Online and Digital Learning

Reflections on image hotspot activities for retention and e-training packages

I gratefully received feedback from the learning technology community, via the ALT Members mailing list, on my previous post on the learning that takes place through image hotspot activities. As is typical, broader issues with online learning were touched upon that are worthy of follow up and reflection. What follows draws out further discussion on image hotspot activities, mainly set as retention tasks, and contrasts to richer forms of contextualised learning.


In my previous post on image hotspot activities I focused on the accessibility constraints for some disabled learners, such as those with visual or motor impairments. I admit, I feel like I fell into the trap of only exploring the limitations of a particular technology-enhanced learning approach, rather than fully exploring the advantages it may offer for other disabled learners.

Alistair McNaught, accessibility specialist at JISC, has kindly allowed me to reproduce his advice here about how image hotspot activities, when used to convey information, can offer accessible learning for some:

  • The ability to have a lot of information delivered in small, discrete, location based chunks will benefit some visually impaired students who would otherwise be scanning up and down a magnified version of the resource between the image and the text.
  • Dyslexic learners might benefit also – they will have less scanning to do between text and image (compared to a visually impaired person using magnification), but they may have short term memory issues or issues with word recognition that makes scanning between different areas more clunky.
  • Deaf learners can struggle with working in a second language (written English) so having the text co-located with visual cues can be very helpful; although your points about image resolution are very pertinent.

Even with this insight, I remain cautious about the overuse of image hotspot activities where the learning objective is merely retention. That is to say that such non-linear or image-based forms of content presentation are but one of many ways to deliver content. A balance must be explored between text (linear) and visual (non-linear) forms of content. This should not be to the point of continually changing content types, as this would create serious discontinuity in the presentation of learning content, but a balance that allows the choice of content type to best support learners meet the learning objectives. That choice does not necessarily have to be the sole responsibility of the course designer, and indeed how content can easily (efficiently and sustainably) reform into different representations based on learner choice would be an interesting avenue to explore further.

Stretching the learner

One of the key points I raised in my previous post was the lack of learning value when image hotspot activities do little more than provide new information to remember. This stems quite strongly from my views on ‘e-training’ packages that do not challenge the learner. My exploration provided examples which demonstrate how an image hotspot task could be “up-Bloomed” (acknowledgement to Alistair McNaught for that phrasing) from simply remembering through to application and evaluation (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, 2002), to introduce challenge and require consideration of context by the learner.  

Challenge, and perhaps equally important is meaning, comes also from the situatedness of the learning. This provides the context, which is often bolted on to commercial e-training unsuccessfully through mere tweaks to wording. Very much from a situativist perspective, I would assert that learning takes place when a learner can relate the content to their practice, if not ideally undertaking ‘authentic learning activities’ (Brown et al., 1989). Activities which support thought processes that place ideas in context, thought processes which are authentic of practice, are likely to involve more complex interactions than ‘click to advance’.

However, there are clear scales of economy to be had within e-training. Information can be disseminated in a very controlled, trackable way, to the extent that designers can require a minimum completion time for e-training packages. This forces learners (much more strongly than guiding them) to spend the time, if not the cognitive energy, to engage with a specific topic. Here there are parallels between hotspot activities controlling the release of content, and the e-training model with very linear, prescriptive sequences of clicks. The missing component in both is still that connection with the context in which a learner exists and can relate.

Anecdotally, I can say that in office environments, some of the contextual learning comes from collective discussion (good or bad) about mandatory training packages. Those offline discussions, when positive, frequently express surprise about information learners were not aware of, or even debate around how the content of the e-learning package actually related to their everyday work. This type of discussion, whilst perhaps not explicitly educational in design, is certainly a learning experience situated within the practice context of the learner. Even though ‘clicky’ activities have been designed, they are positioned within a broader learning experience, albeit unintentional.

The role of storytelling

It is apt that I refer to ‘anecdotes’ above. The idea of storytelling within professional learning is not new, and I would count the above as a (cursory) example. Carter (1993) explored how stories were an emerging form of understanding for educational researchers, with  understanding grounded in different contexts:

“At one level, story is a mode of knowing that captures in a special fashion the richness and the nuances of meaning in human affairs… This richness and nuance cannot be expressed in definitions, statements of fact, or abstract propositions. It can only be demonstrated or evoked through story. From this perspective, story is a distinctive mode of explanation characterized by an intrinsic multiplicity of meanings.”

