Web Lesson

The Practical Efficacy of Employing Attractive Digital Graphics as a Pedagogical Vehicle
for Encouraging Interactive Participation in Distance Education Courses
for Distance Education Instructors


Hello, Distance Instructors! Welcome to this lesson in distance education. 

We’re going to look at using icebreaker video assignments as a means for encouraging learners 

to bond and engage with their fellow students.

In this lesson, I'm going to talk about using and assigning attractive visual presentations to: 

  • Foster student engagement

  • Stimulate formation of the learning community

  • Encourage student interaction during icebreaker or introductory course activities.

This lesson will: 

  • Explain why graphic pedagogical content is a useful vehicle for driving interactive participation at the onset of an online course for a variety of student audiences.

  • Illustrate the effectiveness of “contextualizing curricular with technologies to promote student-centered learning” (Kim, Kozan, Kim, & Koehler, 2013, p. 309).

  • Inform teachers of specific applications that produce engaging digital course graphics quickly, economically, and effectively.


We're going to discuss three factors that provide pedagogical rationale for assigning this type of exercise.

  • Theoretical frameworks that support the need for building a sense of community through engagement.

  • The importance of interaction in online distance learning (ODL).

  • Video as a rhetorical tool.

At the end of this lesson, I've provided two videos for you to compare. The first video is plain and - in my opinion - kinda boring. The second video is an illustration of how enticing this assignment can be. It's padded with ideas for students to latch on to.


Finally, I'll share with you the tools I used to create these videos.

Click here to listen


  • Transactional Distance

  • Student Satisfaction and Success

  • Theory of Interaction and Communication in Distance Education

  • Community of Inquiry Theory

    • Social presence

    • Teaching presence

Online students are separated from instructors and fellow learners by transactional distance, where teachers and learners interact from spatially separate environments (Moore, 2013, p. 68). In his discussion of transactional distance, Moore acknowledged that “teaching and learning in separate locations is better understood not as an aberration from the classroom, but as significantly different pedagogical domain” (Moore, 2013, p. 67). 


Feelings of isolation, confusion about instructions and expectations, and lack of confidence or motivation due to a sense of separation might lead to poor student outcomes if not addressed in online course design (Deenen, 2013 p. 283). But when distance instructors establish the need for social interaction at the onset of the course, they improve students’ chances for academic success and satisfaction.


Engagement is a key determinant of success in distance education courses (Deenen, 2013 p. 288, Gunawardena, 2013, p. 196). Researchers noted that in order to persist in their online courses, students need “strong self-esteem, identifying with the institution and not feeling like an outsider, developing interpersonal relationships with peers, faculty, and staff…” (Workman & Stenard, 1996, as cited in Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 156). Morale, “the level of satisfaction that students and teachers experience regarding a sense of community”, affects not only student participation but attrition rates as well (Breuch, 2015, p. 376-7). 


In Holmberg’s Theory of Interaction and Communication in Distance Education, personal relations and empathy, and feelings of belonging are key factors in students’ motivation to learn (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015, p. 47). Researchers have stressed the strong impact of “student-to-student, and student-to-content interaction” (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015, p 67).


The kind of collaborative learning experience that is bolstered by interaction between students is supported by Garrison and Akyol’s community of inquiry theory, in which “an educational community of inquiry” is formed by “a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding” (Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 105).


By asking the students to create their own introductory videos, instructors convey students’ shared responsibility for social presence, enlisting their participation in “building morale” and “incorporating the ‘human element’” in the course community (Breuch, 2015, p. 378).


Starting the course with a video demonstration of how students might approach their introductory video helps instructors set an example for students to find creative ways to express their perspectives. By employing this form of expression, instructors use the implicit authority of their teaching presence to “creative a purposeful and productive community of inquiry” (Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 110).


For example, in her use of art blogs, Michelle Pacansky- Brock tasked students with being “creative, using color, images, and other decorative elements that reflect their aesthetic preferences and to show their own artwork as well” (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 199). Her instructions translate well to the introductory video assignment.


