Skip to content



The challenge faced by the Open Educational Resources University is not translation, context or learning styles, it is not a question of interoperability of learning environments or granularity of learning objects, SCORM compliance or IMS standards; it is perhaps rather a question of academic identity. We have a lot of identify work to do.

I remember first meeting  Wayne Mackintosh at the Third Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF3)  in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July 2004, hosted by DEANZ, the Government of New Zealand and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The theme for PCF3 was "Building Learning Communities for Our Millennium: Reaching Wider Audiences through Innovative Approaches". Wayne was convener of our thoughtful, diverse, varied and anarchic think-tank. We talked about kite-marks, quality standards, intellectual colonialism and poverty. The seeds of the OERu were visible then.

It is no surprise to see Wayne Mackintosh, Director OER Foundation, leading the initiative for Open Educational Resources University, OER university (#oeru). The initiative is raising some interesting critiques, and questions, which Tony Bates summarizes succinctly. But these are still issues of institutional norms, governmental process and sectorial quality assurance. I sense we are asking a lot of people.

There are people in the world who are good at facilitating learners' encounters with new concepts and ideas, there are people who can enthuse, capture and motivate; and there are those who write, design, narrate and structure learning in meaningful ways. It is as often pride, as much as institutional conventions, that gives rise to academics' conviction that they must fulfill all these roles. Whilst an academic was once the guardian, seeker, generator and clarifier of the codex of knowledge in their domain, they are now primarily its steward and pride is best placed in a more defined function.

That knowledge was once defined in terms of individual libraries, writings and musings suggests only that it was confined to the means available to communicate it. To consider it now practical, or realistic, for an individual to hold the key to a domain of knowledge is nothing less than a delusion born of vanity.

The world of knowledge creation, dissemination and propagation has changed radically in the last 30 years, and with it, academic identity. It is simply illogical, not to say inefficient, to expect a single academic to research, write, and teach all the content for their university courses. What the OER movement represents is a 21st century model of knowledge propagation, a contemporary revisioning of the master-pupil relationship, and a means of making learning accessible beyond the single, constrained, voice of the solipsistic academic.

For the faculty that make-up our institutions to accept their emerging role as validators of the learning that happens without them necessarily ‘teaching’ what is validated, and teaching what is validated by others….. that is a huge leap into the unknown, and that surely, is the biggest challenge facing the OERu.

"In search of the virtual class: education in an information society" published in 1995 by John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham begins with a description of a girl climbing into her sensor suit and shooting off to a virtual waterfall for a geography lesson. Digital Immersion was the future. The description of the learning envisaged a different kind of learner.

As the learner changes to take a significantly more determinant role in their own learning process, in a world in which Choice is the defining quality of the consumer and therefore the product, the model of our universities must look like the model of our students.

Universities must accept that the very nature of the University will change as societal expectations of their function ( most evident in student expectations ) changes. Which Universities will be brave enough to shape the learning spaces of the future?

Last month I wrote a short piece about the way the SOLE model might be used to reconceptualise the physical and virtual spaces in which learning will occur in the 21st Century. There are other models, my suggestion is simply that you need the model first, that a conceptual model of learning provides a useful mechanism to debate and design the spaces we intend for our learning. If we do not then we, Universities, will end up describing a 'what' we offer the student but not the 'why', and as we surely all recognise by now consumers don't buy what you make, they buy why you make it. "Give me an educational rationale for why my lecture theatre looks like this, why my VLE looks like this!"

What does that mean in practice? In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be invited to deliver the closing keynote at the Estonian e-Universities conference in Tartu, Estonia. I asked delegates to do a little foresight thinking with me, a little futurology. Not something particularly 'big' in the UK or New Zealand (where I worked a the time). In my scenario I described Trin, a girl born in 2009 in Estonia, and asked the audience to future-think with me what her educational life would be.

I had several points I wanted to share, that the academic qualifications she would study in 18 years time most likely did not exist today, that her career choices were likely to be more complex and 'portfolio' driven than today, based on evidential skills not qualifications and so on. In amongst this discussion was the suggestion that the very future of the educational spaces she encountered would change. My suggestion was that Trin would go to a school in 2020s, when it suited her parents who blended home-schooling with community-schooling to fit with their family scenario. That the school itself was built into the fabric of the community, in buildings shared with other community services, post-office, library, social centre for the elderly. The extension of this sees Universities being porous knowledge mediators not guardians of the book-tower. Universities that used to shape our epistemological universe will do so again, but as our universe changes and expands, so must our universities.

In the two years since 2009 I can see things already diverging from my future-think, but some things I'd suggest are still relevant and the SOLE model provides one way of interpreting and predicating this change. As we accord learners a more central role in the learning process, should we not be exploring spaces through the SOLE model, or something like it? Should we not be asking what spaces we need to engineer for students to help them fulfil the holistic experience the SOLE model represents?

The universities that will shape the learning spaces of the future are those that are able to conceptualise, visualise, the world in which this future learner lives. The campus has had it's day.


There is no such thing as blended-learning. Or rather there has never been anything except ‘blended’ learning. Of course we all know that, we’re just lazy with our language and as Orwell(1) said “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Maybe it’s worth thinking about the terminology we use.

I have no problem with a conversation about the right blend, indeed I rather like the verb ‘blend’, it’s the noun ‘blended/ing’ I find problematic. Let’s stop talk about the ‘blended approach’ and describe instead our model of learning. Let’s agree on our underpinning theoretical structures (if you like that sort of thing), identify our context and that of our learners (culture, expectations, destinations, prior experience, infrastructure), and let’s describe our model.

Teaching Online 2008 - VoiceThread in Sakai
Teaching Online 2008 - VoiceThread in Sakai

What we have in the contemporary ‘blended’ debate is a healthy concern with what students’ do, and where, how and when they do it. Rather than teaching our one-hour lecture and our two our seminar and despatching students’ into the dark dusty stacks or the ‘short-term loan’ mêlée, we now seek to engineer the ‘blend’ of approaches we want them to take. The scrap for the library carousel and scouring the desks of the studious for the only copy of the ‘reference-only’ gem has now been replaced by a broader concern for the ‘design’ of the students’ learning. We blended twenty years ago and we blend today, only the context has changed. This is a good thing.

So why don't we call it that, why don't we call it ‘our learning model’? Since here is so much pressure on Universities to differentiate themselves why don't we seek to develop, articulate, refine and promote the Massey Learning Model, the Athabasca Learning Model, the Wisconsin Learning Model.

‘Blended’, like many terms in education, has been in vogue and now risks being taken for granted and misused. Alternative terminology also has its supporters; ‘mixed-mode’ and ‘hybrid’ are also used synonymously. The most common conception of blended learning is one in which there is a combination of face to face, real-time, physically present, teaching and computer-mediated, essentially online, activity. The term has come to imply an articulated and integrated instructional strategy. The term blended is often used to imply something more than the evolution of digital materials ‘supplementing’ face-to-face instruction, rather it implies that each ‘mode’ can serve a student’s learning in different ways. In practice this might mean that a two-hour lecture and a two-hour seminar become a web based lecture, a face-to-face seminar and several web based activities, allowing more time for contributions, more time for voices to be heard.

The contemporary argument is often simply maths. In a class of 40 where one would hope to have a thoughtful 10-15 minute contribution from each student, a seminar would need to be 8 -10 hours long. Online that same reflective and expressive opportunity is unbounded by class-time.

There are many reasons to reconsider the reliance on face-to-face instruction.

Participation, the opportunity to contribute, is one. But there are also opportunities for content to be paused, reviewed, annotated, questioned, spliced and shared in ways that live synchronous face-to-face contact cannot be. Media-rich course content, video and audio, interactive resources, formative assessments, all serve to allow the student to choose not just when, but also where, to study. The ‘where’ question then also gives rise to the other popular motif amongst University leaders, mobile learning.

