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

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