The video introduction creates an implicit ‘social contract” between class members (Hewitt & DePew, 2015, p. 145). In much the same role as the first announcement you post in your CMS, these videos will set the tone, establish presence and rapport, and personalize the collective character of each course’s online community (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 279).


  • Icebreaker

  • Community Formation and Bonding

  • Bridging the Gap

  • Cultural Concerns


Facilitating successful icebreaker activities is a pretty standard task for instructors in academic settings. Introductory ice-breaking exercises can be used to set the bar for interaction and engagement in distance education classes. Just as students in face-to-face classes are asked to introduce themselves in the initial class session, distance students are typically asked to post an introduction in the course management system - usually in a discussion thread. This introduction can be more effective at building a community mentality when students are asked to include a visual element that’s representative of themselves or their interests.

Ko & Rossen define an icebreaking activity as “any activity that allows students to begin to form some sense of community online” (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 175). Instructing students to answer specific questions in their introductions helps them stay within the boundaries of the exercise without questioning if they’ve said too much or too little (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 175). In the video demonstrations at the end of this lesson, you will see an example of the types of questions you might ask.

Students are more likely to bond and form communities when they are engaged and feel recognized (Hewitt & DePew, 2015, p. 116). “Interaction is related to student perception of presence, which is a predictor of student satisfaction in computer-mediated environments” (Picciano, 2002, as cited in Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 157).

The home environment plays a distinct role in the education of distance students. By acknowledging the home environment in the introductory exercise, we invite students to be themselves – to describe themselves as real people and to see each other in kind. We invite them to establish a social presence.

Within a community of inquiry, social presence includes “the ability of learners to project themselves (i.e. their personal characteristics) socially and emotionally” to create “a climate that supports and encourages probing questions, skepticism, expressing and contributing to ideas” and “the ability of participants to identify with the group or course of study, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 107).


In a cross-cultural study, Gunawardena et al. found that “social presence is necessary to the smooth functioning of a group, to provide a sense that group members are real people. Social presence built trust and led to self-disclosure” (Gunawardena et al., 2001, as cited in Gunawardena, 2013, p. 191).

Online environments are hampered by the conspicuous absence of nonverbal cues. Personalized videos stand in for the visual cues that are taken for granted in F2F classes. When students are asked to invite classmates for a glimpse into their lives, their graphic interpretations preserve the “semantic integrity” of their introductions more aptly than mere text ever could (Hewitt, 2010, 2015a, 2015b, as cited in Hewitt & DePew, 2015, p. 156).

Using visual cues to connect the home and academic environments decreases students’ sense of separation from their fellow students and their instructor. Relevant graphics provide a bridge between the student’s remote location and the online course environment by addressing the dearth of nonverbal cues. The birds-eye view into each student’s life creates a sense of “immediacy” and “intimacy” that traverses both physical and “psychological distance” (Aragon, 2003, as cited in Breuch, 2015, p. 377).

It is prudent for instructors to consider cultural differences as a matter of concern when assigning and evaluating students’ video introductions, as the “affective dimensions of feelings, beliefs, and values as well as the needs for open communication and group cohesion” are likely to differ across cultures (Stavredes and Herder, 2013, p. 157).

Fortunately, in the context of online learning, the “multiple cultural selves” and “hybrid identities on the Internet” interact “to form unique cultures of their own…through dialogue, negotiation, and the sharing of experiences” (Gunawaredena, 2013, p. 188). Though it may be awkward for students from certain cultures, expressions of agreement and disagreement through open exchange of ideas are “the primary theory of knowledge construction underlying most emerging online course designs...” (Gunawaredena, 2013, p. 188).

Asking students to make an introductory video of this nature gets them acclimated to visual content that requires a personal investment. Cross-cultural studies indicate that even students who are formal, polite, and reticent toward open disagreement in academic discussion threads are willing to engage in “heated debate” in less formal threads (Gunawardena, 2013, p. 190). These findings suggest that if the instructions for an introductory video encourage both the establishment of academic and personal interests, students will be encouraged to walk the line between formal and informal in order to connect with their peers.


