Finding and Creating Images for Online Courses

Three professional tennis players returning or serving the ball in three different photos.

Images can shape the narrative of your online course and affect students’ learning. Bruning et al. (2011) recommend imagery as a way to encode information. The three most important things to consider when selecting an image are copyright, inclusion, and purpose. Your school’s librarian can help you navigate the copyright and fair use practices; otherwise, review the US government site on Fair Use for specific information.

For inclusion, consider the cognitive, cultural, and physiological needs of your learners (Holeton, 2020). For example, in the tennis images above, used for a college physics course module on motion, I considered gender and ethnicity for the example. Otherwise, ensure your individual images collectively represent diverse peoples, places, and things. Overall, we should be interrogating our own practices in course development to reduce bias reflected in image selection.

For purpose, your images should be germane to the topic of study instead of a distraction (Sweller et al.,1998). Consider whether the images will enhance the learners’ understanding. For more information on this, read my blog on how to design media for how we learn.

Sources for Images

There are many different sources of images that you can use for educational purposes. One of my first ideas was to grab the free ones from Getty Images that you can embed on your site; however, I ran into issues with the embed not showing on the learning management system’s mobile app (i.e., Moodle) so be aware of the learners’ experiences on various platforms. Here’s a cursory list of free sources for current and historical images:

If you use Google to search for a term, select the Images tab on the result’s page. Then select the Tools tab>Usage Rights tab>Creative Commons License to find those which you can use freely. See screenshot below of my Google search for the Statue of Liberty.

Screenshot of Google search results for an image of the Statue of Liberty.

Always cite the images of others. If you don’t know the source of an image, use Google Reverse Image Search or TinEye to determine its origin.

Images for Complex Topics

Here are some image ideas for learning modules that have complex topics:

  • word cloud from lecture transcript,
  • freeze-frame from documentary,
  • related art,
  • photographs of historical leaders, or
  • a combination for a collage.

The figure below is a triptych of freeze frames from a documentary film and includes a citation within the image. This practice falls within the Fair Use and copyright laws of using a small amount for educational purposes that do not reduce the market value of the product. The banner image was used for a module on conceptualizing race and ethnicity for a socio-cultural anthropology online college course.

Last, crowdsourcing images from your students is a great way to include different perspectives. Students can share their photos and the stories behind them through online discussion posts or curation tools such as Pinterest, ScoopIt, Paperli (for curating tweets on Twitter), or Padlet. For example, students at the University of California-Los Angeles are assigned photo walks on campus or in the community to discover and share on a particular topic. 

Three freeze frames from the documentary about Frantz Fanon; two show him as a character, the third shows a Muslim woman with a burka with another woman's face without any coverings and wearing earrings superimposed on her face.

Here are some free resources for creating images from text, manipulating existing images with text and illustrations, or capturing 360 images for virtual reality (VR):

Learn more about the use of VR images in my blog post on Google Cardboard. What are some of your sources of great images? Cartoon or Gif generators? What are your questions and concerns?


Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., & Norby, M. M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Pearson.

Holeton, R. (2020). Toward inclusive learning spaces: Physiological, cognitive, and cultural inclusion and the Learning Space Rating System.

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

Instructional Designer

P.S. Thanks to my colleague, Robert R. Hold, at the University of California-Berkeley for his assistance in creating the triptych banner images shown above.


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