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Monday, January 16, 2012

Interview with Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., Instructional Designer; Innovators in E-Learning Series

As elearning and mlearning move into new forms of delivery, and the appearance, capabilities, and the functionality of the interfaces (including learning management systems (LMSs) evolve, it's useful to take a look at how instructional designers, technologists, and administrators are considering the impact of the interface when developing and teaching online courses. Welcome to an interview with instructional psychologist and designer Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., who has applied her research in motivation, cognition, and non-traditional students to developing highly effective learning strategies for distributed forms of education including accredited online colleges. Developing elearning and mlearning courses for distance and hybrid delivery, Elaine has explored both issues vital to effective interface and instructional strategy development.

What subject matter do you prefer to work with?
Psychology, Human Motivation, Sociology & Women’s Issues

Who are the intended learners? What level are they?
I have developed online and hybrid courses for a variety of institutions including several universities and museums as well as government institutions. The majority of courses I have developed are predominately targeting undergraduate and graduate students at universities.

How do you use graphics when you design a course?
When I am selecting graphics I always choose graphics that promote learning. In other words, the graphics must correspond to the subject I am teaching, and they are used as introductions, discussion material, or to make a statement. When selecting graphics I always select those that are high quality—sometimes black and white and at other times color, but it depends upon the topic. For example, when promoting learning in natural sciences, color images are preferred because they can help students learn properties of minerals, etc. When using color images, I always try to use images with natural colors rather than colors that are not natural, because natural colors are recognized by the brain as being normal and therefore, are more easily remembered (Richman, 2006). For example, when discussing induction motivation in the military I incorporate images of recruiting posters used throughout the years. These are great for helping students to identify different types of induction motivation that are being promoted. However, black and white images can sometimes capture the moods of people better, so if dealing with the social sciences, sometimes I will select black and white images.

What learning objectives do your graphics serve in an online course?
The graphics I select are used to promote learning. I also use graphics to help students organize information. Tables, charts, and graphs help separate and organize information, and can be a form of concept mapping, tying in concepts.

What kind of graphical content do you use? Banners? Color-coding? Specific images? Special arrangementthat displays information in a certain way on the screen?
When incorporating images into the lectures (ppt slides) or in the website, I select images that again, tie into the topic being taught. I am careful to select images that correspond well with one another…that flow well. Otherwise, images that are not the same size, quality, etc. become distracting to viewers. I never allow images to run off the size of the page and when including an image that has direction (ex: a person’s eyes looking one way or another, their bodies positioned in one way or another, a car or animal moving in one direction or the other, etc) I never allow the image to pull the viewer’s focal point off of the screen. In other words, images with movement point into the text rather than off of the page. Since the majority of students I teach read English or other languages that read from left to right, the text and the images flow from left to right or top to bottom, rather than right to left (as would be preferred in Hebrew or another language that reads from right to left). The colors I select are also important. They are not distracting, complement each other well, and are easily read and viewed. No distracting neon colors, etc that would distract a learner from the content are used.

Numerous studies have identified links among culture, user preferences, and web site usability. There was a very interesting study conducted by Dong and Lee (2008) on the role of culture on cognitive processing and webpage design. People from collectivist cultures tend to be more holistic (or global) learners—looking at the whole picture rather than individual components. However, those from individualistic cultures (with the exception of those from collectivist subcultures such as Native American, Hawaiian Natives, and Alaska Natives) tend to be analytical or sequential learners, wanting to learn things in sequence rather than seeing the “big picture” first. These cognitive differences also influence the way we actually process visual information.

The eye movement of people from various cultures has been studied and results have shown that those from collectivist cultures (holistic learners) tend to have more eye movement over the entire image and have better recall of elements of information from all over the webpage. However, individuals from individualistic cultures who are more analytical learners, have more eye movement in the center of the webpage or image, and have less recall of information that was positioned on the outskirts or edges of the image or webpage. Similarly, Nesbitt and Masuda (2001) conducted a study that examined eye movement of American and Japanese students when shown a picture of an underwater scene “that included focal objects-three big fish-and background objects like rocks, seaweed and water bubbles” (Winerman, 2006, p. 64).

When researchers asked participants to describe the scenes, American participants were more likely to describe the fish in the center, whereas Japanese participants were tended to describe the entire scene. The Japanese participants were also able to describe more details about objects in the background and surrounding rather than simply those images in the center. In other words, whereas the American participants focused more on the objects in the center, the Japanese participants paid more attention to the context.

This is important information to consider if you are developing and presenting information to students or individuals from various cultures. For example, if you were developing an online course for students you knew were from collectivist cultures you may want to position your images differently than you would for learners from the United States or Western European cultures. Faeiola and Matei (2005) found that American and Chinese users exposed to websites created by both Chinese and American designers indicate that users perform information-seeking tasks faster when using web content created by designers from their own cultures.

