Thursday, July 18, 2013

Visual storytelling

Towards the end of last year, Massey University held its annual Vice-Chancellor's Symposium, focusing on the theme of defining 21st century scholarship. As part of the symposium, delegates were invited to submit posters reflecting one or other aspect of that theme. As my 11 avid readers will know, I am particularly interested in social media and the impact that has on modern life, so it seemed apt to explore how social media defines, or has the potential to define, the modern student. (At the time of designing the poster, Facebook announced the creation of its billionth account! There is no denying the pervasiveness of social media!) Because I was examining the potential impact of social media, it seemed appropriate to present my information in the form of an infographic. And whilst I made this choice more-or-less on a whim, designing the poster was the start of an interesting exploration of how the infographic (or my version of the genre, at least) allows one to present a great deal more information than simply words alone.

At the time, I was rather pleased with the way the poster turned out, although looking at it now I can see that there are some issues with it. Never-the-less, using the infographic format allowed me to mix data, in the form of charts, quotes from the literature, and imagery (cogs to reflect the connectivist nature of social media; the wave to warn of the risk of drowning in it) in a way which I think probably told a better story than the words alone would have done. 

Soon after the symposium, I was asked by a colleague to help her with a poster for a conference, and incorporating infographic elements worked well for that too.

I really became convinced of the usefulness of combining images and text  this year. I am currently working towards an MEd., and have to complete some initial papers before I get stuck into a thesis. One assignment required me to draw up a table comparing different groups of learning theories. I found the task a frustrating one, as the table format implies that there are clear boundaries between the theories, which of course, there aren't, and that the theories evolved in some sort of orderly process. Limited also by time and word count, I decided that the only way I could effectively present the information was to resort to incorporating infographic elements into the task.

This was my final product:

The content of the infographic was more or less determined by the assignment, but including visual elements certainly provided me with more scope for description. The three head silhouettes attempt to show the differences in the ways each group of theories explains learning. The associationists see it as a process of fitting new knowledge onto existing constructs, so lego seemed like an appropriate image. The cognitivists focus on the processes of information storage and retrieval, and the scripts and processes used by the brain to do this, hence the use of computer and other technological images. Situative theorists see knowledge as social constructs, so the images used there all reflect collaborative human elements.

By arranging the individual theories at different levels on the page, I was able to indicate the chronological progression without suggesting that these thing were truly sequential, and I used the circular watermarks to indicate the overlaps between the theories. Finally, the small icons next to each learning theory attempted to summarise the specifics of the theory in a way that could aid understanding and recall.
Using the infographic format in an academic context had great value for me and helped transform a fairly mundane task into a challenging and useful learning experience. Of course, I was fortunate to have a lecturer who was willing to allow the idea. And this is one of the big challenges of academia: so much of it is rooted in the tradition of words (a lecturer many years ago described the cult of publication to me as 'shedding pseudo light on non-problems). Publication must be in specific peer-reviewed journals for it to hold any value (although recent events have brought the value of peer review into question). Blogging and other forms of social media hold little weight in the world of higher education, and yet I doubt there is any better way of disseminating knowledge to the masses than through the use of blogs, tweets and other forms of social media, such as the infographic. Engaging with these less-erudite and arcane forms of communication, might enable academics to re-connect with the common man (or woman) who, through taxes and fees, probably fund a fair chunk of the university anyway. And if information is going to be valuable and useful, surely it needs to be as accessible and widely disseminated as possible?

[1] Hoare, K. (2012). Personal tutor- evaluation of a student support system - preliminary findings. ANZAHPE Conference 

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