subsystems. (Paivio, 1986, 54) McCloud covers Symbolic Codes in depth in Understanding Comics when he writes about “Icons.” (McCloud, 1993, 24-59) For graphic eTextbook creators, having a working knowledge of cognitive psychology, especially DCT, would be a plus.


            “Visual artists are, in a sense, neurobiologists of vision, studying the potential and capacity of the visual brain with techniques that are unique to them.” (Zeki, 2002, 918) How does the brain process art? Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999) by Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics (his term) at University College London lays some interesting groundwork into understanding how art works. Currently, neurobiologists know more about how the brain responds to color, motion, and depth systems than they do about form systems, but that is quickly changing with strides in computational neuroscience’s understanding of neural networks. However, there is a small area of Zeki’s neuroaesthetics that I want to briefly discuss.

            It should be no surprise that different areas of the brain are functionally specialized. Some areas process visuals, such as motion, color, form and faces, while others process information from the other four senses. Yet even cells are specialized. There are, for example, orientation-selective cells, “which respond selectively to straight lines and are widely thought to be the ‘building blocks’ of form perception.” (Zeki, 2005, 99) According to Zeki, this is why artists such as Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) began experimenting with line and non-figurative art. Mondrian believed that there was a configuration made up of lines, squares, and rectangles that was serene, or “free of tension.” (Zeki, 1999, 123) What neuroaesthetics is discovering now is that this “plurality of straight lines” is “admirably suited to stimulate cells in the visual cortex.” (Zeki, 1999, 124) With that in “mind,” I wonder how much the panel “grid” of the sequential art page plays a part in preparing the brain to receive information?

Putting it All Together

            So, how does the brain process information from a graphic narrative? While we see whole pages of art we do not read whole pages of art—we read panels. Panels are the “building blocks” of sequential narratives, and, as we migrate to digital platforms with smaller and smaller screens, I believe the medium will need to focus less on traditional page design and more on screen/panel design (more on that in Blog #9). Here is what I believe is happening when the brain interprets a panel of sequential art, and tries to derive meaning from it. Understand that the idea of the brain being wholly right or left is very simplistic, but it sells a lot of mass-market books. The brain is much more complex than that, and information readily passes back-and-forth between the two hemispheres. Yet for all that complexity, the process of reading graphic narratives is deceptively simple, which is why, I believe, they get such short shrift. The first example below is “basically” how the brain “sees” a panel of art.

            The second panel below is what happens when the brain disassembles (my term) a panel, and tries to decipher it, and derive meaning from itRemembering that the brain is not modularized, but highly complex and interconnected (language is in multiple areas for example), here is a simplified visual to help describe what is happening in lay terms. Who are the individuals in the panel? How do they relate to one another? How do they exist within their space? What does the text say? Does the text match the facial expression and/or body language of the speaker, or is there some sort of subtext being conveyed? Does color have meaning? There are thousands of questions just like these being asked in the time it takes to “read” the panel before going on to the next one, but there is still more to it than that. When the brain is engaged in “reading” a graphic narrative it comes to a panel, disassembles it, analyzes it for content, reassembles it, places the panel’s narrative (both verbal and non-verbal) in context with every panel that has come before it, draws conclusions as to the information’s place in the ongoing narrative, and then moves on to the next panel where the process begins again—all in the space of a few seconds.
            There are many more elements at work in this whole-part dynamic relationship of graphic narratives, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Topics for Discussion

1) What other areas of philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience are missing from this discussion?

2) How do we go about testing how the brain actually receives information from graphic narratives?

Next Blog: Designing Graphic eTextbooks, Part 1: Developing the Narratives

Thursday, September 20, 2012

 Blog 6: Reading Sequential Art as a
Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill,
Part 1: Content

Graphic textbooks' main goal is to pass on information. In Part 1: Content, we will explore how graphic narratives communicate those skills in a story, and in out next blog, Part 2: Context, we will examine how the human brain interprets sequential art. 
Attitudinal instruction comics are all about slaying dragons. The hero (reader) is faced with a challenge (problem), and embarks on a quest to find the solution (answer). Along the way the hero is joined by a mentor and maybe a few friends (Chorus) who help him on his quest. Attitudinal instructional comics are what Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) refers to as monomyths, or, the hero’s journey (that is why there was a picture of Obi-Wan Kenobe and Luke Skywalker at the end of Blog #5).

