Out of Stock: Should We Refrain from Stock Photos in E-Learning?

Stock photos are ridiculed so often that the complaints and jokes about them seem to be almost as common in business communication as the pictures themselves. (If you do not happen to know any of those wonderful examples, you may find a few here and here.) Stock photos are usually considered to be stereotypical and stale. And still, they are used a lot. A recent movie, Unfinished Business, took up on this. When it was released, its PR material included complimentary stock photos featuring the actors Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco. E-learning also often draws on these inevitable images. So, how evil are they when it comes to learning? And do we need pictures at all for learning?


Smiling business man sitting at his computer desk

Why should we use pictures?

Generally speaking, you are certainly right to believe that people learn better when information is presented through words AND pictures as opposed to words only. This is called the multimedia principle (Mayer). This principle applies to retention, but is even more potent for transfer of learning and problem solving (Butcher 179).

Pictures help to attract attention. Reactions to Tweets and Facebook postings teach us: Those with pictures receive decidedly more views: “Content with relevant images gets 94 percent more views than content without”. Moreover, much more than words, pictures are able to elicit emotions, an aspect that advertising has long discovered and exploited. Pictures thus also help you to connect with your audiences. What we also know: Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text. All of these aspects speak in favour of using pictures in learning. Yet, there are a few things to be kept in mind…

Business team enjoying victory

How should we use pictures?

Just using any picture next to text may actually be detrimental. First, think of your learners. Those with little prior knowledge may benefit from pictures the most (Schnotz 88). If learners already know much about the subject of the training and are able to understand it without pictures, adding photographs in this case might actually make learning less efficient as the pictures unnecessarily use up cognitive capacity. For those among you interested in a little theory, this is called the “redundancy principle” (Schnotz 88-89).

Interestingly, people usually learn better if pictures are accompanied by spoken, not written text. In this way, two different cognitive channels are used thus increasing the capacity for information intake. However, here you also have to watch out: If the verbal information is complex, e.g. if you have long sentences, specific terminology, a difficult and long process to explain or learners with a different mother tongue, it might be better to use written text. Thus, learners can re-read phrases and pace the information intake themselves (Schnotz 90-91).

Moreover, the pictures used should match the content of the text. If they do not, they will confuse and distract learners (Schnotz 89). Also where and when you present a picture is important: It is best to put it in close proximity to the verbal information it relates to (Schnotz 89). Show the picture before the text is audible or visible so that learners have the chance to look at it first and use it as a structure for the subsequent verbal information intake (Schnotz 91).

And which pictures?

Now that we know why and how to use pictures in e-learning, we come to the question: Which pictures should we actually use? Of course, we know about these handy databases with stock photos galore out on the web. Yet, pictures are not very useful for learning if they are not task-appropriate (Schnotz 92-3). This speaks against stock photos as they are often generic images, not specific to the situation of the employee or the organisation. These generic pictures may be decorative but may distract learners and catch little of their attention (Schnotz 96). In fact, they are rather overlooked as eye tracking studies have shown. So why spend money on pictures that are not even seen?

Well, decorative pictures can also “[induce] better mood, alertness, and calmness in the learner” (Schnotz 96). In fact, when instructional pictures were supplemented by decorative ones, they had a greater impact on learners than when used on their own. This effect was particularly strong when learners had little prior knowledge (Schnotz 96).

The bigger picture shows: Stock photos are better than their reputation. You should not use them as the only visuals in your e-learning. If they are supplements to pictures that are specific and highly relevant to the task at hand, they may support your learners a lot. Consequently, you do not have to do without the pictures from the databases. Yet, be careful to be “well-stocked”.

Works Cited

Butcher, Kirsten R. “The Multimedia Principle.” The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard E. Mayer. Cambridge: CUP, 2014. 174-205.

Mayer, R. E. Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Schnotz, Wolfgang. “Integrated Model of Text and Picture Comprehension.” The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard Mayer. Cambridge: CUP, 2014. 72-103.