Reviewed by
Janie Smieszek
November 1997

Rieber, L. P. (1994). Computers, graphics, & learning. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Communications, Inc.

In this well-written, comprehensive book, Rieber considers the importance of each of the three topics (computers, graphics, and learning) and then how they relate to each other. The author acknowledges that, for the most part, attempts at applying visuals in instructional materials are usually haphazard; and, therefore, wrote this book to distill the most essential topics dealing with computers, graphics, and learning. He also includes references for readers to further their studies in each of the three areas.

The first of the topics begins with an overview of instructional computer graphics. This leads into an overview of the status of instructional visual research including discussions on visual perception, visual cognition, and theories on storing visual information in short-term and long-term memory. More practical application information is found in the next few chapters covering when and how static and animated graphics should be integrated into computer based instruction. The book concludes with a consideration of the role visuals play with multimedia.

I found the book to be not only filled with useful information, but also exceedingly well organized. This is an author who applies his knowledge. Each chapter begins with a brief overview, followed by instructional objectives for both comprehension and application. Without the addition of practice questions or problems, I could not understand how application objectives could have been included; though the author did mention the need for external sources. The content is further organized with section headings and subheadings. Contained within are illustrative materials, judiciously used, and information boxes of separate discussions and exercises. To complete this organization is a review section at the end of every chapter highlighting the most important facts.

The useful information of each chapter is delivered with a cautious and wise nature. Rieber introduces his book with the first principle of instructional graphics, which I found to be very insightful. It reads, "There are times when pictures can aid learning, times when pictures do not aid learning but do no harm, and times when pictures do not aid learning and are distracting." The general premise throughout the book is that learning is paramount and should take center stage. He further warns the instructional designer about becoming "technocentric" (this is where technology dictates decision making) and recommends that media decisions not be made until other instructional decisions are made. Again and again, from chapter to chapter, the reader is reminded of this underlying premise which made this book particularly effective.

Another strength was the comprehensive nature of the book. There was an excellent balance of theory, research, and application to ensure the reader will gain the knowledge for appropriate integration of graphics into instructional materials. The theoretical information covers the role of visuals in communication and education, quoting many research sources for validation. There is an overview of three types of instructional graphics (representational, analogical, and arbitrary) and an analysis of their possible use in Gagneís domains of learning. Rieber states that the design of instructional graphics is strongly influenced by the inter-relationships and interdependency of the five domains. To help the reader choose the correct graphic for the job intended, a section describing the five applications of instructional graphics (cosmetic, motivation, attention-gaining, presentation, and practice) is included. It is recognized that these applications originated from Gagne's nine events of instruction.

Gagne is not the only theorist discussed. There is also a discussion on the major features of behavioral and cognitive learning theories related to the use of instructional graphics. Given the comprehensive nature of the book, a section on motivation complete with a discussion of John Keller's ARCS model also finds a place alongside the theoretical material.

To lend to the credibility of the information, two complete chapters are devoted to recent research on static and animated graphics. A review on how to interpret instructional research is included for the reader in need. I thought this was another example of the excellent user interface of this book. The reader will surely come away with knowledge of the conditions under which pictures should or should not help the learning process.

In some instances theory is combined with application. "Instructivism" is compared to "constructivism" in theory and practice when Rieber illustrates the use through one of his own computer based programs. Even though this gives the reader a pragmatic look at a real application, I admit I was disappointed by the amateurish nature of the program.

There is more practical type information with an overview of the production of computer graphics for instruction. It goes into enough detail for the novice to learn the difference between raster and vector graphic displays and to learn the three main approaches to producing computer graphics. This seemed to be just enough details needed by the non-graphic designer. Also within the book is a chapter examining the basic principles of designing graphics. This was a particularly useful chapter as it listed the do's and don'ts with equal attention given to the why's and why not's.

Computers, Graphics, & Learning was not written explicitly about user interface design, but many lessons from the book can be applied. For instance, the principle of not including graphics if they are distracting is a sound principle of good user interface - to not distract the user with extraneous stimulus. The proper application of graphics speaks to the presentation of user interface tools, metaphors, and icons. If these are not properly designed elements, they can detract from the usefulness of the interface. Basic principles in developing instructional graphics play a role in visual momentum, which is keeping a userís interest across successive displays. There are lessons on rapid prototyping that promotes testing the materials to find out the users reactions and interpretations. Also discussed are frame and procedural protocols, which is the consideration of one frame or a series of related frames. The first principle of this book - to use graphics judiciously - can also apply to user interface design. When graphics are used in instructional material, they should reflect the programís purpose. The messages are basically the same. Be careful how you choose to use graphics.

Computers, Graphics, & Learning fully met my expectations, providing me with relevant principles to guide my choice of instructional graphics. I would definitely recommend this as a must-have for every graduate student of instructional design.

References
Rieber, L. P. (1994). Computers, graphics, & learning. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Communications, Inc.