Talking pictures

12th November 2004 at 00:00
The most significant photographs of the 20th century are now available online for FE colleges and universities. Hugh Dailly reports

"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Making good-quality, interactive online learning materials is often difficult, expensive and possibly illegal. Transferring lecture notes and teaching materials from paper-based to online format is easy, cheap, but boring by comparison. What is the use of a web page, we might ask, to paraphrase Alice, without pictures? How do we break with the "paper behind the screen" mentality that characterises poor-quality learning materials?

Pictures are one means of moving beyond text. But although illustrations are easy to find in the bazaar of the modern internet, using them without permission crosses the increasingly fraught boundary of intellectual property rights (IPR). Neither is picture quality guaranteed.

This helps to explain the Joint Information Systems Committee's (JISC) decision to enter into an agreement with Getty Images to make 50,000 of the most striking images of the past century available to further and higher education.

The fruits of this initiative arrived earlier this year in the shape of the Education Image Gallery. The gallery represents a fraction of Getty Images'

vast collection, but includes highlights of the Hulton Archive and the Getty Images News Service.

This subscription service provides access to copyright-cleared images for use in universities and colleges. Access itself, however, will not give the whole answer. Gratuitous use of images can be almost as harmful as the lack of them and the ability to illustrate needs to be used sparingly. Here specialist JISC services such as Technical Advisory Service for Images (TASI) and AHDS Visual Arts have an important training role to play.

Images used well have the power to open the conversations Alice is searching for at the beginning of Carroll's book.

Look at the picture in the bottom right-hand corner of this page. Who are these people and what are they doing? Are they sharing something? The picture is in fact cropped and the full image (available from the Education Image Gallery) would show a horrific glimpse of racism in America in the 1930s - a lynching in the Deep South - an image made more shocking by the sheer banality of the cropped picture. What better way of opening up a conversation about the power of racism to infect "normal" society or to begin to explore the history or the literature of the period?

The Education Image Gallery looks set to become an important tool for use in the classroom - to inspire, to provoke discussion and to nurture the kind of creative understanding that only images can.

To subscribe to the Education Image Gallery go to Hugh Dailly is curriculum adviser for the JISC regional support centre for Scotland North East. This article first appeared in JISC Inform

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