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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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SysBook as a Visual Learning Frame (András Benedek)

← 160 | 161 →

András Benedek

SysBook as a Visual Learning Frame

Thinking with pictures is an essential strand in the intellectual history of technological development.

(Ferguson 1977: 827)

1.  Introduction

This chapter points out that measurable learning activities show time-dependent features that correlate with the use of visual communication forms used in study programs. This chapter also presents the basic principles of systems and control for everyone, hopefully in an understandable way and also with deeper explanations and a mathematical description. According to the author’s hypothesis, visual learning carries the possibility of such parables that will be able to improve the efficiency of human learning, currently characterised by a constant lack of time and information pressure. SysBook, as opposed to a traditional education based on verbal communication (Vamos–Bars–Benedek 2015: 7), is software that links visual content related to a given subject to traditional written information, very much the way comics work. At the same time, it also addresses the given subject in the language of mathematics and recommends references for those who seek further information. In this way, students learning from a particular document while processing its content become actively involved, and the curriculum may be continuously updated and extended. All this is realised in a modern, accessible, online framework.

2.  Theoretical Background

The process that resulted in historic changes in education may be viewed from several aspects. One of these may be approaching the process from the direction of changes in content and the applied tools of demonstration. In this single field only, a large and diverse group of didactics experts and theorists developed numerous theories on how to teach more and increase the efficiency of teaching. Ferguson’s paper The Mind’s Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology (Ferguson 1977: 827–836) almost forty years ago pointed out how poorly our current education paradigm is able to exploit the potential of visual learning. The art interpretations of learning make us abandon older teaching traditions when designing new curricula in a ← 161 | 162 → digital environment, providing learners with a flexible, continuously developing curriculum. Higher education has always been a unique laboratory for education-related innovations, concentrating significant research and development potentials with excellent subjects for experiments aiming at modernising education, i.e. students. In the past 25 years, several theorists pointed out that increasing curricular requirements cannot be efficiently managed by formal education and the traditional tools of education should be modernised. The rapid penetration of ICT tools since the second millennium in particular presents a challenge regarding the practice and methods of education (just consider mobile communications, hybrid solutions in smartphones, multiple functions or apps). Hence, we selected the new possibilities of visual learning as a subject of our research, responding to the main trends of these changes. In addition to theoretical research, our work also included innovative didactic development aiming at creating a new system of teaching of increased complexity, regarding both the activation of students and the development of curricula. Keywords in the process include increasing the number and quality of visual elements, exploiting the potentials of the new technology and thus increasing the activity of students.

An important preliminary aspect of our research was the realisation that both learning and the teaching process have become increasingly open systems. This openness is partly the result of a change of paradigm, and partly the application of ICT tools themselves, that have rendered learning a form of communication no longer dependent on either space or time constraints. Learning in this latter sense is about information that is no longer characterised by closed text blocks, but images and other elements presented in particular selection algorithms. This process was recognised by philosophers as early as the turn of the 20th century, and interpreted as a return to the origins of visual communication. In this sense, the natural way of communication between human beings relies on the application of images, icons or comics where film clips represent an interesting manifestation of unique, relatively short narrations (they quickly penetrated the world of teenagers in the past decade in the form of television advertisements and YouTube clips).

At the turn of the millennium, because of mobile technologies, we are moving fast from the appearance of human-machine interactive communication to the formation of spatial independence of human communicational possibilities. These two landmarks imply new pedagogic challenges figuratively also symbolize thresholds, one of which we have already crossed, and we hesitate to cross the other, from which we are faced with an ever complex transformation of the world of education. Our traditional approach to classroom teaching and learning has fundamentally changed in the last decade with the possibility that visual ← 162 | 163 → aids – overhead projectors or video projectors – have became virtualized, made in ‘real-time’ by broadband data transmission without physical presence.

A series of new frameworks have appeared in learning (digital environment) and the relevant new approaches are being formed currently. In his essay Open Work (Opera aperta, 1962) Eco, a half century ago, discussed the aesthetic properties of “open work” as essentially ambiguous, offering a range of potential meanings, where the author offers ‘the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed’ (Eco 1989: 8–9) and it all became real. Today’s modern e-learning curricula (OER – Open Education Resources) try to find the answer to the question how the curriculum can be “opened” and the knowledge transferred to students in an open structure. Nyíri took a particularly inspiring role in finding such answers (Nyíri 2003, 2012, 2014). Joining his work and in the very framework of the VLL workshop and conferences, I decided to examine the questions related to educational construction (Benedek 2014, 2015). It is important to emphasise the joint thinking process here, as several major higher education institutions all over the world separate the dimensions of this problem and tackle them individually. Initiatives related to research on education theory were turned into experiments in the past decade with important practical relevancies. Such practical results include the expressed involvement of the representatives of connectivism, promoting initially the openness of higher education (Siemens 2005) and the penetration of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) in rank-leading higher education institutions. The development and dissemination of open educational structures have become priority topics (Molnár 2014).

