Using Comic Strips as a Teaching and Learning Tool

Editor's Note:  At the 2008 International Conference on Education and Technology, held in Calgary, Canada, Jan Lay learned about Pixton™ Interactive Web Comics.  She immediately recognized the new program as a tool that would be of interest to some employees and students at Clemson. After demonstrating the program to the Teaching with Technology Community (http://pixton.com/trailer), Jeff Appling, Barbara Weaver, and Lay decided to explore the program's usefulness in teaching and learning, as well as a communication tool for technical information.

Using Pixton™ in an Honors Course, Enlightenment through Scientific Skepticism
By Jeff Appling

I have for some time required students to turn in a creative project as part of their grade in my Scientific Skepticism course. In the past students have used various media, both electronic and paper, to present an idea related to the course topics, many of which involve pseudoscience. In the fall semester of 2008, I decided to have all students try to use the same medium to see if there might be a benefit to "leveling the playing field" and to give them a common creative experience. I asked the class to produce two comic strips using the online program Pixton, with the restriction that the theme must be related to a topic studied in the class.

Like me, no one had ever tried to create a comic strip, so we all experienced some interesting challenges. I put the limitation that the comic strip should have no more than four panes, which quickly becomes a guiding issue - how do you tell an effective story in only four scenes? The topics chosen by the students ranged throughout many of the issues we had discussed in class, such as witch hunts and alien abductions. This comic strip about psychics was the class favorite.

Squirrel and Fortune Teller 

I think the class attained the pedagogical goals of the activity, as all students were challenged by the need to distill an idea down to a few frames while retaining some sort of storyline or interesting point. Many of the comic strips were entertaining, to boot. The students reported that the process was relatively easy and they generally enjoyed working with the program itself. There was a great deal of sharing of ideas and techniques among the class members, and I think the activity promoted a sense of camaraderie. Students found the process more stimulating than the typical assignment, understanding that it wasn't aimed at measuring their depth of knowledge (and consequently not worth much of their grade). Students did benefit from the process of analyzing potential class topics, particularly from the perspective of how to relate them to everyday life. I will likely use the technique again with students in this class. It gets them talking to me and to one another about the class material, and the results can be appreciated by the whole class.

Using Pixton™ in a Sophomore Literature Course
By Barbara Weaver

I decided to use the comic strip program in several ways.

First, I created my syllabus as a comic strip and sent the link via email to enrolled students well before classes began. I often receive emails from students who want to know more about the class and, while I grow weary answering their questions sometimes, I would rather they drop before classes begin than after. The comic strip seemed like a fun way to get the information to all the students so that those who don't want to read a lot and use technology a lot can go ahead and drop. As some dropped and others registered, I could simply send the link to the newly registered. My fall 2008 syllabus took me several hours to create, but I did it in the evening while watching TV and had fun creating it. Thanks to the remixing Pixton allows, my spring 2009 syllabus took me less than 15 minutes to create. The first day of class when I went over the standard syllabus in Blackboard, students had very few questions as they had already read the comic strip version. And the best news was that I had only a couple of students who enrolled late and then dropped.

Two assignments using Pixton were consistently successful. For one, the students both semesters created comic strip reviews of the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This assignment counted as a low-stakes quiz grade.  Julia Schmidt's review is a good example: http://pixton.com/comic/a0bik2tt . For the second, spring 2009 students created comic strips to introduce themselves to the class. For an example, see Lanie Mason's introduction at http://pixton.com/comic/gl0ae5t9. The assignment gave them an opportunity to learn how to use the program before they had to use it for a graded assignment.

A few students chose to use Pixton to complete the creative project assignment that is due at the end of the semester. Kathryn Keller developed comic strip frames in Pixton and then inserted them into a PowerPoint slide show to compare and contrast her life with Marjane Satrapi's as presented in her novel Persepolis. Here is an excerpt from her project: KathrynKeller_excerpt.pdf.

Students both semesters used Pixton to complete their poetry projects. They had to include a brief biographical sketch of the poet to set the historical context and one poem or excerpt of a long poem with an analysis of the poem. The results were mixed. I do not plan to use Pixton for the poetry projects again.

When I surveyed the fall semester students about their experience with Pixton, only two of them said the program was too difficult to learn and took too much time to complete an assignment. All the other students said I should continue to use Pixton with my students and should recommend its use to other faculty.

Using Pixton™ in CU101, and to Communicate CCIT Messages to Students
By Jan Lay

Because I know that one of Clemson University's goals is to have students develop artifacts of competency for their electronic portfolios that are not merely written documents, I was excited about the creative potential of Pixton™ to merge written understanding with visual communication of the understanding. 

For the past two fall semesters, I have taught one section of the freshman Academic Success course, CU101. One of the student's first assignments is to gather advice from upperclassmen on what it is like to be a college student.  The first semester I made this assignment, the students were instructed to list a few of their favorite pieces of advice in a public blog (visible to all of the students). Last fall I had the students gather the same information, but instead of blogging about their favorites, I asked them to make a Pixton comic illustrating their favorite piece of advice.  Through web links, these comics were shared with the whole class. Here's an example: http://pixton.com/comic/zcf1nd8m

Along the same lines as the advice, I also asked the students to think about their first week at Clemson and illustrate one positive thing they had experienced (see http://pixton.com/comic/5s1n7j7l for an example), and one negative thing (see http://pixton.com/comic/t4vsngdm for an example). I thought this assignment would be a good way for the students to express their initial feelings about being at Clemson University in a humorous venue. 

A third classroom assignment was to illustrate a valuable (to the individual student) take home message from each of the first three chapters. By noting which subject areas were chosen and illustrated by the students, I got a feeling about what the whole class felt were the most important aspects of each chapter.  http://pixton.com/comic/23f99h0m

At the end of last fall semester, I developed the following table to summarize my experience with Pixton. Since then, the programmers have continued to improve the software based on comments from the users; however, these observations are still relevant for anyone interested in using the program.

Pros

Cons

  • Colorful, expressive, creative
  • People oriented
  • Wide emotional range; preset expressions
  • Wide range of increasingly realistic characters which can be easily modified
  • Props are numerous and keep increasing
  • Can use templates or start from scratch
  • Can remix comics to create new ones
  • Can easily create series

 

  • Panels must be same width
  • "Bad" props can cause comics to be rated "mature" and not visible to the general public
  •  Updates must be done manually
  •  Evolving tools can be buggy  and this can be frustrating to  instructors and students

 

Student Specific issues

  •  Titles and keywords are necessary to browse for comics
  •  Students need to pay attention and finish scenes so they match throughout a  whole comic
  •  Left to right reading pattern must be emphasized
  •  Spelling and grammatical errors are common

Needs

  •  More objects or better drawing tools
  •  Ability to add non-Pixton graphics
  •  Spell checker for the text

 

Outside of my CU101 class, I also found that Pixton was a good way for me to communicate messages to students about what services were available at the Customer Support Center.  I used Pixton comics to illustrate panels containing information that we wanted the students to be aware of, then I inserted these comics into a digital display that we installed at the main desk of the Support Center located in the old Student Union.  http://pixton.com/comic/l45up3l3   Because of the comic-strip nature of the messages, I thought they would be noticed more than non-illustrated text. 

Pixton is an easy to use, creative tool that can be utilized in many different classroom situations, as well as for creatively conveying information outside of the classroom.  If you are interested in learning more about Pixton, you can visit their website at www.pixton.com, or register for a Pixton training class by visiting the "Instructor Led Training" link on the CCIT Training Resources page: http://www.clemson.edu/ccit/support services/it_support/computer_training/index.html. In addition, if a class is not currently scheduled, you can submit a ticket to ITHELP@clemson.edu to inquire about adding a Pixton class to the schedule.

Jeff Appling is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Clemson University.

Barbara Weaver is Senior Consultant for Faculty Relations and Innovation in CCIT and usually teaches one class each semester for Department of English at Clemson University.

Jan Lay is an educational technology trainer for Teaching and Learning Services and enjoyed teaching CU 101 for several semesters at Clemson University.