  • Familiarity

  • Video as a Rhetorical Vehicle: The Artistic Proofs

    • Logos

    • Pathos

    • Ethos

  • Contribution


Why use video instead of a discussion thread with text only? Ko & Rossen assert that multimedia can “enliven or illustrate unfamiliar material” and provide “powerful and fascinating stimuli for an assignment” (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 279).


Pictures create a sense of familiarity. What could be more unfamiliar than a class full of strangers? The multiple perspectives presented in collective class videos increase student interest in course content. This activity could be viewed as the asynchronous equivalent of their first gathering in their “virtual homeroom” (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 282-3).

The art of rhetoric has come a long way since the days of Aristotle. In today’s Internet-driven world, we are almost more likely to respond to visual persuasion. By using images of themselves, their lives, or what’s important to them, students employ the rhetorical vehicle given to us by Aristotle: Logos, ethos, and pathos – The Artistic Proofs.

  1. LogosLogos is the expression of an argument through rational discourse. It’s what allows us to make inferences and decisions. By providing their classmates with a visual essay in which they situate themselves as scholars, students convince their fellows that engagement with one another is a sound academic decision. (Herrick, J., 2013, p. 79)

  2. PathosPathos is an emotional appeal that propels judgement. As students offer each other a peek at their lives, interests, and priorities, they tap into the emotions that drive attraction. “Emotions, then, are not irrational impediments to decision-making. Rather, they are rational responses to certain kinds of circumstances and arguments” (Herrick, J., 2013, p. 80).

  3. EthosEthos is “the sociology of good character” (Herrick, J., 2013, p. 80). It’s the study of what convinces us to label others credible or trustworthy. Are they knowledgeable? Are they believable? Are they reputable? These are some of the questions students can answer for their classmates in an introductory video. (Herrick, J., 2013, p. 81)

People are more likely to allow themselves to trust others and show vulnerability when they find others approachable. “The more learners establish themselves with other learners and the instructor, the more trust they build. Trust helps learners feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts and ideas without the fear of criticism” (Stavredes and Herder, 2013, p. 157).

Moore defined dialogue as constructive communication, a “particular kind of interpersonal interaction” involving “words and other symbols” in which contributors build on each other’s contributions (Moore, 2013, 69-70). For dialogue to occur, we first need contributions. These icebreaker videos are an evocative way for contributors to start a classroom dialogue.


  1. Introductory Icebreaker Video Assignment with Text Only

  2. Introductory Icebreaker Video Assignment with Images

In the demonstrations below, you will see two examples of the same assignment

one with text only, and one with images.

Judge for yourself which approach is more effective.


It is easier than you might think to produce digital learning objects that are quick, easy, economical, and reusable.

Learning objects: reusable, digital resources designed to facilitate learning. (Moisey & Ally, 2013, p. 317). 


If you plan your script with broad enough parameters, the video you create for your introductory assignment will be a tool you can use for multiple classes. Slides can easily be swapped out and replaced when necessary. Your script can be edited and rerecorded, so keep a skeleton copy handy.


Your video needn’t be more complex than a “narrated slide show” delivered in a “natural manner”, which you can accomplish easily with a few free tools. (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 258, 264).

The sample icebreaker assignment videos you've just watched were created with these tools:

After writing my script, I curated images from Pablo by Buffer, then resized them and added text in PicMonkey, which gives me more font and effects options. I exported my slides to the Scoompa app, which I programmed to display the slides at even intervals with one of their music tracks adding a sense of momentum. I saved the slideshows to the Dropbox app so I could access them from my phone or my laptop.


I recorded the voice tracks for this lesson in the Kaltura Capture Space Desktop Recorder. I built this site using the Wix platform.

Watch here to see how the Scoompa Video Slideshow Maker and Video Editor works.



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