3.  From Theory to the Practice

In 2013 and 2014, 29 digital textbooks were developed at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics in the framework of a new curriculum development project (Benedek–Molnár 2014: 3646–3650). Their authors, distinguished experts of their respective fields, were requested to participate in a training session where they were expressly asked to include visual objects in the content, corresponding to the principles of modern OER (Open Education Resources) development. Analysing 10 randomly selected examples of the textbooks with different professional content, but essentially made for the training of vocational teachers, we could conclude that the textbooks, 90 pages long on average and optimised for a screen, included altogether 602 images (figures, photos, tables). It means that even in the newest textbooks that support online learning, there is one image for every 1.5 pages on average only. From these, tables and figures ← 163 | 164 → (drawings) represented 42% and 36%, respectively, and only 22% (one-fifth of the visual content) were photos.

Improving the efficiency of an education system predominantly relying on verbal content may represent a significant challenge due to the lack of the necessary time and information and the slowness of correction mechanisms in the case of traditional curricula, as it was proved by several methodology experiments as cooperative methods, project-based work, and connectivism (Siemens 2005) in learning. Even “modern” curricula that had been developed by the end of the 20th century had a linear structure and the prevailing dominance of verbal content (80% on average) was changing only slowly, giving way to visual content which in turn were mostly composed of static pictures.

In the first semester of the study year 2015/2016, we directly surveyed our postgraduate students who studied for a second-degree about the learning frameworks facilitated by ICT tools. We presumed that cooperative networking activities well matched the life of students as well as their everyday ICT use. We surveyed students specialised at teaching as they were presumed to be interested both in teaching and learning. The survey also included questions related to the use of visual content. Conventional learning and preparing for classes often necessitates the processing or development of visual content, including learning aids and demonstration materials. Although students specialised at teaching received support in the form of online content and e-learning programmes, we also phrased direct questions about the framework system (Moodle) that has been applied for almost a decade.

The survey included altogether 27 questions; most of these could be answered on a 5-point scale. They tackled the attitude of the users of e-learning curricula. The survey was sent to 150 students from which 115 responded. The sample may be described as follows: respondents were both males and females, 56 and 59 persons, respectively; the age of respondents approached normal distribution: 28% between 31 and 40 years old, 40% between 41 and 50 years old and 28% between 51 and 60 years old.

To the question “How efficiently can you learn from the e-learning curriculum regarding didactics and methodology?” students’ responses were essentially positive. Those who were fully satisfied with these curricula made up for 20.4%. More than half of the respondents, 54.9% ranked these curricula as ‘good’ while 21.2% considered them being of ‘medium quality’. Only 2.7% indicated dissatisfaction.

As for the active contribution of students to curriculum development, the preference of students regarding visual content was particularly important. To the question “Would you consider it useful if case studies (descriptions of good ← 164 | 165 → practices) were developed in this framework?” almost two-thirds of the respondents (61.7%) fully agreed and no rejections were received. Considering all this, we created a new learning content net with the following features:

Figure 1: The schema of complex learning content net


This program had methodological questions in mind, with special regard to mathematics and other disciplines of natural sciences and the related applied sciences such as technical sciences and their applications. The schema of the complex learning content net (Figure 1) shows how the curricula are based on descriptive verbal elements (Text – t) that are supported by visual elements (Visual – V) and mathematical formulas (Math – M). Traditional curricula (published in the format of textbooks) usually include the combination of these, structured in a rigid linear sequence, such as ‘explanation, figures, formulation, explanation’ and so on. Often random examples are only given as case studies (Case – C) to illustrate practical applications. The visual representation illustrates the most important features of the structure as knowledge elements are organised into a system, which is independent of scale. For curriculum design developed in open access, cloud services offer a development infrastructure surpassing all previous solutions. Showing other connections between these elements in order to develop a dynamic network was typically hindered by disciplinary and temporal restrictions knowledge on systems.

This new curriculum was supported by e-learning, i.e. a digital textbook was available for students in the MOODLE (Modular Object-Oriented Learning Environment) framework system as a form of permanent support. Also we used the SysBook platform (W1), mentioned previously, which combines general knowledge with applications, thus creating a framework where textual information, ← 165 | 166 → static comics elements, animated GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) and, in several cases, elements of mathematical representation (formulas, functions) together form a ‘knowledge space’ that can be extended as needed.

