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Improving Students' Visual Literacy

Today's culture has become so visual that teachers and students get considerable information from visual elements. These visual elements are increasingly appearing in teaching and learning resources, delivered across a range of media in a variety of formats: textbooks, multimedia presentations, computer tutorials, television programs, and Web resources (Sims et al., 2002). Visual information usually comes in the form of line drawings, photographs, maps, diagrams, flowcharts, graphs, time lines, geometrical figures, and Venn diagrams.
Educators believe that using visual treatments helps learners to explore meanings clearly, directly, and easily, and yields positive results (Chanlin, 1998). For example, students can learn the word "spoon," but to look at a spoon communicates so much more. By looking at the spoon, students can read the history of eating, utensils, materials, civilization, culture, and habits (Bleed, 2005).
Visual literacy, learning, and technology
Wileman (1993) defines visual literacy as “the ability to read, interpret, and understand information presented in pictorial or graphic images” (p.114). He describes the ability to turn information into pictures as “visual thinking” (p.114). However, if literacy is reading and writing, Brill, Kim, and Branch (2000) believe that visual literacy is the ability to interpret, and generate or select images for communicating ideas and concepts. They indicated that a visually literate learner should be able to make sense of visible objects, and create static or dynamic visible objects. More specifically, Roblyer and Bennett (2001) explained that a visually literate learner should be able to:
  • Interpret, understand, and appreciate the meaning of visual messages.
  • Communicate more effectively through applying the basic principles and concepts of visual design.
  • Produce visual messages using the computer and other technology.
  • Use visual thinking to conceptualize solutions to problems (p. 9).
Roblyer and Bennett emphasized the need to develop appropriate selection, production, and evaluation strategies, and provide learners with the principles of visual communication, which can then be put into practice in a variety of settings, activities, and subject areas to improve the above visual literacy skills. Stokes (2002) agreed that students need to learn how to communicate using visual language, and know terms such as composition, foreground, and background in order to talk about images. Students need to be able to describe everything that they see and apply critical thinking to images in the same way they apply critical thinking to text.
Two major approaches have been suggested for developing visual literacy skills (Heinich et al., 1999). The first is to help learners decode (read) visuals through practicing analysis techniques. Decoding involves interpreting and creating meaning from visual stimuli. The second is to help them encode (compose) visuals as a tool for communication.
Decoding of visual messages can be improved by asking questions, such as: What does this image mean to me? What is the relationship between the image and the displayed text message? How is this message effective? Similar questions are asked during visual message creation as well: How can I visually depict this message? How can I make this message effective? What are some visual/verbal relationships I can use? (Riesland, 2005). Riesland believes that once students internalize these questions, they will not only be able to encode and decode visual messages, but will also be prepared to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through multimedia-dependent and modern work environments.
Research has explored the relationship between learning and technology, and indicated that recent technologies like computers and the Internet have changed teaching and learning practices, and provided learners with more responsibilities and opportunities for their learning to innovatively locate and use resources to construct meaning (Sims et al., 2002). The World Wide Web, for example, as a graphical user interface application requires skills for recognizing navigation elements, controlling menus, and reading images in order to derive meaning from what is being communicated. In addition, photo-editing tools have made it easy for anyone to create or manipulate images, and to disseminate those images more widely than at any point in history.
In addition, the growth of image-rich resources is due in part to the wide availability of graphics software, and digital image management and sharing Web applications that facilitate the creation, storage, dissemination, and exchange of images (Sims et al., 2002). Inexpensive storage and widely available dissemination methods have made digital images a convenient and easily available information format (Chen, 1999). During the past three years, a new generation of Web-based applications for collaboration and community building has emerged, providing Web users with a tremendous capability to connect with and share a variety of resources. Among these social applications are photo-sharing applications.