5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Adding Images to Your Online Course

by Kristina Wilson


We are always looking for ways to make our courses more engaging for students. That might mean more opportunities for students to interact with each other in small groups, developing short videos with in-video quizzing, or creating an interactive map.

One way that faculty often try to make an online course more visually interesting is by adding images to slideshows, videos, and pages in the course site. But even with the best intentions, online courses can become crammed with images: clip art that adds little value, photos used without permission and in violation of copyright law, low-resolution images that are difficult to interpret, images that could be confusing to colorblind students, and images without a textual equivalent for students who use a screenreader.

So you’d like to add some images to your course. Pause. Take a deep breath.

Then ask yourself these questions to see if adding that image will embellish your course and enhance the student experience, or if it will create dissonance and distract students from important content.

1. Does it add value?

It can be tempting to illustrate your course with clipart and icons, showing two hands shaking in a section about collaboration or an image of a paintbrush in a module about art history. However, it is important to realize that selecting those images adds little value beyond a visual resting point.

In a section about business collaboration, an image showing respectful body postures in intercultural communication would provide students with additional relevant information in addition to making the page more visually interesting.

What about the module in art history? If it were about landmark paintings in the Renaissance, it would make sense to include images of those paintings along with the content, so that students can examine the content and composition.

2. Is it copyright-compliant?

It can be tempting do a Google Image Search and select the first appropriate image. However, it is likely that the images you select this way will not comply with copyright law for reproduction in an online class.

Here are a few techniques to help you select copyright-compliant images.

  • Use a Creative Commons stock photo website like Pixabay or Creative Commons community like Flickr Commons to source your images.
  • If you must do a Google Image Search, be sure to select Tools > Usage Rights > Labeled for Reuse from underneath the search bar. That will limit your search results to images that can be reproduced in your course site, either with or without attribution.
  • Still not finding what you want? Work with the distance learning staff to select images from a paid stock photo library, BigStock.
  • Don’t settle for less than the best! The Distance Learning staff can turn your ideas for infographics and images into reality by designing custom images–which won’t violate any copyright regulations.

Check out this blog post on Copyright and Fair Use for an in-depth look at how to select and cite images.

3. Is the resolution high enough?

So you’ve found just the right image; it adds value and is copyright-compliant. The next step is to make sure that the image is an appropriate size for your course.

Students will view your course on many different platforms, from their cell phone or tablet to laptop or dual-display desktop. It’s important that the images you select have a high enough resolution to scale well across these multiple forms. Otherwise, they’ll be pixelated–not just unprofessional, but often unusable–if students view them with a magnification tool or browser shortcut for preference or accessibility.

Generally speaking, bigger is better! I set my personal minimum at 500 x 500 pixels. Many websites provide an option to download different sizes of images. If given an option, choose the largest one.

4. Will it make sense to colorblind students?

The content is great, it’s legal to use, and it’s large enough to be seen clearly across multiple platforms. The next litmus test is to consider whether it will make sense to students who are colorblind.

The best way to ensure this is for key colors to be accompanied by a texture. For instance, a bar graph with a red bar and a green bar might look very similar to a student who is colorblind. But if the red bar is patterned with diamonds and the green bar is patterned with dots, they could be more easily distinguished.

For examples of images that could potentially be confusing and information on selecting images that successfully convey information to colorblind students, check out the blog post Seeing Differently: Designing for Students with Colorblindness and Low Vision.

5. How will I provide a textual equivalent?

While this is the last criteria on this list, providing a textual equivalent should be on your mind from the very beginning. For students who are vision impaired or have low vision, it may be difficult or impossible to perceive images in the course site. However, it is very important that these students be able to have an educational experience equivalent with that of students who can see.

How is that accomplished? By providing a textual equivalent for the image, either as a description in the surrounding text, alt-text (alternative text that is coded into an image so that it can be read with a screenreader), or a transcript (for complex images that require a long description). Check out the How do I make my images accessible? page on the Distance Learning website for more information on the differences between these techniques and how to implement them in your course.


If you’re thinking about incorporating images into your online class and would like additional guidance, please contact your Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist. We would be pleased to assist you!

2 responses to “5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Adding Images to Your Online Course

  1. This is a nice post on 5 important things that a graphic designer should consider before going to edit images. These points are very helpful to me.  I didn’t know the all tips earlier. Thanks.

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