Sometimes the reader is given a doppelgänger; someone to relate to in the story. In theater this is referred to as transpositionality. (Chew and Stead, 1999) The doppelgänger is created in order to evoke a sympathetic bond with the reader. When all we had was oral tradition, or radio dramas like The Shadow, the relationship between the hero and the listener was entirely in the listener’s imagination. With comics; however, the physicality of the hero is concretized to whatever degree of abstraction the illustrator(s) decides is best in order to tell the story. The less detailed a doppelgänger is; the more iconic it is, the more universally relatable it is. The concept is referred to as Amplification Through Simplification, and it was explained in great detail by Scott McCloud in his seminal work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. (McCloud, 1993, 30) A great example of the use of this concept in comics is Jeff Smith’s extremely popular series, Bone.

Problem Based Learning

            Problem Based Learning (PBL) was developed by Howard S. Barrows (1928–2011) in the late 1960s. PBL is “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem’” (Savery, 2006, p. 12). Simply put, PBL is a form of scaffolding tool (Blog #5) in which the teacher (called a tutor in PBL) facilitates/guides the students through a series of complex problem-solving tasks and self-reflection. PBL is a powerful instructional approach, and has become the model for education at several institutions such as the University of Delaware. Queen Mary University in London uses PBL in their School of Engineering and Materials Science, and employs planned problem scenarios in their curriculum. Although they are acted out, planned problem scenarios, if they were illustrated, would be graphic narratives. How PBL varies from graphic textbooks is that PBL is, primarily, group-based learning. While the Chorus can substitute for that to a degree, when utilized as part of a classroom setting where a real teacher/tutor is present, graphic textbooks become an even more powerful educational tool.

            So how can we incorporate problem-solving strategies into graphic textbooks? Well, that all depends on the skill of writer, doesn’t it? Though there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, here are some problem-solving strategies to consider when developing graphic textbooks. Remember, with graphic textbooks, and especially graphic eTextbooks, the students can go outside of the narrative (suspend the narrative) to find the answers they are seeking in either the real or digital world. The following list is by no means exhaustive, and is simply meant to help you get an idea of the kinds of strategies that can be woven into a graphic textbook narrative. For a more comprehensive list, click on this link and look at Over Fifty Problem Solving Strategies Explained by John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., found on the University on New England’s website.
Abstraction                                       Analogy

Divide and conquer                         Draw a picture or graph

Hypothesis testing                          Lateral thinking

Look for patterns                             Proof

Reduction                                         Root cause analysis

            After looking at these strategies scroll down to the end of Blog #6 to read two pages from the graphic textbook, Optical Allusions, and try to see what kinds of problem-solving strategies are used in the text. Click on the pages to make them larger!
Do Graphic Textbooks for Undergraduates Really Work?
Is There Any Quantitative Data?

            Yes! (to both)

            “Are Comic Books an Effective Way to Engage Nonmajors in Learning and Appreciating Science?” by Jay Hosler and K. B. Boomer is the first hard proof that graphic textbooks have a positive impact on learning at the college level. (CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 10, 309–317, Fall 2011) The study used Hosler’s Optical Allusions to measure student’s attitudes about biology, comic books, and content knowledge. Optical Allusions was written and illustrated by Hosler, and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). (Hosler, Juniata Voices, 44)

            Hosler and Boomer’s quantitative results were based on pre- and post-instruction testing across four classes. According to Hosler:

“I used it in Sensory Biology, which is traditionally a non-majors class composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores. This, of course, was the class for which the book was designed. I also tested it in Evolution (a 300-level course), which is usually a mix of sophomores and juniors, and in Neurobiology (a 400-level course), which is populated by second-semester seniors. The control was Biology 2, a 200-level course and the second course students take in the Biology sequence. The students in the control group did not read Optical Allusions but were exposed to the same concepts during the semester.” (Hosler, Juniata Voices, 45)

            The survey revealed:

1    A significant improvement was observed in the median content knowledge scores for all groups
2    Attitude scores towards biology showed a significant improvement overall, but Sensory Biology, the course comprised of mainly non-majors, showed a significant increase in student opinion towards biology.  Additionally, in Organic Evolution, students with pre-instruction content knowledge who scored at or below the class median had a marginally significant higher increase in their attitude toward biology, which suggests that the text may help engage those who initially know less content.
3    Students who reported an increase in attitude toward comics tended, on average, to show an increase in attitude toward biology.

