Lessons Learned from Semiotics: Social and Cultural Landmarks for Transformative Elearning

Lessons Learned from Semiotics: Social and Cultural Landmarks for Transformative Elearning

Ruth Gannon Cook (DePaul University School for New Learning, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-046-4.ch019


The primary purpose of this study is to see if graphic enhancements and navigation could enhance learning and reduce cognitive load to make it easier for at-risk, lower socio-economic, and ethnic self-identity groups of students to have a positive experience in online courses and increase the likelihood they will succeed in online degree programs. Using metaphors, signage, such as parietal art, and icons to provide congruency in the design and navigation of these programs could help students break down inhibitions and mediate new content and technology experiences with their existing knowledge. The study uses appreciative inquiry and development design methodologies to examine whether embedded semiotics and carefully designed metaphors could help students in the online courses feel more comfortable and increase the likelihood of their course completion. The findings of the study support the use of icons, metaphors and other forms of semiotics to transfer and mediate prior knowledge with new content knowledge, particularly in elearning.
Chapter Preview


Paleolithic educators used pictures, symbols, and stories to convey hunts, customs, and legacies. These ancient semiotic tools transmitted meaning to all observers long before there were written texts. There were even patterns in the art, horses first (representing spring), aurochs (summer), then stags (winter); menacing predators, such as bears and lions, were relegated to drawings in the back recesses of the cave. Today, parietal (cave) art still resonates because it reminds us of man’s journey through time and of our place in the universe. While rich in traditions, the iconography and the accompanying myths have been relegated to history; few lessons have been retained, let alone taught, from these ancestral lessons. Yet there still seems to be “a symbolic, cultural dimension to organizational life…the symbolic or cultural dimension of organizational life motivates members…provides direction and a degree of cohesion within a group” (Donmoyer, 1997, p.2). The social dimensions of learning (Anderson, Reder & Simon, 1996) are both historical and prescient. Sacred texts, heroes, signs and signals still have meaning, yet today, with so much information and education available online to hundreds of thousands of students, there has been little attention paid to semiotics in instructional design, or why these emblems and stories of the past that resonated with the so many of the generations have been ignored. Accordingly, because there seemed to be little research on the effects of semiotics in instructional design, the objective of the study was to examine pansemiotics to assess whether symbolic devices embedded in online courses could have positive subconscious influences on students’ learning and course completion.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Electronic learning (e)learning: A term used for instruction delivered electronically.

Online Learning: Also called electronic (e)learning, distance education and distance learning.

Voice over the Internet Protocol (VOIP): A telephone-type of audio communications tool that is available over the Internet.

Podcasts: A digital media files (either audio or video) that are recorded by one or more parties and are periodically posted to a website, such as I-Tunes or U-Tube.

Intersubjective social relations: A number of social interactions between two or more people, each performing her or his social role.

Parietal art: Cave art, usually prehistoric, dating as far back as 18,000 years ago. Parietal art can be found all over the world, from Africa, Asia, Australia to North and South America.

Semiotics: “Study of patterned human communication behavior, including auditory/vocabulary, facial expressions, body talk, touch (proxemics), signs, and symbols” (Webster, 1989, p.1324).

Web 2.0: A trend in Internet technology, a second generation of web-based services, such as podcasts, wikis, blogs, voice over the Internet (VOIP), web conferences, and other new technologies, and refers to the ways that users and developers have changed the original web offerings.

Pansemiotics: A term used for signs, symbols, and representational language across disciplines and studies, from anthropology, science, mathematics, technology, philosophy, art, computer systems, language, gestures and other sign systems, including genetic code.

Proxemics: A term used to imply extension of extensions of arms, limbs, or senses, which could include psychological or technological tools.

Tool mediation: A term coined by Lev Vygotsky (Wertsch, 1985) who suggested that the primary tools of activities, represented in signs and symbols, acted as agents for, and subsequently provided definition for, culture, and served as intervening links to consciousness. Use of these tools was what Vygotsky called tool mediation which was the interface or liaison to consciousness.

Social Constructivism: A theory of how social phenomena develops within cultural and specific social situations. Social constructivism is the product or artifact of each society or civilization.

Interactivity: The communication between teacher and students and among students themselves and, in online courses, can be in discussion conferences, voice over Internet (VOIP), telephone, streamed (real-time transmission) video, or using other technologies.

Distance learning (DL): Another term used for distance education, a planned teaching and learning experience that is conducted using a wide variety of technologies via on-ground and electronically at remote sites.

Blogs: (also called weblogs) Websites that are styled similarly to newsgroup postings or discussion conferences and are maintained by an individual with ongoing postings and commentaries.

Distance Education (DE): A planned teaching and learning experience that is conducted using a wide variety of technologies via on-ground and electronically at remote sites.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: