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Graphic Storytelling: Engaging and Educating in a New Medium

The ancient technique of using pictures to tell stories gains traction in the classrooms of the internet age.

Dan Popowich, Professor at Mohawk College, believes that it is essential for educators to evolve in order to meet the needs of their students. “Education, like Anthropology, is survival of the fittest. I was faced with Darwinism and I didn’t want to become extinct.”

Along with fellow professor Alan Bourke, these two forward thinking individuals have been driving innovation in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, exploring different avenues and new technologies to engage their students. Bourke and Popowich realize that students and their needs have changed exponentially in the last decade.

“The change has been dramatic, especially with the development of on-line teaching and learning platforms,” says Alan Bourke, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, author and visual artist. “Students have changed. Students are learning in diverse ways and professors must try to accommodate to different types of learning styles. Now they sit in class with tablets and cell phones.”

“If we reflect what students see on television, we need to match that technology in the classroom,”adds Popowich.


Dan Popowich
“Lectures are a performance. I like to see their lights come on and by the end of the first class they are leaving and saying, ‘Thanks that was awesome,’”
Dan Popowich

Popowich, who is also an author and textbook development reviewer, has been with Mohawk for 12 years and recalls using an overhead projector in his early lectures. “I would sketch images that I could create a discussion about. Then we started using PowerPoint.”

Rather than creating a PowerPoint presentation that was inundated with writing, he used a combination of text and pictures. Next, Popowich added a little bit of humour to his presentation slides with great response from his students. “Lectures are a performance. I like to see their lights come on and by the end of the first class they are leaving and saying, ‘Thanks that was awesome,’” says Popowich. “There is no greater reward than students expressing their gratitude.”

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until his son became interested in graphic novels that Popowich realized the effect that varying teaching strategies can have on individuals. “My son brought home a mythological graphic novel and I started getting into the content with him. I understood more about the way he learns when we took a family trip to Greece. He was our tour guide and recalled the mythological Gods from the graphic novels he had read,” states Popowich.

Immediately, Popowich brought the idea of using graphic novels in lectures back to the College. Bourke, who has an art background, was very receptive to the idea. “For the students, graphic novels take an intimidating topic and helps demystify it,” explains Bourke. Bourke finds the use of graphic novels in the classroom beneficial for both teachers and students. “As a professor, it can help me achieve my learning outcomes by differentiating the mode of instruction and how I deliver the information. I use the visual and textual elements of graphic novels as a way to present information to and engage with students on line. Graphic novels make the lectures visually appealing and are an effective and useful balance,” says Bourke.

Their commitment to innovation is one of the reasons why Popowich is recognized internationally when he attends conferences. “They see the name Mohawk College on my name tag and know exactly where I am from,” states Popowich. Mohawk College, who is renowned for their innovation, has continued to move in a forward motion with help from professors like Dan Popowich and Alan Bourke.

Popowich jokes that Neanderthals came up with the concept. “They weren’t predicting the future,they just weren’t the greatest communicators,” he explains.

With an open door policy to students and a commitment to out of the box teaching, Bourke and Popowich will ensure that Mohawk’s Humanities and Social Sciences department remains on course and in-line with educational trends and effective teaching strategies.

So what is next for Popowich and Bourke? “Game Based Learning (Gamification) is underway, as is the continued development in the virtual technology and applying a ‘Create Your Own Adventure, element to courses,” states Popowich. Unlike the Neanderthals, with Bourke and Popowich at the helm, innovation will prevail and continue to be a focus in education at Mohawk College.

This article was originally published in Quanta, Mohawk College’s annual celebration of research and innovation.

Author Jill Tham is a freelance writer and educator who writes frequently about people making waves in their profession and in their communities. 

About Mohawk

Mohawk College educates and serves 30,000 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three campuses and two City School locations at the Eva Rothwell Resource Centre and the Central Public Library in Hamilton, Ontario. Mohawk has ranked first among all Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area colleges in student satisfaction for seven consecutive years and first in graduate satisfaction for the past five years. Mohawk ranks 15th among all colleges in Canada for applied research activity and has been named among Canada’s greenest employers and the region’s top employers for the past three years.