            As with the EduComics study in Blog #5, Hosler and Boomer conclude that “we must assess whether these results suggest comics in general can be an effective pedagogical tool in the classroom or do they apply only to the book discussed here? Given the general appeal of comics, images, and stories, it seems likely we are talking about comics in general, but testing this with other comics will be an essential next step.” (Hosler & Boomer, 2011, 316)

Topics for Discussion

1) How do we initiate further testing?
2) What is standing in the way of graphic textbooks being used for undergraduate study? 

NEXT BLOG: Reading Sequential Art as a Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill, Part 2: Context


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blog 5: Immersive Graphic eTextbooks as the
Ultimate Scaffolding Tool
What is Immersive Reading?

            Immersive Reading is when the reader is involved in using several senses simultaneously to experience a story. To be honest, eTextbooks are a long way from being truly immersive, since (at this time) they can only actively engage two senses (sight and sound), and minimally involve a third (touch). “Smelly” tablets and “Yummy” pads (yuck) are really not sharable, but tactile feedback devices are in the pipeline (see Prototype control pad offers generational leap in tactile feedback for games). Just think how cool it would be to navigate a graphic eTextbook on your flat screen television via a control pad or glove! Research in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) has been going on for decades, and I would not be surprised if the first wave of affordable, wearable haptic devices is less than five years away (see Haptic-Audio-Visual Environments [HAVE] for games). Even with only 2½ senses involved, graphic eTextbooks can still be considered an immersive reading experience. Besides, I’m not sure I really want to wear a body suit that lets me feel like I’ve just been hit by the Incredible Hulk.

What is a Scaffolding Tool?

            In Blog #1 we looked at how, in addition to entertainment comic stories, Will Eisner also wrote and illustrated both technical instruction comics and attitudinal instruction comics. Essentially, these are straightforward illustrated instruction manuals, and sequential art dramatizations of events. Perhaps Eisner’s greatest contribution to attitudinal instruction comics is The Department of the Army’s P*S, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly magazine (see Blog #3). I do not make that claim casually, and I do not dismiss the educational impact of Comics and Sequential Art, but how many injuries were prevented, or lives saved, through the efforts of the creators who contributed to P*S magazine? We will never know, yet isn’t that lack of evidence an incredible validation of the power of the sequential art medium? In the case of P*S magazine, “Preventative” had a double meaning. Scaffolding is a means by which a teacher (physical or illustrated) provides a student with all the information and support they need to learn a lesson, or perform a task. By that definition all graphic textbooks are Scaffolding Tools.

            Instructional Scaffolding is a strategy-based concept originally proposed by developmental psychologist, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896– 1934). Vygotsky’s theory was based on what he referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This Zone is the difference between what students can do on their own, and what they can accomplish with the aid of an instructor. As tasks are accomplished knowledge is assimilated and then applied to newer, more complex tasks. The ultimate goal is to help students develop problem-solving strategies, so they can apply what they have learned in order to become independent critical thinkers. Unfortunately, our society is not designed for individualized tutoring, but teachers still find ways of integrating scaffolding strategies into their lesson plans. However, the “Chorus” in graphic textbooks takes the place of the teacher/tutor, and guides the student’s education by doing what all graphic narratives do best—by allowing knowledge to unfold, to reveal itself at the reader’s pace.

Behind the Curve: European Comics in the Classroom

            I don’t mind saying that the use of comics in the classroom in the U.S. is way behind the curve when compared to what is being done in Europe. EduComics refers to Web Comics as a plurimedia medium because they not only combine text with imagery, but also include hypermedia and streaming elements as well—something which I advocated in Blog #4. The following is from EduComics, which began in 2008. 