Please describe your philosophy of using graphics in online courses.
My philosophy regarding the selection and inclusion of graphics in an online course is that graphics and images should are a great way of gaining the attention of learners and promoting learning. Text heavy websites that omit or only scarcely include images are often boring and lose the attention of learners. When selecting images to include in an online course or training program, the images should be high quality and in most cases, the use of color images is preferred (unless the subject is more artistic or perhaps historical, at which black and white images might be preferred). The images should be properly placed on the website so that the readers’ focal point is not drawn away from the webpage. Ideally, images should be small (thumbnail) and readers should be able to click on the image to blow it up if it is a part of the actual content. If the image is an introduction to the topic it may be larger to gain the interest of readers.

Can a good graphic go bad? Why, when, and how might that happen?
Absolutely. When a good image is used in an inappropriate manner, the graphic or image has lost its ability to teach and motivate. If an image does not correspond with the material it becomes a distractor, or if an image is placed incorrectly in the webpage it becomes distracting.

How do graphics "mediate" the e-learning space? In this case, "mediate," describes the way that graphics influence and even alter the way that learning takes place -- between learners, instructors, and the content itself.
As I mentioned earlier, graphics and images have the ability to gain and maintain a student’s attention, drawing them into the subject. A good image or graphic also helps explain the subject, or provides an example and sometimes tells a story by itself. We are visual creatures, and learn not only by reading, but by seeing, observing, and watching. When we learn we take mental pictures of what is happening at the time, so images and graphics can be used to promote learning and organize information. Some people are more visual than others, and the use of graphics, tables and charts can serve as forms of concept maps, linking concepts and information together in a visual way that is easier to recall. For example, in an online counseling course that teaches assessment and evaluation, students might be taught to develop genograms of clients. These genograms may help them to see things that they may not have otherwise noticed…family patterns of health issues, behavioral patterns, etc. in a visual “snapshot.”

Do you believe that the graphics that are used somehow influence how individual learners perceive the instructor? Do they attribute attributes of the graphics to you, your personality, your values?
Perhaps. However, not all instructors have say in the course development since adjuncts commonly teach courses that were developed by other professors. I think that more than anything, the personality of the instructor is revealed through interaction with the students in discussion boards, chats, feedback on papers and projects, video conferences, etc.

How does the interface (the website, course management software, e-mail, the computer screen presentation) affect how you present yourself? What are the elements in the interface that you have to compensate for? How do you compensate for them? Please describe one such experience.
Each university has its own approach to learning. Some offer hybrid courses where instructors can provide more information and interact with students more on a face to face level and the online component is used for further discussions, distribution of information, assessment, etc., whereas others offer online but no hybrid courses. In addition, each online course will differ based upon subject, the individual instructor, as well as the instructional philosophy of the institution. In addition, the actual course management system influences the learning experiences.

Some institutions may use Blackboard, Vista, WebCT, Desire2Learn, e-College, Moodle, etc. and others use a combination of a course management system with a stand alone website. In addition, each course management system has its own features and some institutions purchase only the most basic bundles that do not have all of the capabilities of more expensive ones. If an institution has only limited server space and has purchased the basic model of a course management system the instructor needs to find ways of compensating. Perhaps incorporating social media to conduct introductions, chats, and team activities. Others may need to include outside links to video clips, audio files, etc if server space is limited at their university.

How do you attempt to modify the interface? How do you make it more friendly? More learner-centered? Do you design the course to build in reinforcement of elements you want to emphasize? Please describe one such experience. Tell in detail how you did it.
It is important to keep in mind that depending upon the institution, the instructor may not have a lot of liberties when it comes to changing the webcourse. Sometimes the professors must teach “canned courses” that cannot be changed at all. In these cases, professors can make suggestions to outside links (perhaps videos, case studies, and documentaries all available online) that promote the learning of the particular topic. In addition, keeping good discussions going and interacting with students keeps the students motivated and involved.

When I develop an online course I always try to include various formats for learning. Not just text assignments or outside readings, but also watching documentaries available online, participation in collaborative work (team projects) that promote the sharing of information, lots of dialog in discussion boards, etc. Keep in mind that in an online environment the role of the instructor changes to that of a facilitator rather than simply a distributor of knowledge, especially when dealing with adult learners.

When developing courses for adult learners I always try to have students participate I teamwork and have course spanning projects that pull from their experiences so that the information they are learning in the class can be applied to realistic problem solving activities. Therefore, part of “modifying your interface” really is contingent upon knowing your learners…who they are, what their experiences are, what they want to learn from the class, how they will use the information, capabilities, access to equipment, etc.


Dong, Y. & Lee, K.P. (2008). A cross cultural comparative study of users’ perceptions of a webpage: With a focus on the cognitive styles of Chinese, Koreans and Americans. International Journal of Design, 2(2).

Faiola, A., & Matei, S. A. (2005). Cultural cognitive style and web design: Beyond a behavioral inquiry into computer-mediated communication. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 18.

Richman, K.J. (2006). Short term memory retention: how time and color play a role
Saint Martin’s University Biology Journal May 2006, 1 (51).

Winerman, L. (2006). The culture-cognition connection. The Monitor, 37 (2), p. 64.

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