The reason it is so difficult to establish what the right ‘blend’ is, is simply because the context of the learning determines the nature of the blend. The students’ context establishes what can and can’t be done in a specific mode, what time parameters exist, what technology restrictions and what assessment evidence is ultimately required.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of a blended approach (20 years ago and today) is simply that it requires engagement. Managing to access content and activities, participate appropriately and incrementally develop a portfolio of formative assessment towards a final summative goal, requires, self-management, discipline, at least some digital literacy today, and some motivation. Turning up and sitting in class is not hugely onerous (although arguably it demonstrates time-keeping).

So if you’re an institution considering the ‘Blend’, I’d like to offer a suggestion. Don’t. Instead consider the nature of your context (past-present-future) and articulate the learning model around which your exemptions and exceptions will develop, articulate a learning model to rally staff to a shared concept of learning (believe me, ‘blended’ won’t excite them) and articulate a model that learners will say “I recognise that, that’s my concept of myself as a learner, I’ll go there”.

Take a diagnostic model (here’s one I prepared earlier…) and define your own unique model of learning (better still invite me to come and work with you on it), and I guarantee you will be blending (verb) but you won't have to try and sell the stillborn ‘blend’ (noun).

(1) Politics and the English Language" (1946) George Orwell


It’s a long way from the staff workload issue that the SOLE model and toolkit sought to answer, but perhaps a model can serve as a central conceptual pattern through which institutions can challenge, their own conceptions of learning, and teaching, and learning spaces.

The extent to which a model of the learner’s world can represent the learning process itself has been an interesting facet of the SOLE models development. To what extent does a model designed to represent the elements of engagement the learner is required to recognise, and take ownership of, come to represent the ‘world of learning’ itself?

I’ve started two new chapters of the SOLE manuscript to explore this. The first asks whether the changing nature of faculty roles, of what it means to be a ‘professional practitioner’, can be usefully supported by the SOLE model. Does it make sense to use this model of learning to ask what roles engage with learners under each of the model’s elements and look at our institutional responses through this lens? Could the SOLE model become a structure for faculty development and workforce planning?

Changing Roles through the lens of the SOLE model

The second chapter under development looks not at faculty or students but at spaces. With student fees being a live issue in the UK at present, and lots of press attention on what students’ expectations are of their University experience, most institutions are thinking hard about ‘what they offer’. How do they turn their campuses from liabilities into significant assets? As the learner changes, as we give them a more central role in the learning process, should we be exploring spaces through the SOLE model, or something like it? Should we be asking what spaces we need to engineer for students to help them fulfil the holistic experience the SOLE model represents. I think a conceptual model of learning provides a useful mechanism for these conversations.

Learning Spaces through the SOLE lens


There have been a series of provocative, challenging and inspiring conversations with colleagues at BPP University College this past week. Still in my ‘induction’ phase in many respects I find myself listening to bold, ambitious and potentially game-changing notions of tertiary education around the introduction, or expansion, of serious games and social media use. What makes these conversations so intriguing are the questions not asked, as much as those that are, and the connections to be made.

Like many providers of business and legal education (an interesting early example being Strathclyde’s SIMPLE project ) we have faculty deploying various forms of game-play, competitive simulations and transaction based role-play, over weeks of a given course. From real-world board games to online 'second-life' scenarios the idea of Serious Games has caught on. Prensky pointed out, from a largely K-12 perspective, a decade ago that students made more interactive social decisions before breakfast (through their use of PC online game, hand-held game console, portable music player and mobile phone), than they as ‘engaged students’ would have to do for the rest of the school day. (Marc Prensky: Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning! (Paragon House 2005).

That situation has changed, but not much. In University education the roles faculty have inherited from our monastic forebears have been difficult to change. If we play a game, we often already hold the answers, we know the outcomes and we can play God and determine an end, an early end often. We determine the rules of the game. What is significant about game-play is it requires students to make choices. Their engagement is to choose.

Serious Games are recognised ( as highly stimulating, engaging and challenging environments in which learning occurs, often consciously, often incidentally. Games can be individualistic or collaborative, sometimes both, and can be focussed on the ambiguity of the answer as much as on its validity, Arguably it is the ‘muddy’ ground of decision-making that make games such rich learning. Intriguingly, the Serious Games Initiative from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. has as the fourth of its four objectives, the question “How do we identify and proactively deal with any social, ethical, and/or legal issues that might arise through the application of game-based tools to public policy and management issues?

It is intriguing to me that in terms of our adoption, or advocacy, of Social Media in education that we really don't determine the rules of the game. Primarily this is because we don't fully understand them. Games may be radically different from twenty years ago in the technology used to enable participation, but they are still games. Games we have had for thousands of years. Games we understand. Social Media is different, radically different. I delivered a keynote in Croatia in 2007 entitled ‘Giving Up Control: the Future of e-Learning’ and suggested, I hope constructively, that the liberation of students engagement and creativity would only come from decentralising IT support in our Universities, releasing students to operate in the emerging cloud with an abundance of Web 2.0 droplets, and not from the next generation of online (V)LE. I believed then, and even more strongly now, that the ability of individuals to recognise the value of an application (Web 2.0 apps abounded) to their communicative processes, to ‘learn it’, or acquire the ability to use it intelligently, and to teach others to use it, was a fundamental 21st century skill. Indeed ‘learning to consciously learn’ is a skill that is essential to being able to not just learn, but to work, in this emerging digital communication landscape, as Michael Eraut implies in his useful 2007 “Early Career Learning at Work and its Implications for Universities.

We don't know the rules of Social Media because they are being written by us, as we use these new ways of doing things we have done before. We have communicated with people in different ways, personally to those we know and impersonally (formally) to those at a distance. Now the person (seen and unseen) to whom I’m communicating chooses their relationship to me. They chose to read a blog, follow a tweet stream or watch a videolog. Their choice is like that of deciding to read a journal article, or book chapter I produce, except now they have the ability to respond, to comment on the page, reply to the tweet, leave a video response to mine. As self-evident as this may appear to those of already in this digital space, it is radical. It has removed boundaries from discourse that have existed in all other communicative forms for centuries. The answer to the question, “should we be using Social Media in education?” is surely self-evident, to not use it would be to provide an educational experience that was anything but contemporary.

The lack of ‘rules’, of established rules, in Social Media, far from making us nervous about its incorporation into formal curricula, should make us excited. No established rules, means students have to make choices. Choices constitute an engagement.

So there is something exciting about having students play games, and something even richer in having them play games through Social Media where the rules themselves must be made-up to be understood and faculty don't control them. There is a creative contradiction that we as faculty can harness. We have to engineer a serious game in which the abilities of its players and their purpose are unclear. How exciting is that! Choosing to use Social Media (in all its forms) is a Serious Game.

An excellent example of skills based game resources is still SkillsWise from the BBC:

Terminology in education is a fascinating thing. Words are after all concepts. Concepts change, evolve and mutate frequently more quickly than the words associated with them along the way. Learning once meant to go to the place of learning associated with what one wanted to know, the monastery to learn about religion, the blacksmith to learn about metals, learning was learnt at the foot of the master. As European notions of learning evolved so did our concept of what was valuable to be learnt. The book gave rise to libraries, and libraries to Universities. Where else would one go to study the ‘learning’ in the books?

Our concept of learning has now reached well beyond the word itself, and so we have created prisms through which to view its process, pedagogy, andragogy, heutagogy; and an array of theoretical lenses, constructivist, social-constructivist, connectivist.

No where is this mis-match of word and concept change more evident than in the very new domains associated with e-learning in its multitude of forms. Even a ‘simple’ concept such as ‘online’ when associated with learning in the 1980s usually meant CBT (Computer-Based Training and a dedicated PC ), in the mid 1990s with home based dial-up browser based access (lots of CMC- computer-mediated-conferencing), in the mid 2000s with moderately rich multi-media VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). In 2011 being online can mean all of the above, and access through tablets, television, game-stations and hand-held devices, in the office, at home and literally anywhere there is a wireless or data access point. Being online is changing.

Blended is the perfect example of this. Blended as a concept becomes fairly meaningless the more it is discussed. The addition of some online (see above!) activity to a campus based programme was in the 1990s deemed ‘blended’, although many would suggest a blending of lecture and self-study, reading and discussion had long been a feature. Blended meant blended with technology. But, as the technology environment evolves (the current notion is the ‘digital ecology’), the nature of the ‘blended’ learning experience necessarily changes. This environment or ecology is fluid, variable (by social-access and geography most notably) and so the nature of the learning opportunities associated with it are also fluid.

It is not only the contemporary nature of technology, its ‘here and now-ness’, it is also the contextual nature of technology. The choices I make about what I am prepared to access and when are not the same as someone who happens to be my age, or share my job title, or live in the same street. My context is unique to me. Hence my ‘blended’ opportunity is totally unique to me. Mark Brown's summary of
The Golden Rules: Review of Distance Education Literature is insightful.

Learning designers who attempt to design effective ‘blended’ learning opportunities frequently fail to satisfy their students’ expectations. Not because some are digital natives and some are not, as Open University research demonstrates. So why? Because my notion and your notion of blended are simply different. What I can do as a learning designer is to design into your opportunities for study, into the learning that I am able to support and believe is appropriate, the flexibility for you to make the very best use of your context. Your digital ecology context, your prior learning context, your social context and professional context, we can design learning that allows you to ‘blend’ it into a meaningful learning pattern for you. It doesn’t matter if we mean different things with the words we use. Blended should come to represent as a concept the choices we facilitate not the technology we provide.


It's not every morning you wake up to find a 'new university' being announced in the United Kingdom. The BBC ( and Sunday Times describing an initiative to launch a New College of the Humanities, to be based in Bloomsbury, charging £18,000 in fees (per year presumably) and set to rival Oxford and Cambridge by embracing the one-to-one tutorial system (at a cost).

There is still much to be explained and explored. Professor Grayling is the principle instigator of the project, due to accept its first students in September 2012, and he is also listed as one of the Trustees of the organisation. Intriguingly the Trusts is based in Stamford, Lincolnshire and registered in late April. They don't appear to have an registration and instead are listed as

The higher education sector in the UK is undergoing radical change, and there will surely be many smiling faces in Government circles. And yet, the story does give pause for thought. A private (for-profit) charging £18,000 for humanities might suggest government re-think its value-for-money proposition in these essential disciplines. If nothing else, Grayling is suggesting how cost-effective existing provision in these disciplines must currently be. Clearly there is a demand for these subjects, and someone in the dark musky corridors of the Senate building must have decided that the 'price was right'. One can imagine the 'vision' of one 'fellow' giving rise to hopes in the financial planning circles of the University of London for a 'commercial spin-off', a private cash-generation machine in the heart of the Bloomsbury campus. 375 students is not such a large target, but the reputation their presence and the activity of their illustrious faculty will bring to the UCL-SOAS-Birbeck 'zone' might be considered a fair marketing gambit.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the suggestion that all undergraduates will have core "intellectual skills" modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics. The LSE will doubtless be thrilled to see its contribution to the new institution having introduced a common LSE100 course to achieve much the same purpose (Niall Ferguson has been teaching on that programme) , and UCL is exploring something comparable in its 'Arts and Science' object-centred module. Employability skills takes many forms but this provision has to make sense. This is the only contemporary and progressive aspect to the project. There may be a rather curious 'perpetuation of the elite' notion to this New College of the Humanities, an attempt to reinvigorate the direct line between an Oxbridge PPE and a ministerial PPS, but there does at least seem to have been serious consideration given to the concept of a 'contemporary Graduate', the skills needed to make the degree investment count.

In many respects the ambition makes total sense. The 'gold-standard' Grayling calls it in the promotional video, of one-to-one tutorial contact, high contact hours and professors who really will 'teach' is not a 'bad' idea. The sector is indeed challenged by competition from overseas providers, the changing nature of civil society and uncertain state intervention, the shifting nature of knowledge generation and acquisition in new, unforeseen, digital formats. The danger is this risks looking like an elite few running for the oak-lined bunker because they know someone will and it may as well be them. Dawkins after all knows something about the survival of the fittest.

Those that lament the 'good old days' of 'education for education' sake will doubtless feel vindicated, and simultaneously confused, by the implications behind the headlines. While the new private providers, themselves seen as pariahs on the publicly funded system, are challenging the sector by undermining the funding models, the remuneration pattens, the investment in 'campus infrastructures', and instead advocating new technologies, new modes of learning, new models of practice, Grayling's bold and brave leap into the past is one certainly worth watching.

