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Updated: Jul 14, 2021

DB Roberts


If you’re reading this, you are probably contemplating using images in your teaching as part of a multimedia strategy that embraces the findings of cognitive science. A lot of questions come up in this, because we’re traversing from monomedia and extensive reliance on text as an artificial external construct, to a more balanced delivery better aligned with the biological construction of the brain’s multimedia modality.

It can be intimidating to challenge orthodoxy with a method that some academics have disparaged with prejudice rather than data – even describing the application of images as the ‘lowbrow detritus of a shallow media age’. All sighted people learn visually. It’s how our brains are constructed at the neurological level.

To begin with, I don’t think there’s any requirement to saturate your sessions with images; a few to start with will do to get into it, and perhaps to see how your students react. Start small, go large if you feel there is a reason to do so. You wouldn't be well-advised to learn to ride the bike on the right before mastering the one on the left.


Try a few images at a time and ask your students for feedback soon after viewing. I use Mentimeter because it’s so easy and it lets students be anonymous. In my experience, this has encouraged participation.I also ask them to identify key aspects of Active Learning they’re engaged in when viewing images. I offer a list of characteristics, add some that aren’t normally associated with AL and ‘flash question’ (like a flash mob) them. It takes a couple of minutes depending on how large the group is. On another occasion, you might ask dyslexic learners if they feel more engaged with images and limited text, than with text only.

These activities can punctuate 2-hour lectures, acting as a disruptive or interruptive mechanism. Some people refer to this as hybrid pedagogy, others see it as just ‘mixing it up’. These kind of pedagogically-sound interventions (especially in long lectures) can also provide data to kick-start pedagogic research that supports your Continuing Professional Development (CPD), whether for probation, promotion or publication. If your students say this isn’t working for them, you can stop. You have conducted testing based on key scholarship rooted in half a century of research, applied it and drawn conclusions based on empirical data. If they say it is working for them, there is the basis for further use and the exploration scientifically of why it works for them. Or you can simply use Multimedia Learning theory and existing research to sanction and frame your approach.


My 'go-to' site is Google Advanced Image Search, or AIS. There are multiple filters including for copyright and image size but like many library sites, you can also select key words/phrases to tighten your parameters. The site searches more images than probably any other search engine, but there are also places images exist that aren't indexed by Google and won't appear. Nor is copyright 100% reliable; some people upload images and assign an 'inaccurate' permission.

There are also several free-to-use-for-anything image sites. Maybe the most famous of these is Unsplash, an emerging and prolific site full of artists’ photographic works. Many of them are quite beautiful, and the site serves as a platform to launch digital artists. In my opinion, the images are of little use: they are mostly art for art’s sake, which is a wonderful thing, but they carry little relevant meaning for us. There’s an example below, by Josh Hild. It’s a beautiful photograph and exemplifies Unsplash’s commitment to new photographers, but it’s utility may be quite limited

There are, however, other sites perhaps less famous than Unsplash that have thousands of high-quality copyright-safe images we can use in lectures. These are often ‘front’ sites for the subscription image providers. Pixabay, for example, fronts for Adobe Stock images, and for Shutterstock. These front sites, at the time of writing, invite voluntary attribution for their free images. There are many such sites and I’ve provided details of the ones I’ve found most useful here. There’s also a brilliant free site provided by NASA

Yet other sites are curated around sharing. Flickr has a very large community of Creative Commons image providers who offer their work – and some of it is world-class – on the basis that you attribute the image and let them know you’ve used it. If it’s a worthy image that does what you want it to, it may be worth the effort involved in leaving a message on the photographer’s site page. There is also a very large curation of artwork at DeviantArt. The artists are generally quite cooperative if you ask for permission to use an image in a lecture – it’s free circulation and advertising, and I always make sure they can authenticate me on my university site, so they know they’re not being scammed. But if none of these sites work for you, or if you only want to use one because of time constraints, if you’re ever in doubt, you don’t have to use it. The walls won’t come tumbling down if you surrender that one ‘perfect’ image because you’re unsure of its provenance.


So that's where to look, this is about what to look for. In my view, by far the most important guideline I can share is that an image must be APPOSITE. It must pertain clearly to the verbal, intellectual message you want to transmit. If it is not apposite, it will most likely do the opposite of what we want: it will cause confusion as students' brains try to establish a non-existent connection to your verbal and textual message. It is not just wrong, but counter-productive.

I have found it helps to classify images for reasons probably obvious to an academic. I'm not referring to jpeg versus png etc, but to how the image communicates content. I favour a binary typology for now since these are the two types I work with - literal and figurative. Literal tends towards the descriptive, figurative tends towards metaphorical. Sometimes they overlap. The image below suggests evolution from Darwinism to digitalism.

The image of the ape with human eyes is less literal and descriptive and begs engagement to interpret meaning - the process you will steer them through.

On my site, you'll find a variety of examples of images that figuratively convey meaning, begging examination and interpretation, or 'problem solving' in understanding the relational meaning of their components (the human eyes in the ape's face, for example). Students disassemble such images and rebuild them based on their existing knowledges to extract meaning, per Active Learning practices. It is automatic because that is how our brains are hard-wired to work. It is an everyday, internalized, normalized process they bring to our learning spaces that we can readily and easily take greater advantage of, whilst increasing their engagement.

Literal images are also invaluable, sometimes prompting similar processes and other times because their use makes better use of our limited cognitive processing capacity. This shot of a downed UN helicopter I took when doing my PhD in Cambodia makes real the enormous risks to and vulnerability of the international organization's front-line responsibilities. Either type, of literal or figurative, is better than none, as long as it's apposite.


Haiku Deck is an excellent starting point if you want to start experimenting with images and pedagogy. You can work from Desktop or Cloud with templates similar to PowerPoint in appearance and functionality. It has a built-in copyright-safe image search and the images are seamlessly integrated into a deck of slides, at the touch of a button. You can also upload your own images.

It's a quick and relatively easy - and quite painless - way to start to make use of all that untapped cognitive capacity that our sighted students possess at the biological level. To me it's been a bit like finding a treasure trove that, under proper peer-reviewed intellectual scrutiny, has been found to hold a key to increased intellectual, lecture room engagement and as a precursor for Active Learning. And it seems to support dyslexic learners too.


As with any new approach to something, there is an investment in time required at start-up. I wrote this blog based on my own experiences of learning and practicing so others might get there quicker. If you’d like further support, you can reach me through my consultancy.

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