Tuesday 24 February 2015

The cover image for a module as information

It has reached the stage where the TM353: IT systems: planning for success  module team needs to choose a cover image for the printed booklets. This is more difficult and fraught than you might imagine!

But here's some thoughts on it, using my 'trapezium' formulation as explored in Chapman 2014. Looking at the image is an information event ("a situated event that generates meaning"). Any information can always be interpreted both as semantic information and as environmental information.

As semantic information, it is about communication and therefore there has to be a source. In this case the source is the module team selecting the image (see below), and the image as 'data' carries the message to the recipient.

The trouble is that this model assumes that the recipient interprets the data 'correctly', which is to say the two trapeziums are perfectly matched. But of course they never are. Even if the recipient is the same person (same people) as the source (so the communication is storage, and communication is through time rather then space), the recipient will have had more experiences so will never interpret the data in the same way twice (you can never step in the same river twice).

So this leads to the alternative model of environmental information. The recipient is always creating meaning from the data.

So, in the case of us choosing the cover image, we can try to chose one to communicate a message, but - especially since there are lots of different recipients some of whom are in rather different contexts from the context that we are in - the recipient will inevitably get a different message from the one we intend.

So, does this help us choose an image? Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the images used on past modules that I've worked on, and here are a few of them - all 'telecoms/comms' modules.

The first two date from around 1990.  In both cases, the module team were thinking in terms of 'networks'.  Would have got that?  I don't know whether the students would have. What I do think they have going for them, though, is that they are distinctive, and so after having seen them once,  I think the 'message' becomes 'this is PT629' and 'This is T322', which is surely not a bad thing!

There is a (quite) interesting story about the second of these, the red one of T322.  If I remember the story right, the module chair, Gaby Smol, had in mind a painting by Mondrian which he thought had in it the idea of networks, but when he tried to track it down couldn't find it. So the artist for the module (ie the person who did all the diagrams) created something along the lines of what Gaby thought he'd seen, and this resulted in the 'tree' on the cover.

Next up T305, from around 1999. For this, we were thinking in terms of layers to link to the OSI 7-layer model of protocols, and TCP/IP layers, and the general idea of layering as a way of structuring communication processes. We wondered about archeological layers and sediments, and armed with that idea, the artist came up with the following. 

One thing that worked well with this, the T305 image, is that we had three different types of booklets for this module ("Systems and Processes" booklets, "Activity Booklets" and a "Reference Book").  The same image was used for each type, but in a different colour. Above was a Systems and Processes book and below is the Reference Book.

I know this was useful for students because they'd refer to them by colour in the forums.

Next up is T822, around 2003. This was back to the idea of networks again, and we also made use of colour coding because a companions module, T823, used the same design with a red and blue combination.

By the time we came to T325 in 2009. the University was trying to encourage a more consistent brand image, and wanted photographs containing people, hence the following.

This is fine,  but I think it loses some of the distinctiveness of the earlier abstract images. Also, as soon as you put people on the covers, you get in to the perilous territory of stereotypes, tokenism, political correctness, exclusivity... 

Personally, I much prefer the abstract covers. The 'Mondrian' of T322 and the layers of T305 are my favourites and I think they did job they needed do. Would the students (or anyone else seeing them) have got the messages that the module team had in mind? Probably not. Did that matter? No, I don't think so. At least they wouldn't have got the wrong message...  and I think they would have got some sort of message about the module being, I don't know, serious but friendly? Maybe that it has some subtlety to it?

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