4.  Forward to the New Content Development

Our survey indicated that creative tasks and the possibility of the complex use of visual elements match the ideas of students about e-learning content. This new curriculum, where verbal and visual elements are presented in a one-to-one ratio, and where knowledge elements are organized into a network, would be scale-independent and structured as a graph. It would also be supported by a mathematical representation to enhance both its theoretical and practical aspects, and users would be allowed to extend it by means of case studies and practical examples.

The e-learning textbook was created in the fall semester in 2015 by the curriculum developers (subject: Systems in Vocational Education) with the SysBook platform assisting those who were interested. We asked the students to make “case studies” as micro-content, with the compulsory inclusion of visual elements. These case studies had to be optimised for a screen (laptop, smartphone, etc.) according to the rules applying to micro-content, include visual content that describe the operation of the system and, if possible, also include a mathematical formula for the same purpose.

Figure 2: Illustration from SysBook – Probability frequency


(source: W2) ← 166 | 167 →

The SysBook gives the students a peculiar structure. Each one of the almost 140 sections is customised for digital screens and each one is constructed to represent six levels of interpretation (Comics – Description – Maths – Example – Theoretical – Education). The content is presented in quantified units which the reader can read linearly but because of the levels of interpretation mentioned above, each unit offers a range of possibilities to get familiar with a particular topic and examine it from various aspects. As a result of its structural features, SysBook takes the middle ground between modern hypertexts and traditional books.

Most students proved to be extremely creative when completing this task. For illustration, we selected the picture explaining free fall, a perfect example of how well such a relatively complex phenomenon can be illustrated, explained and understood this way.

Figure 3: Free fall


(source: part of a student’s work; author: Tibor Tóth, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, 2015)

Such case studies that use strong visual elements and apply these for the purposes of orientation can be prepared by the students when given as a task. Explanations and the editing work may be considered themselves as educational constructions and thus, the preparation of the case studies is viewed as a unique way of collaborative learning.

It is also obvious, however, that the network environment defined by the applied technologies and virtual reality that breaks down the spatial and temporal limits of social interactions both symbolically and physically have an increasingly ← 167 | 168 → important role in shaping the social environment of learning. We may consider it a major trend. For those committed to modernising education, the possibility of learning systems divided in time and space may be a good basis for innovation, while the same fills the advocates of conventional education with terror. Although the virtual learning environment offers several options to modernise teaching methods, major projects in this field are less typical in Hungary than social initiatives illustrating the key idea of the change. In this initial phase of our research, we can phrase a few hypotheses that should be verified empirically in the years to come, by means of research that should involve other disciplines (psychology, informatics, physiology) in addition to pedagogy. Focusing on key aspects, the conscious strengthening of the role of visual learning may yield the following results:

A chance for collaborative development where the construction of micro-content by students and teachers facilitates a strong and efficient horizontal communication to replace the conventional vertical communication, and thinking outside the box of formal education which is limited both in space and time.

5.  Conclusions

Open online content can be considered as the key results of innovation. The new ICT environment and the applied technical tools guarantee the essential openness of these contents. This unique feature clearly distinguishes the content from the strictly controlled and closed system of conventional curricula; however, obtaining experiential knowledge in the process of collaborative creation significantly reduces the risk of using unverified elements when the common knowledge base is extended.

  • Continuous synchronisation. While it is apparently a technical aspect only, it has a great significance in relation to the features described above. Creation, even at the level of elements, may be evaluated (validated and approved) in well-defined phases. Although the medium is developed in the specific social dimensions of the learning environment, it is important to know which one of the many phases the process has reached at any given moment. This is facilitated by continuous synchronisation, a feature that is also linked to the next one.
  • Automatic updating, an important process to follow various changes in the knowledge elements and the differences between sources. Updating in the current phase of research is much simpler in the framework provided by modern ← 168 | 169 → IT infrastructure than in the restricted and formal system of public education, in the practice of higher education in particular.
  • Content sharing and data security are also features considered important in our experimental teaching environment. Of course, we also had to take into account the possibility that students would submit ideas for image content that represent a serious technical challenge to the traditional educational infrastructure. However, the latest ICT developments offered solutions to this problem, also directing our attention to a unique feature:
  • Unlimited memory – cloud services. Their advantages were first experienced by researchers in high-tech subjects who needed superior infrastructure for their work but cloud services, like so many other technical innovations, have already started to penetrate the daily operation of education. The most important result here is that the restrictions forced by traditional technologies (allowed number of characters, pages, etc. in the curricula) can be now eliminated, hence images will cease to be a “necessary evil”. Cloud services make it possible to include more visual content, resulting in an increasingly complex representation of knowledge. It does not only diversify demonstration possibilities but also changes learning communication, putting more emphasis on visual elements:
  • A new creative learning environment is being/may be created. Whether the present continuous tense indeed applies or we are only talking about some obscure possibility will be decided by the results of the coming years.


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