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Better Learning Through Hypercomics: Pedagogical Marks on the Infinite Canvas

Let's talk about hypercomics, and then, let's talk about e-learning.

People (and by "people," I of course mean Wikipedia) credit the concept of hypercomics to Scott McCloud, which is sort of true, in the hazy version of truth you expect from a Wikipedia article with the sweeping broom icon up at the top.

McCloud actually came up with the concept of the Infinite Canvas. For a general context of webcomics outside of Wikipedia, see Walters (2009). The infinite canvas is a concept in webcomics design that conceives of the computer screen not as a static page, but as a window into, yep, you guessed it, an infinite canvas on which to showcase experimental formats for digital comics. In practice, this has generally resulted in artists using Flash templates that animate transitions between panels. (Examples of this sort of Flash based webcomic include British new media artist/lecturer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's various "hypercomics," artist Yves Bigerel's About DIGITAL COMICS and ABOUT About DIGITAL COMICS, and McCloud's own The Right Number.)

Outside of using Flash, freeware applications such as and InfiniteCanvas: A Funky Side Project from Microsoft Live Labs present other opportunities for people with various artistic and technological skill sets to create works that juxtapose static images, combine image and text in sequence, and place them in a format that takes advantage of the affordances of online applications in ways that print comics never could. 

A primary formal challenge presented by such applications is for the comics medium to maintain itself as a form of expression which is static in the sense that space stands in for time in the mind of the reader (as opposed to film or animation, in which time is expressed through time, as represented by motion).

The formal potentials presented by such applications are vast, if relatively underdeveloped.  To my knowledge, the majority of online comics retain a newspaper comic strip or comic book magazine/graphic novel format, usually in the service of later print book sales.  The use of the unique potentials for interactivity in pedagogical webcomics is even less common. In my research, I have come across only three online comics that somehow make a mark on the "infinite canvas," capitalizing in some way on the potentials for interactivity in the service of e-learning, all created through Flash.

Factoring with Mr. Yang and Mosely the Alien is an algebra tutorial created by graphic novelist, National Book Award nominee, and science teach Gene Yang. It features two parallel narrative threads in the form of two horizontal rows of comics panels. The top row features a cartoon Gene Yang standing in front of a chalk board. Mr. Yang lectures on factoring in algebra, with examples drawn on the chalkboard in each panel.  The bottom row features a purple alien character named Mosley the Alien that stands in for the student. Mosley is always visible in a panel on the left of the screen, pointing to the left, saying, "Can we review a bit?" and in a panel on the right of the screen, pointing right and saying, "Lets keep going!" These panels double as navigational buttons that move Mr. Yangs lecture forwards and backwards. At some instances during the lecture portrayed in the top thread, a third Mosley panel appears in the middle of the other two in which Mosley asks for clarification or more examples of what Mr. Yang is describing. Should the reader share Mosleys need for extra help, he or she can click on this middle panel, causing more panels to be inserted in the top thread. In these panels, Mr. Yang provides more in depth explanation of the factoring problem under discussion.

Electric Spirit is described as "the web's only Japanese instructional interactive manga." It is a ghost story in the style of a Japanese comic (i.e. manga) that allows the reader to toggle the dialog balloons between English and Japanese. The interface allows the reader to change all of the text to one language or another, or alter a single word balloon by rolling over it with the mouse. Rolling over also brings up another balloon containing conversational and linguistic context for the dialog, and a side menu opens lists of study goals. Clicking on particular kanji in the manga brings up "a description of the character with notes regarding strokes, readings, and tips for remembering them."

Both Factoring and Electric Spirit were created in 2006, and seem to have garnered limited attention. (Yang, having gained notoriety for his print work and speaking, has never returned to creating educational digital comics, and Electric Spirit, intended to be a continuing story, seems to have been abandoned relatively soon after its inception.)

More recent is the 2009 webcomic The Secret in the Cellar: A Written in Bone forensic mystery from colonial America, created in conjunction with the February 2009 Smithsonian Museum of Natural History forensic anthropological exhibit Written in Bone. The webcomic narrative follows the discovery and forensic investigation of one collection of skeleton remains in the exhibit. Beneath various panels in the comic are hyperlinks, connecting to various quizes, games, and additional textual or photographic material that provides educational context to the main narrative. To my mind, this is more properly a hypercomic, in the sense that it is a comic that makes particular use of hyperlinks to connect to other internet locations (as opposed to advancing the images of the comic along a linear path, as is characteristic of most operationalizations of the infinite canvas concept). And, regardless of my own preferences in terminology, it is an excellent example of the potentials for digital comics in online pedagogy.

All of which is simply to beg the question: What else can be done?



1 comment

Anonymous (not verified)

Hypercomics is certainly an interesting topic of discussion.