comic life - educational possibilities

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Report I produced as output from a TechDis funded HEAT project on possible applications of Comic Life software.


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    Just For Laughs? Is it possible to use comic strip creation

    software to produce pedagogically effective materials?

    Philip Wane, Nottingham Trent University.


    This report details a research project undertaken at Nottingham Trent

    University (NTU) in conjunction with the Social Policy and Social Work

    (SWAP) Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). The

    focus of the project was an evaluation of a computer program called

    Comic Life, which facilitates the creation of comic strips by people without

    artistic abilities. During the course of the evaluation it emerged that many

    users of the software found it to be easy to use, entertaining but

    potentially effective in delivering educational benefits. The common

    consensus that emerged was that the software showed great potential as

    both a general tool of educationalists and as way of overcoming some

    accessibility issues.

    Project Overview

    The overall aim of the project was to evaluate some award winning

    software called Comic Life, which is available for both Mac and PC

    platforms (obtainable from numerous sources including the developers

    website at It is not free but it is inexpensive and a fully

    functional trial version is available to download. Another purpose of the

    project was to ascertain whether staff or students could use the software

    (with the minimum of training) to produce pedagogically valid comic

    strips. That is to say comic strips that contributed something to the

    processes of learning and teaching, or had value in communicating

    information or the production of instructional guides.

    The use of comic strips offers great potential for the production of both

    general teaching materials and targeted training materials such as How

    To guides (see the bibliography at the end of this report). While the use

    of graphical guides, including comic strips, is not new the project aimed to

    overcome a major barrier to the production of such comics strip the lack

    of artistic ability. The software offers the potential for people without the

    usual technical training in graphic design or natural artistic abilities to

    produce high quality comic strips. Whilst technology may never be a

    perfect substitute for innate artistic ability or traditional graphic design

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    courses it offers the possibility of providing these people who do not have

    the benefits of either the opportunity to produce comic strips.

    It may be worth noting that, just as Microsoft PowerPoint makes it easy to

    produce poor presentations when people ignore good practice, this

    software might easily be used to produce poor comic strips with little

    educational value, or that are poor at communicating key information.

    The program is not a panacea but the project indicates that users only

    need a minimal amount of guidance before being able to produce effective

    materials, and it is a great tool for people wanting to produce their first e-

    learning or blended materials. The software offers a number of export

    options so that the comic strips can be made into image files (ready for

    inclusion in web pages, word processed documents for example

    Microsoft Word, and slideshow software for example Microsoft

    PowerPoint. Comic strips can also be exported as Adobe portable

    document format (PDF) files and QuickTime movie files; so it is very

    flexible and offers a great way to begin creating e-learning materials.

    The project also sought to gather information on how effective using this

    software might be in providing individuals and social groups who lack the

    required level of written literacy with the ability to effectively

    communicate ideas. At the proposal stage it was thought that such groups

    might include those with learning difficulties, those who lacked the

    benefits of traditional education or those who were literate but who chose

    not to engage with conventional written materials. This last group was

    thought to include teenagers who might not read materials such as help

    information leaflets that were purely in written form but who might pay

    attention to, and absorb, the same information if presented in a more

    accessible graphical form. This view was reinforced following discussions

    with a group of service users based in Nottingham who expressed a great

    interest in the project. They articulated quite specific ideas about how

    comic strip style information posters or leaflets could be used to help

    convey information to groups who might have difficulties, or choose not to

    engage with, text only leaflets. The service users themselves (who are

    part of a successful advocacy group) have already identified groups

    including former rough sleepers, those whose first language is not

    English, and individuals of Romany descent. One advantage of comic

    strips is that they do not contain a lot of text so once a comic strip is

    produced it would be much easier (quicker) translating the small amounts

    of text into different languages, which would be ideal for health

    information, or local authorities, for instance information regarding

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    housing benefits or other services that might have to be provided in a

    wide range of languages and frequently updated.

    Something that emerged during the course of the project was the

    potential of the software to produce materials to aid learning and

    teaching. This had been recognised from the outset but it emerged as a

    key theme during the workshop activities as attendees articulated the

    many different ways in which comic strips could be used as an aid to

    training or learning and teaching. For example, comic strips might replace

    traditional text based documentation in some instances, providing

    excellent triggers for group based discussion and reflection. The comic

    strips might be complete (in that they had a full set of speech and

    thought bubbles) in order to convey possible professional scenarios, for

    instance a social worker visiting a client. It was also noted that

    incomplete strips might be produced where only some of the speech and

    thought bubbles contained text and students would be expected to fill in

    the blanks in the story line. Having done this student could then discuss

    with their tutors (and peers) their differing responses in order to analyse

    and reflect upon the procedures. When working with social workers such

    questions might include: Had they remembered to introduce themselves?

    How might they link practice to theory? Had they borne in mind their

    statement of role and purpose? Other disciplines would doubtless have

    their own sets of questions that could be incorporated into comic strips.

    So while the focus of this research project was on social work and policy

    professionals (along with students from Youth Guidance) there are clearly

    transferable generic teaching and learning benefits.

    Prior to the submission of the project proposal appropriate research was

    undertaken to confirm the existence of an established body of research

    that identified the potential benefits of using comic strips to communicate

    information. Interestingly some of the literature also identified the

    potential difficulties of producing comic strips (the technical and artistic

    demands) as a barrier to their wider adoption. It was therefore reasoned

    that the use of innovative software to produce comic strips with the

    minimum of training would overcome this particular barrier. Furthermore

    the software can work with either existing images or from newly captured

    digital photographs, which it then processes into a choice of comic strip

    styles. Therefore the project bid included funding for two digital cameras

    so that people participating in the pilot project could produce their own

    photographs. This meant that the photographs would be relevant, that

    the people taking them would have a sense of ownership and it simplified

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    potential issues around copyright and the digital re-use (and digital

    alteration) of the original images. A sense of ownership of their public

    image might also be a particular appeal to some groups of service users.

    The equipment supplied by TechDis has proven most useful, with the

    digital cameras offering a quick and easy way to capture suitable images,

    for use with the software. The MacBook has proven itself invaluable and

    permitted the option of offering project participants the option to work on

    either a Mac platform or the PC platform. A large proportion of the

    individuals who worked with the software were based in work places

    dominated by PCs but some only had Apple computers at home, or they

    worked with service user groups who have Apple computers. Comic Life

    was originally developed for the Mac platform and there is now a PC

    version available but many of the existing support materi


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