Carter (1993, p.6)

It is useful to complement this perspective with ideas from Gold (1997), who suggested that new stories are interpreted within the existing stories of an organisational culture, and this may lead them to being accepted or not. Essentially stories form part of the context of learning, as well as learning being possible through new stories. Both Gold and Carter referred to, implicitly or otherwise, narratives that are rich and tapping into personal, affective learning.

In our ALT Members mailing list discussion, Carmen Álvarez-Mayo provided a welcome reminder of the significance of storytelling, with reference to virtual reality learning situations (which I touched upon in the article as a more sophisticated image hotspot activity):

“We all love stories, our learning has been based on/ driven by meaningful stories from the beginning of time, and this is precisely what makes VR and AR such great learning tools: the learner becomes the protagonist.”

As a narrative plays out it can be incredibly immersive, and so becoming more personal to the learner. This goes a little beyond an image hotspot activity, but even within a simple two-dimensional space, the hotspots could present further images, video or audio clips. Not only does this become an opportunity to add layers of context (for example, sounds that might relate to an image), but the act of exploring or revealing information within a story may overcome the ‘click to complete’ mentality that e-training packages otherwise impose. Indeed, the idea of storytelling, a compelling narrative and provocative questions that tap into individual learners’ personal perspectives, is an underpinning philosophy behind FutureLearn’s pedagogical model for open online learning (Sharples, 2018). For clarity, these are not e-training.

A foundation of open online courses, video as a media is prevalent and whilst often not interactive, does fit into a sequence of activity (see previous post on Videos to support learning in MOOCs). I acknowledge that as a learner myself on open online courses I frequently skip over watching the talking head story, and instead read the transcript. Álvarez-Mayo’s comment on how storytelling has a role to slow down learning has given me pause for thought:

“Listening is a very important skill that, like handwriting, doesn’t seem to be practised enough. This may sound more time consuming but, in the long term, a valuable inversion in lifelong learning, professional and interpersonal skills.”

In choosing the ‘quick win’ option as a learner by reading the transcript,  I’ve not engaged with the personal storytelling approach that video is perfectly suited for. As an online learner, I am clearly going against one of the key pieces of advice that I provide learners on my own courses: to make time for learning! There are obvious contradictions here between forced duration e-training packages and learner-controlled, but nonetheless time-bound media playback.

Yet, the video is still only a transmission medium (at least within the forms of learning being discussed here, not creative learner-generated content). The activities that build upon it are still where the real learning takes place, whether that is to extract the salient points, reflect on how the stories relate to the learners’ own context, or to debate with other learners changes in viewpoint or practice in light of the video.


Image hotspots, as a form of content delivery, can be sequenced to form narratives, can be extended with media to offer choice, and should be complemented with activities that either enable transfer to learners’ own contexts or collaboration. The is a need for intentional design of image hotspot activities to sit within a bigger picture both of activity and learning design, and to support learners relate ideas to their own contexts (particularly through ‘up-Bloomed’ activities as described in my previous post).

I have focused my reflections above on the use of image hotspot tasks to meet learning objectives largely concerned with retention. Yet whether for solely retention, or retention with application, it seems clear that like any form of learning technology, image hotspots are only as effective as the activity they support.


Quotes from Alistair McNaught and Carmen Álvarez-Mayo from discussion on ALT Members closed mailing list 7 – 8 May 2019 used with permission.


  1. Bloom, B.S. (Ed.), Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
  2. Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, J. (1989). ‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’, Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
  3. Carter, K. (1993). ‘The Place of Story in the Study of Teaching and Teacher Education’, Educational Researcher, 22(1), 5-12.
  4. Gold, J. (1997). ‘Learning and story‐telling: the next stage in the journey for the learning organization’, Journal of Workplace Learning, 9(4), 133-141.
  5. Krathwohl, D.R. (2002). ‘A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview’, Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.
  6. Sharples, M. (2018). The Pedagogy Of FutureLearn: How our learners learn. Available at [Last accessed 12 May 2019].

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