The Value of Instructional Comics for eLearning

Educators have been using instructional comics for learning for over 60 years, but how effective are they for interactive, self-paced eLearning? I would argue that designers can and should use instructional comics for eLearning.

Motivating adults to read material specific to learning new tasks or procedures can be a challenge. Organizations are always looking for new and innovative ways to attract and hold the attention of learners, while influencing and motivating them to change behaviors or improve performance. Instructional comics are a creative way to do this.

Comics and eLearning

Skillful instructional designers juxtapose visuals and text for both synchronous and asynchronous training all the time. We know that visuals (images, graphics, charts, etc.) combined with text improves overall learning if designed correctly. A comic allows readers to view the material as a visual narrative. Readers are attracted to the appealing pictures, characters, and stories, and research proves that they retain more than when they read the same story in a text-only format.

The big question for instructional designers is: What value is added to the design if the material is presented as a comic? The key is to consider the material as a story, not as a comic. If the material can be written as a story, then you have the foundation for an instructional comic.

Defining the comic medium

Comics can be either entertaining or educational. Periodical comics and graphic novels are generally viewed as entertainment, while instructional manuals and procedural storyboards are generally viewed as educational.

Will Eisner, widely considered the grandfather of the graphic novel, explains this in more detail in his book Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices. “In the work of comic art intended purely for entertainment, some technical exposition of a precise nature often occurs,” he writes. “A common example is a procedure like opening a safe in a detective story or the assembly of parts in a space adventure. This technical passage is actually a set of images with an instructional message embedded in an ‘entertaining’ story.”

Eisner argues that comics are a literary form. “In its most economical state, comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols,” he writes. “When these are used again and again to convey similar ideas, they become a language—a literary form, if you will. And it is this disciplined application that creates the ‘grammar’ of sequential art.”

It can be argued that eLearning is similar, in that it is a series of repetitive images with content that conveys ideas to impact a specific outcome. It is not sequential art per se, but eLearning is sequential in nature. An instructional comic builds on what we already do, with the addition of art and a narrative.

Determine whether the material can be written as a story

There are a lot of tools available today to produce the comic format, however making eLearning look like a comic by including comic characters or applying a comic theme to existing material does not make it a true instructional comic. My advice is put away those tools and start with the story.

I’ve designed and developed several instructional comic projects over the years—from simple printed job aides to full interactive comic curriculums—and a story can be found in almost any material. As an instructional designer, you must uncover the story.

Will Eisner divides instructional comics into two categories: technical and attitudinal. Technical comics are mainly for learning processes or performing tasks, whereas attitudinal comics are more for soft skills such as learning new behaviors and social interactions.

For an instructional comic in the technical category, think of how you can present the material in different ways. Unlike photos which are constrained by what can be physically photographed, the flexibility of drawn images in comics allows the artist to demonstrate a technically complex task from the point of view of the learner.

For an instructional comic in the attitudinal category, study the material with a stronger lens and place yourself as a learner in the intended audience. See yourself as a character in the story, and how that character relates to the learner. That’s the easy part. The harder and more time-consuming part is re-writing the material as a story-prose script.   

In conclusion

Although comics certainly appeal to children, they can be powerful training tools for adults. As Eisner wrote, “I want to point out to adults that there is a world of good material available to you now in comic form—in this medium—and learn to give it your support because the more you support it, the better the material will be as it comes out.”

In the early 1940s, the Army requested a test between the standard training manuals and Will Eisner’s comics. They discovered that when information was presented as a comic, soldiers better understood the task and retained the information more. Eisner was a master of the craft, with the ability to visualize the instruction in context with the message and draw the art to support that context. That led to several decades of Eisner creating military instructional comics.

It’s important to note that an instructional comic is not about the artwork. Whether you can draw or not, outsourcing the talent is no different than outsourcing voiceover talent—it’s about the design. Comics and graphic novels have made a tremendous surge in recent years, in both entertainment and education. The future looks bright for designers who are able to create instructional comics for eLearning. I invite you to join the surge!

Editor’s note

Kevin Thorn will be a featured speaker at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2018 conference. He is presenting two sessions: Getting Started with Stop-Motion Animation for eLearning and Design Before Developing: Getting Started with Storyboarding for eLearning. Click here for further information or to register for the conference.

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