EduComics is a European Union Comenius education project under the Life Long Learning Programme (ref num 142424-2008-GR-COMENIUS-CMP). It will show educators how online comics can be used in the classroom to enhance learning, engage and motivate students, and use technology in a practical and effective way. The project will create training material for teachers and organise seminars for teachers in Greece, Cyprus, UK, Italy and Spain. These attending teachers will be able to apply strategies and lesson plans in their schools.

The potential for Web comics to be used in education offers educators a means of using multimedia (text, images, audio and video) with their students in most curricular areas. For example, within science, a student can navigate through a web comic book that shows different characters/actors arguing about a science topic. In languages, characters could be placed in a restaurant where they have to order a meal. A web comic can also allow audio in the languages.

In a 2008-2009 case study at the Varvakeio Experimental High School in Athens, Greece, students ages 12-13 performed collaborative learning tasks around Web comics on the topic of “diet and nutrition habits” utilizing the Modern Greek Language. (Vassilikopoulou, Retalis, Nezi, and Boloudakis, p. 119) In the study, the students developed their own web-based graphic narratives (comics) to teach their peers Modern Greek. The study focused on the following specific learning objectives, which are replicated here as they appeared in Educational Media International, Vol. 48, No. 2, June 2011, 115–126:

production of multimodal texts (digital stories) in the form of Web comics meaningful for students (situated learning), while contributing to the resolution of a real problem (problem-based learning) corresponding to their cultural experiences;

development of skills for comic book plot design using Freytag’s specific narrative structure: exposition (setting, characters), conflict, rising action, and climax/turning point, followed by a falling action and resolution/denouement;

familiarization with other modes of semiotic systems other than simple text;

development of narrative skills, using various semiotic codes and learning resources;

understanding of linguistic structural elements, such as types of clauses, forms of noun phrases, points of punctuation, and application of them in the practice of communication via Web comics;

use of lexical cohesion and lexical affinity in the text of the Web comic and its plot;

use of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, and paralinguistic elements of oral and written language in the specific case of communication via Web comics.

Also, the teacher tried via this case study to promote the acquisition of skills, such as:

(1) intellectual: critical thinking, creative imagination, analysis, composition, organization, etc.;

(2) communicative-social: collaboration, interaction, responsibility;

(3) metacognitive: self-reflection, evaluation.

            The study showed that 23 out of 24 students (95.83%) preferred using digital comics in their courses, and 91.67% of them felt that including digital comics made the course “more pleasant.” “The overwhelming majority (92%) confirmed that the creation of digital comics helped them to better comprehend the way in which the narration of a story is organized,” and 96% of them thought that “the scenario enriched their knowledge of punctuation, types of clauses, and operation of noun phrases in the practice of communication.” (Vassilikopoulou, Retalis, Nezi, and Boloudakis, p. 119-122)

While the researchers concluded that this form of investigation was in its early stages, and that no firm conclusions could be drawn from a single study, the process did, however, help the students acquire linguistic skills, and use their cultural experiences and imaginations to create multimodal texts. (Vassilikopoulou, Retalis, Nezi, and Boloudakis, p. 126)
Because “English as a second language and world language students can more readily comprehend new words when they see an image of the word as they hear it spoken” (Enright) it makes sense that the development of graphic eTextbooks that can place these lessons in a broader, more robust context would be the next logical step. By utilizing temporal phenomena such as embedded videos, hyperlinks, sound, animatronics, as well as schematics such as concept maps, topographical maps, flow charts, pie charts, bar graphs, Venn diagrams, etc. graphic eTextbooks can evolve into the ultimate scaffolding tool because the learning is not only entertaining, but the pace in which the lessons are taught are student-driven.  In a perfect world there would be one Obi-Wan Kenobi for every Luke Skywalker, but we are far from that ideal. Aside from one-on-one tutoring, graphic eTextbooks are the closest scaffolding tool we have in our toolbox to individualized learning.
Topics for Discussion
1) What can be done to incorporate WebComics into classroom learning (and what is standing in the way of that happening)?
2) How can these strategies be integrated into graphic eTextbooks for undergraduate study?
NEXT BLOG: Reading Sequential Art as a Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill, Part 1: Content