The use of comics in educational resources is not a new thing. In fact one can find multiple articles outlining how comics are used in fields of study such as English language (James, 2007), Mathematics and Social Sciences (Boerman-Cornell, 2013), Media (Doyle, 2008), etc… Comics are also being featured in University degree courses both as undergraduate or post-graduate studies. For example, the University of Florida in the US has a Comics studies credit where students and professionals study and teach comics; The University of Oregon, also in the US, has a whole faculty dedicated to Comics and Cartoon Studies; The University of Dundee, Scotland, offers a unique MLitt in Comics Studies and students can pursue their studies further after completion of the Master with a PhD in comics studies.
So how do comics and graphic novels teach readers to be information literate?
Definition of a graphic novel
According to Alan Moore, a famous comic book writer, author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, the graphic novel is “an expensive or long comic book”. So what is a comic book? Will Eisner (2008), who is considered the father of the graphic novel defined the comic book as, “a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literacy form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea”. Another more simplified definition is Scott McCloud’s (1994). He describes comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”.
The important key words in that explanation are “convey information”. Comics are just like any other medium. Like films and books, comics are a way for artists to tell a story either to teach or to entertain, sometimes both. In this way, comics offer another way for educators to offer multiple subjects in an interesting and motivating way.
Comics convey information whether directly or indirectly so comics require a multi-model understanding of literacy. Comics can be used to greater effectiveness in teaching at all levels by helping to arm students with the critical-literacy skills they need to negotiate diverse systems of mean making (Jacobs, 2007)
Why is it important to be information literate?
According to the SCONUL seven pillars model for information literacy, a user must possess seven basic library and IT skills to be information literate. These skills are:
- Recognise the information need
- Distinguish a way of addressing the gap between current knowledge and the need
- Construct strategies for locating the needed information
- Locate and access said information
- Compare and evaluate the researched information
- Organise, apply and communicate the information acquired
- Synthesise and create new information thanks to the new knowledge learnt.
Similarly, in a study in 2005, Combes defined a literate person as:
- able to use technology
- is also ICT literate
- able to use a range of information resources
- having a range of well-developed literacy skills
- able to use information
- able to manage the increasingly complex information environment. (Combes, 2005)
The main focus here is that information literacy involves multiple skills that are spread across multiple platforms of information. The ability to access and evaluate information on such platforms is essential in today‟s digital society.
Being information literate involves a number of skills which will help the individual navigate into today’s digital age. This is essential because we are living in an information overload society. We are constantly bombarded with information through the internet, smart phones, tablets, etc… All this information is resulting into misunderstandings, misuse of information and since there are multiple sources from where one can obtain information, the validity of such information is becoming less clear and difficult to verify.
Information literacy is important due to the amount of information that is available in contemporary society. Simply being exposed to a great deal of information will not make people informed citizens, they need to learn how to use this information effectively.
Data Smog refers to the idea that too much information can create a barrier in our lives. Especially students and the society require a special set of skills to handle this fast increasing information, in order to use their educational and economical purposes more effectively. Information literacy is considered as the solution for the data smog (ACRL 2006).
Consequently, it will help decision making and productivity which is beneficial to the society. Due to the information explosion and data smog, all students and the society face many difficulties to locate, evaluate, use, and communicate information. Student centered, inquiry based, problem solving, and a critical thinking proactive learning environment, with the help of information literacy skills, will develop deep learners in the society.
Furthermore, information skills are vital to the success in education, occupation, and day to day communication of all citizens. Information literacy skills will help students to achieve this target in a broader sense, in student centered learning (Ranaweera, 2008).
To this extent, countries are adopting a more inclusive approach towards information literacy. For example, in 2011, Wales created a national information literacy framework which deals with the inclusion of information literacy skills in the schools curriculums across all ages. Their main goal is to create an information literate society able to find and use information in the 21st century Wales.
How do graphic novels help?
As images become ever-present in communication of information between entities, communities and individuals, librarians and related professionals must consider the visual in any discussion of information literacy (Harris, 2006). For this reason, comics and graphic novels are the perfect vessel to use to teach information literacy skills, especially from an early age.
Comics may enhance readers’ understanding of material and abilities to work with language, visual literacy and the more far-reaching critical literacy. Comics motivate readership and encourage creativity (Duncan and Smith, 2009). In this regard getting them first to read those comics and then build on that scaffold will turn them into lifelong readers. While also developing the critical-literacy skills they need to negotiate diverse systems of mean making (Jacobs, 2007).
Due to the multimodal nature of graphic novels there is no either/or dichotomy because words can take on properties of images and vice versa. It is the reader, however, who must synthesize these elements to make meaning (Gillenwater, 2009).
Because graphic novels use images and text closely integrated together, reading them builds within students the same skills they need for reading websites and magazines (Boerman-Cornell, 2013).
Comics can be very effective in academic settings, especially in library instruction, due to their engaging and participatory nature, as well as their ability to model behaviours and imbed lessons within a greater narrative (Upson, 2013). They also have the potential to engage learners who may not excel or exhibit interest in library instruction or information literacy. Research has shown that students tend to prefer a comic to a PowerPoint presentation as comics are easier to use, more attractive, more useful and more useable than a PowerPoint presenting the same information (Webb, Balasubramanian, O. Broin, & Webb, 2012).
An interesting example of how comics are used to teach information literacy is the way Matt Upson and C. Michael Hall used a graphic novel during a lecture on evaluating resources to undergraduates. Students were presented with a copy of Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure by Short, Bauer, Ketchen, & Simon, to the students for examination. This work is a 300 page graphic novel textbook for management students written and designed by management professors. When given the text for evaluation, the students immediately questioned it because the item is clearly a graphic novel and not a traditional textbook. It took them some time to evaluate the resource and they still were not entirely sure they were correct in their decision to accept it as a legitimate resource for academic purposes, but they did so by asking the traditional questions about authority, purpose, and audience. This example serves to validate Duffy’s (2010) comments regarding the outsider nature of comics in the academic world, while also recognizing that students can come to question and accept comics as valid and legitimate academic texts (Upson, 2013).
Decoding information and creating new knowledge is another way comics can be of use in accruing information literacy skills. Learning how to decode involves developing an understanding of the conventions of the medium and gaining experience synthesizing image and text-based information (Hoover, 2012).
Projects and examples of how comics can teach Information literacy skills
Will Eisner produced instructional comics for the US Army and for schools from the 1950‟s to the 1970‟s. He divided instructional comics into two categories: “technical instructional comics” and “attitudinal instructional comics”. Eisner’s categories represent respectively those comics which give instruction in procedures, process, and task performance … such tasks are, in themselves, sequential in nature, and those which are useful for conditioning an attitude toward a task. These comics allow educators to create comics which speak to a broad audience and instruct on multiple levels. An example of such comics is The Cartoon History of the Universe series by Larry Gonick, a massive project which combines solid historical scholarship with effectively humorous cartooning, creating a highly accessible survey of world history. Another good example but very different from the one above is The Adventures of Johnny Bunko by Daniel H. Pink and Rob Ten Pas. This is a career guide in manga format which teaches six essential lessons about succeeding in the work place.
Matt Upson from the Emporia State University, Kansas, has developed a series of library comics to deal with the instruction of information literacy skills. Collaborating with Mike Hall, a professional writer, cartoonists and educator, and Dustin Evans, they created a unique instructional guide to their library resources. Since it was released online in April 2011, Library of the Living Dead has been downloaded over 2 million times and has been featured in numerous library publications (Upson, 2013).
The main focus was to give students the basic library skills needed to navigate through the library services whilst also arming them with information literacy skills though a fun and innovative way. The response from the student was positive and immediately evident. Following the success of their first guide, Matt and Mike developed more comics designed specifically for information literacy instruction and library advocacy.
Similarly, and following in the footsteps of Matt, Mike and Dustin, Kansas State University Salina and Kansas Wesleyan University partnered up to create a graphic novel that explains how to conduct effective library research. In this example, Heidi Blackburn, an undergraduate services librarian at Kansas State Salina, and Kate Wise, an associate Librarian at Kansas Wesleyan, worked together with Kansas State Salina student Greg Charland to develop story boards and create a graphic novel entitled: Legends of the Library Ninjas: A Quest for Knowledge, with the main aim to create an enjoyable environment where students could learn library skills and information literacy ones.
Before they embarked on this project Blackburn and Wise conducted a survey and found that 66% of students surveyed at the Salina University were very optimistic about using a graphic novel as a handbook and 54% had the same response from the Wesleyan University.
All Kansas Wesleyan University freshmen received the book during library instruction day in early September, as part of Wesleyan Challenge, a required first-year experience program. Blackburn and Wise had expected about half of the students to successfully demonstrate the skills taught in the comic, however, they were surprised by the results as over 80% on both campuses were able to successfully use Boolean search strings, and about 60% identified the online catalog as the way to find books.
Some 49% of K-State students and 73% of Kansas Wesleyan students could identify inter-library loan. Another 84% of K-State students and 65% of Kansas Wesleyan students surveyed rated the graphic novel as “awesome” or “pretty cool”. About half of the students said they would refer to the comic again in future.
Both librarians have seen increased traffic to the library that year and observed how students were behaving differently. An increase in students helping themselves to their stacks and doing self-service, rather than immediately going to the help desks was observed by both librarians (Schwartz, 2012).
Dr Carol L. Tilley, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois has worked to promote the idea of comics in libraries and classrooms for the last seven years. She has published several articles debunking the major arguments against comics made by the late psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who in the 1950s published his research in a book entitled The seduction of the Innocent. In her research Dr Tilley actually comes to the opposite conclusions of Fredric Wertham (Tilley, 2013). She has been since teaching librarians on how to build graphic novel and comics‟ collection for their libraries, and insisting on including the comic book in schools for educational resources covering multiple literacies. Focusing in particular on information literacy as a process that it always present when reading comics, she confidently promotes comics across all ages in many different subjects.
The local scene and how it can be improved
When it comes to the local picture, comics are shunned and referred to as for children and of very poor content. This idea is unfair and untrue. Like all other mediums, such as films or books, one has to search and look for the best item that fits a particular need.
Whether for entertainment or education, one cannot judge the validity of a medium by one particular product or two. In this regard, comics offer a multitude of genres that appeal to all audiences. Comics designed to teach information literacy are part of a new genre which is gaining popularity fast in academic circles. In Malta, we can adopt this new innovative way in which students are being introduced to information systems, taught how to operate within such systems and also how to be effective information literate people.
The adoption of comics and graphic novels in school curriculums is an easy step towards having an inclusion of information literacy skills in the Maltese national curriculum. Other schools and universities abroad have been experimenting with the uses of comics in an educational context for years now. Information literacy is one of the areas which benefit from the inclusion of such material in classrooms. The first step in achieving a National Information literacy strategy for Malta could be the introduction of specialised comics in schools that deal specifically with the education of such skills. Also, more national research into comics and how they can be utilised by educators to help students develop multi-modal literacy skills need to be conducted on a national scale.
Although some private schools show a sense of initiative towards the inclusion of comics in their school library and during specific classes, the majority of schools have a negative approach towards comics. Currently, I only know of two schools which allow some teachers (both of them teaching Art and History) to use graphic novels during their classes. These are St Edward’s College in Birgu and SMC Boys’ Secondary Verdala in Birgu.
The latter one even has a comics club where students can create their own comics with the assistant and supervision of a Maltese comic book author, Mr Dean Fenech author of Apocalypse Rocked. At the moment these students are in the process of publishing their own comics‟ anthology with the help of their school. Through their subjects, these teachers are also showing students how to read different models of information and how to asses it.
The response from such classes is extremely positive from all levels of students as it is also a way to include low-achieving students in an environment they are comfortable in together with the other students.
Another key element that will help in the inclusion of comics in the educational curriculum of schools and in the overall adoption of an information literacy framework through comics is to change the mentality that a lot of people have towards comics in general. The medium is as diverse as any other and scientific research has been carried out outlining its benefits in education. Also, knowing exactly what we mean by information literacy will also help in identifying the right comics or themes needed to start instilling into our society a need to be information literate.
Boerman-Cornell, B. (2013). More than comic books. Educational Leadership, 70(6), 73-77.
Combes, B. (2005), Starting at the beginning: A conversation about information literacy, Connections, vol. 54, http://www.curriculum.edu.au/scis/connections/cnetw05/54starting.htm
Doyle, A. (2008). Graphic novels: Mice in masks and ageing superheroes: Using graphic novels in the media classroom. Screen Education, (51), 68-73.
Duffy, D. (2010). Out of the margins … into the panels: Toward a theory of comics as a medium of critical pedagogy in library instruction. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A. Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 199-219). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Eisner, W. (1985, 1990). Comics and sequential art (Expanded Edition ed.). America: Poorhouse Press.
Gillenwater, C. (2009). Lost literacy: How graphic novels can recover visual literacy in the literacy classroom. Afterimage, 37(2), 33-36.
Hoover, S. (2012). The case for graphic novels. Communications in Information Literacy, 5(2), 174-186.
Jacobs, D. (2007). More than words: Comics as a means of teaching multiple literacies. English Journal, 96(3), 19-25.
James, B. C. (2007). Transforming english with graphic novels: Moving toward our “optimus prime”. The English Journal, 97(2), 49-53.
McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art [ ] William Morrow Paperbacks.
Ranaweera, P. (2008). Importance of information literacy skills for an information literate society. Naclis, Sri Lanka.
Schwartz, M. (2013). Academic librarians get graphic. Retrieved October, 20th, 2013, from lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/11/marketing/academic-librarians-get-graphic
Schwarz, G. (2006). Expanding literacies through graphic novels. The English Journal, 95(6), 58-64.
Tilley, C. L. (2013). Comic books’ real-life supervillain: Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Retrieved November, 11th, 2013, from http://boingboing.net/2013/03/04/comic-books-real-life-superv.html
Upson, M. (2013). Matt upson – librarian. Retrieved November, 7th, 2013, from http://upsonlibrarian.weebly.com/index.html
Upson, M., & Hall, C. M. (2013). Comic book guy in the classroom: The educational power and potential of graphic storytelling in library instruction. CULS Proceedings, 3, 28-38.
Webb, E. N., Balasubramanian, G., óBroin, U., & Webb, J. M. (2012). Wham! pow! comics as user assistance. Journal of Usability Studies, 7(3), 105-117.