Online and Digital Learning

Learning through image hotspot activities

This article aims to explore the learning that takes place through image hotspot activities. The rationale for this is to assess the learning value of such activities, and considering their often inherent inaccessibility to disabled learners, what equivalent tasks may be provided.

An image hotspot task comprises of an image where parts are clickable to reveal content or cause some form of action (proceed to next step; correct/incorrect answer; branching). They may also be known as ‘interactive images’, or (as was known in the early days of web design) ‘image maps’. A hotspot may be an area of an image (regular or irregular in shape) or an icon (such as a coloured dot). For the purposes of this article, two types of image hotspot activity are defined:

  • Visible hotspots: clicking part of an image to reveal more information about that part.
  • Hidden hotspots: clicking part of an image to indicate that part has certain attributes (for example clicking all objects that are blue).

Image hotspots as ‘meaningful learning’

Mayer’s (2001) concept of two fundamental types of learning goal as ‘retention’ (recall) and ‘transferability’ (application) provide a useful framework to review image hotspot learning tasks. Mayer described three types of learner: the first skim reads content and performs badly on retention and transfer; the second reads in detail and memorises facts, leading to good recall but poor application; the third reads in detail and engages with multimedia representations which help to explain the facts, leading to good retention and transfer to different contexts. ‘Meaningful learning’ is therefore evidenced by both good recall and ability to apply knowledge to new contexts.

Implicit within this though is that effort must be made to learn, different representations support learning and interacting with content supports learning (particularly with reference to controlling the pace of learning). Interaction between learners and content is one of three possible forms of interaction in distance learning originally suggested by Anderson and Garrison (1998; cited by Anderson, 2003).

“The value of the content is dependent on the extent to which it engages students or teachers in interaction, leading to relevant knowledge construction. There is also a direct relationship between this capacity for interaction and resulting engagement, mindfulness, and motivation.”

(Anderson, 2003)

There is a similar sentiment that connections between content and prior learning, through a constructivist paradigm and active learning, leads to positive outcomes in the same way that Mayer’s representations through multimedia may also support.

Whilst these pedagogical theories may appear quite broad, and perhaps not reflective of very modern online learning technologies or approaches, they are particularly useful to analyse the specific form of interaction between learner and content that is demonstrated through image hotspot tasks.

Procedural use of image hotspots

In typical ‘e-training’ packages, generic stock images are often used as the background for interactive tasks. Frequently, these tasks involve nothing more than clicking predetermined areas with visible hotspots revealing additional text-based information. This type of activity is aiming to control the flow of information to the learner, adopting a ‘textbook’ model. This leads to a tension between the positive effects of learners being able to control the pace of learning, set against the desire to complete which may lead to superficial engagement with the content.

However, it may be argued that such tasks do provide some connection between the revealed information and the part of the image it is connected with. There are also counterarguments against the use of generic or stock images that do not relate to realistic contexts learners might encounter. Further, the learning value of image-based tasks, that of being able to present ideas and content where space, distance, connections and relationships can be visually portrayed and have meaning, is lost as click to reveal actions often hide all other content bar the one item being viewed.

Active engagement with the image

Rather than using image hotspots to reveal information, the use of an image as a context in which a learner must apply their understanding of previously delivered content appears to be illustrative of Mayer’s ‘transferability’ learning goal. The learner must consider what is presented in the image, connecting the situation presented with their prior knowledge, and through positive or negative feedback (in the case of image hotspots for assessment) able to refine their thinking.

However, hidden hotspots provide their own challenges. Let’s take an example of a complex piece of machinery. In a training package, learners are asked to identify the possible cause of a fault by clicking on parts of the machinery. Such an image may require very detailed images to be captured (not so much the issue), but also displayed in a way that makes hotspot interactions specific enough to be meaningful. Should the display resolution not be high enough, either through device or rendering, then learners are limited at how accurate they can be identifying specific parts of an image. This restriction applies at two levels: the visual identification of a specific part and the physical ability for the learner to enact their answer.

Compounding this is the issue over accessibility of task which is dependent upon the learner analysing a visual image. Exploring this aspect of the activity design does however lead us into where the learning value of an image hotspot activity may exist.

Accessibility guidelines for image hotspot activities

For reference, the design guidelines proposed by Brown et al. (2008) are influenced by WCAG, and for hotspot images they outline:

A hotspot is any selectable area that the user can click in to navigate or perform an action.

Priority 1:

  • An indication when the cursor is over the selectable area.

Priority 2:

  • A speech representation of all hotspots.
  • A text representation near the hotspot or a textual hint on mouse over.
  • Hotspots should be of a reasonable size, larger than the image if necessary.

Whilst these address some of the accessibility issues disabled learners may face, there remains a question over whether the alternative representation (essentially, a speech representation) offers an equivalent and equal learning experience.

To explore whether an accessible alternative is equivalent, we consider the intended learning outcome and whether the equivalent enables a learner to meet that outcome.

Learning outcomes of image hotspot activities

Here are three examples of learning activities, repurposing the same image and content from a quiz question designed for the Inspiring Young People in STEM: Communication Skills for STEM Ambassadors online course. The first two examples have been mocked up using H5P, but do not form part of the course.

  1. Hotspot image: example click-through content, where learners click on hotspots to release information contextualised by the image.
  2. Find the hotspot: an example question asking learners to identify where in the room the facilitator should be to support group work.
  3. Quiz question (screenshot below): learners to identify which of a, b, c, or d (textually described as well as visually represented) is best suited for different scenarios, with feedback providing the information/justification for different room positions; the approach as used in the online course.
Quiz question from online course: Question 2. The photo below shows a typical classroom environment. There are four positions indicated: a) at the front of the room next to the main board, b) to the side of the room, c) at one of the tables, d) an open space at the back of the room.

If the learning outcome is simply to convey information (Example 1), then a couple of equivalents could be:

  • A structured Word document with the image at the top (described), and under headings a crop of part of the image relating to each hotspot with text description. This would be accessible to visually impaired learners.
  • A video walkthrough of the space, with information on screen presented in situ during the walkthrough. This would be accessible to learners with motor control impairments.

If the learning outcome is to identify, presence of an idea from the course content within a specific context (Examples 2 and 3), the possible equivalents could include:

  • Matching activities, where each of the hotspot areas is represented as a cropped image (described) and the task is to connect areas to the concepts they illustrate. This could be done using text, not necessarily drag and drop (which would not be accessible to some learners).

Yet, the issue here is that the educator is pre-determining the areas of an image for a learner to focus on by selecting cropped areas around where hotspots would be. This means that a learner is not developing the skill in identifying from a much larger context, where specific concepts are being represented.

However, we could step up the learning challenge by requiring application (Example 3) and/or explanation, rather than just identification. Interestingly, this appears to provide more accessible learning opportunities than the more simplistic descriptive and passive content delivery example. In particular, requiring explanation or justification of a decision, for example:

  • Setting a scenario (written) and asking the learner to describe what would be effective in that scenario. In this case, a specific image is not used and we risk not being able to connect the theory from course content to an applied situation.
  • Requiring an explanation of why a particular area on an image (described) is or is not exemplifying an idea.
  • Asking the learner to choose or rank three cropped areas of the image (described) and justify their answer with reference to earlier content to show application of understanding.

This learning activity that involves not simply revealing information, but applying understanding within a context, provides challenge and enables the learner to demonstrate or reshape their understanding. It is no coincidence that this type of activity works well as formative assessment.

Extending the definition of image hotspot learning activity

Image hotspots have been explored here, but virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) activities also include hotspot-type interactions. Through VR and AR there are opportunities to add content within real contexts, in a much richer and authentic environment. Even in the early days of virtual worlds such as Second Life, the hotspot was key to the revealing of new information (users would need to locate and click some static object to reveal new content).

Aside from the social and collaborative aspects of virtual worlds, De Freitas and Neumann (2009) discussed the learning value of virtual experiences, in that there are opportunities to allow learners to determine their own pathway through the environment. By enabling “greater opportunities for personalised learning experiences” there is also “potential to provide increased engagement” (De Freitas and Neumann, 2009, p.345). The argument remains then that interactivity with content supports learning, perhaps not simply by the act of clicking on something, but the motivational or gamification of learning, or perhaps the learning decision-making that learners undertake by deciding where to click, in what order and what they will do about the information they find.

Yet, there must also be consideration of how forms of content interaction misdirect learning effort. There is clearly a balance to be had between the effort that is put into a learning activity for the sake of motivation and engagement (seeking out the next hotspot to reveal) and Mayer’s definition of ‘meaningful learning’ leading to both recall and application.

The learning value of image hotspot activities

In conclusion, visible hotspots on an image to reveal information provide a means for controlling the pace of learning, both in terms of the learner activating a reveal, but also in terms of the educator forcing the learner to act to reveal further information. However, the ‘chase for the next click’ when a learner is in a ‘completion’ mind set, would lead to little meaningful interaction with the content itself. Visible hotspots for application tasks, along the lines of multiple-choice questions, give prescriptive answers, which may allow for demonstration of understanding, but equally may not replicate authentic situations. For example, a task requiring a learner to recognise hazards, the learning outcome is to identify, which has already been done with visible hotspots.

Hidden hotspots again force a learner to slow their thinking, requiring the learner to analyse the context of the image being presented, when set a task that requires identification or application. However, hidden hotspots for the purpose of revealing new information may increase engagement but would similarly suffer the risks of visible hotspots where the aim is to find the next click, rather than demand a more challenging learning engagement with the content.

The positioning of an image hotspot activity within a sequence of learning therefore seems key. Emphasis on ‘spaced and interleaved practice’ (Rohrer and Pashler, 2010) and repeated opportunities for retrieval of knowledge (Wirebring et al., 2015) is becoming stronger in educational and neuroscience research. The use of image hotspot activities to release new information must therefore be combined with further opportunities to connect the concepts being presented via the image to new contexts. Sadly, in typical training packages, the image hotspot is the first and only way that new information is provided. However, using image hotspots in contextually-driven learning activities, draws upon the multimedia learning benefits outlined by Mayer (2001) and meaningful content interactions suggested by Anderson (2003). Recall and application must be combined, though not necessarily within a specific task, they must allow the learner to practise these processes through an overall learning design.


  1. Anderson, T. (2003) Getting the mix right again: an updated theoretical rationale for interaction, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2).
  2. De Freitas, S. and Neumann, T. (2009) The use of exploratory learning for supporting immersive learning in virtual environments, Computers & Education, 52, 343-352.
  3. Mayer, R.E. (2001) Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Rohrer, D. and Pashler, H. (2010) Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies, Educational Researcher, 39(5), 406-412.
  5. Wirebring, L.K., Wiklund-Hörnqvist, C., Eriksson, J., Andersson, M., Jonsson,B. and Nyberg, L. (2015). Lesser neural pattern similarity across repeated tests is associated with better long-term memory retention, The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(26), 9595-9602.

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