Part of my role at the LSE that I really enjoy is working with staff to find novel solutions to age-old problems. So a few weeks ago I was invited to discuss with colleagues in a research and teaching 'cluster' within a department that perennial question: "what's the point of an away day?"

The head of department appeared to want the staff to spend the day writing serious funding proposals and yet a survey of the staff suggested they wanted to "have fun, and get to know each-other." The away-day became a half day and the focus remained a little vague. The fixed points were lunch at noon, a gastro-pub at 5pm, and those apparent polar opposites, 'research applications' and 'fun'.

The result was an off-campus half day at St Martin in the the Fields, in the newly refurbished St Martin's Hall. I had organised a 'research-poster workshop', in which tables of 4 or 5 colleagues, of different grades, backgrounds and discipline focus (socially engineered by the departmental manager), worked from a 'mock' European Journal funding call. The funding call, which modelled the 'real thing',  invited applications for 12-24 month projects to build research networks with at least three country partners and a particular discipline focus. There was a specification about dissemination, use of technology and so on. The session ran along lines similar to the 'World-Cafe' concept. So each table had to come up with a draft idea, blu-tac their A2 poster to the wall and then circulate around the other four groups' posters providing feedback in the form of post-its (colour coded for each group).

Workshop Image

Away Day World Cafe model
Research Poster Workshop

The second session then allowed groups to revise their posters, go around and ask for clarification on any feedback received and produce a 'final' version of their research network proposal. All the while, the groups had a copy of the 'marking criteria that would be used at the end, by them, to judge each-others efforts.

Final posters were put up and the groups circulated 'marking' the submissions. Each group had to come up with an agreed mark for each of the posters under some time pressure. As the 'very light touch' facilitator I went around between each round and photographed the posters, and I threw in a 'red-herring' with an envelope for each group suggesting a rumour that "The DG apparently likes.....".

The effect was to have groups explore:

  • the difficulty of working with criteria which can appear ambiguous and needs careful unpacking;
  • the advantages of collegial review at both the developmental and final stages of proposals;
  • the need to think often 'outside the box' to come up with something original;
  • the danger of getting so carried away on a good idea it evades the call;
  • the danger of listening to rumour;
  • and that it is possible to have fun and still talk about research funding applications!

The feedback was gratifyingly positive and I'd suggest it's an excellent model for a half-day workshop that recognises the need for junior staff to benefit from the experience of more seasoned researchers whilst bringing creatively and innovation to the process. It was also fun! Any workshop where people willingly stand-up and start moving is good to see!

Yesterday I posted some early thoughts on how visual rhetoric might be important to us in thinking about how we communicate in the teaching process, not just what we have to say but HOW we say it.

I said I'd have a crack at a PREZI presentation to illustrate my point - and here it is 🙂

I have begun writing a paper on visual rhetoric. I sat on the 7:31 commuter train to St.Pancras and watched to commuters, hunched over their laptops, working in PowerPoint. Their screens, filled with words, varieties of fonts, and formatting tricks in abundance. These comprehensive essays in landscape, perhaps to be printed and distributed but more likely projected illegibly for a bewildered business audience later that day reminded me again of the fundamental misuse of a very powerful and effective technology. The same day I showed my wife a Prezi presentation that I was preparing for a workshop the following day. Her comment was that it made her feel seasick as I moved fluidly, but somewhat distractedly, from one block of text to another. I suggested the term ‘see-sick’.

So I began to consider the power of these visual tools in our classrooms and the very superficial understanding that I, and I suspect the majority of my colleagues have, of their use. In such circumstances I often find it useful to turn to Merlot or Aristotle. Since I had no Merlot I turned to Aristotle.

Aristotle, identified three branches rhetoric: judicial, epideictic and deliberative.  Judicial rhetoric is concerned with justice and injustice, the defence or advocacy of charge or accusation. Epideictic rhetoric refers to speech or writing in praise or blame. Perhaps the most familiar notion of rhetoric is that of deliberative, in which speech or writing attempts to persuade others to take or not to take some defined action.

Much of our teaching is the incitement to learners to do something, to take an action. Teaching may in many circumstances be considered deliberative rhetoric, an invitation on the part of the student  (as reader, listener or participant) to pause and consider in response to a carefully timed performance and managed argument, the pace and rhythm control, the deliberate self interruption, punctuated silence, exclamations, questions, punctuating gestures. The teacher’s role is not simply to highlight an argument but to ensure that if a vote were cast the learner might make an appropriate judgment.

Teaching in face-to-face contexts supported by presentational technologies, the ubiquitous PowerPoint or some more contemporary form of visual media, requires a new mastery of rhetoric - that of visual rhetoric. This branch of rhetorical studies that concerns itself with the persuasive use of images, in isolation or in harmony with words, is a powerful tool in the classroom.

We live in an intensely visual world, surrounded by images in advertising, music, news information and educational media. Arrangements of words, in tag clouds, Wordle (,  or PowerPoint arrangements are visual objects. Text projected on the wall is either a visual representation, discursive, provocative, motivating or informative, or it is ‘just words’. Not every projected arrangement of light and dark on the classroom wall is easily inferred as a visual object, as visual rhetoric, “(W)hat turns a visual object into a communicative artifact--a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric--is the presence of three characteristics. In other words, three markers must be evident for a visual image to qualify as visual rhetoric. The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience." (Smith, 2005, p. 144)

Kostelnick and Roberts in “Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators”, detail six canonical criteria through which to interpret the rhetorical impact, primarily of written text. These six are: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone and ethos.

  • Arrangement – is the organisation of visual elements to demonstrate structure (and relationships)
  • Emphasis – differentiates elements giving some prominence through changes in size, shape and colour.
  • Clarity – avoiding unnecessary elements to assist the reader in ‘decoding’ quickly and completely the ‘message’
  • Conciseness –appropriately succinct designs that serve a specific audience need
  • Tone – the writer/presenter/designer’s tone provides evidence of their attitude to the subject
  • Ethos – developing the trust of the audience

These six visual criteria provide a helpful starting point in beginning to see images as objects for visual rhetoric and appropriate interpretation.  (Kostelnick & Roberts, 2010)

Since Zaltman suggests that thoughts occur as images, which are essentially visual, there is a direct inverse relationship between the power of the visual to provoke an emotional non-verbal reaction, a thought. Research by Joy and colleagues using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique suggest a range of interesting relationships between viewers sense of space and depth, related directly to the positioning of objects, to the juxtaposition (overlapping, transparency, distortion) of images in support of a narrative. They conclude, “(U)ltimately, images and words are separate building blocks in the telling of stories but the two amplify each other. Researchers need to enrich and supplement the abstractions that accompany visuals with the details and particulars that accompany the verbal.” (Joy, Sherry Jr., Venkatesh, & Deschenes, 2009, p. 566)

Back in 2001 I did (what I still think was ) some interesting work with Nicola Durbridge at the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology looking at how to overcome some of the restrictions of text based discussion boards, the ‘drudgery’ of CMC (Computer Mediated Conferencing). I explored a simple ‘visual metaphor’ of a classroom so that individuals posting items to a forum did so ‘spatially’ as icons rather than simply adding the posting to list. (Atkinson, 2001). I have just scanned the resulting conference paper and it is work I would be keen to extend now in looking at Prezi and its use of visual rhetoric.

A Prezi that explores visual rhetoric is on its way.


Atkinson, S. (2001). Re-Tooling Online. In Book of Abstracts (pp. 154-156). Presented at the Online Educa Berlin 2001, Berlin: ICEF Berlin GMBH.

Joy, A., Sherry Jr., J., Venkatesh, A., & Deschenes, J. (2009). Perceiving images and telling tales: A visual and verbal analysis of the meaning of the internet. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(3), 556-566. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2009.05.013

Kostelnick, C., & Roberts, D. D. (2010). Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators. Longman Publishing Group.

Smith, K. L. (2005). Handbook of visual communication: theory, methods, and media. Routledge.

%d bloggers like this: