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Visual Literacy and the Classroom

by Erin Riesland

Although the definition of literacy remains a hotly contested topic among educators and researchers, it is hard to deny that technology is driving the debate. While reading and writing will most likely remain at the heart of standard literacy education, educators should reconsider what it means to be literate in the technological age. The New London Group, a cohort of educators and researchers interested in examining the teaching of new literacies, explains literacy this way: "one could say that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life." (1996)

Multimedia, or new media, is changing the way society communicates in the virtual and real world. One major transition is the Microsoft PowerPoint takeover of nearly every office boardroom and college lecture hall. PowerPoint's saturation has created the sudden need for every office meeting or group gathering to show dynamic multimedia presentations, regardless of content. This kind of ubiquitous availability of technology crosses over to the classroom as well. More and more students are turning to PowerPoint or equivalent programs for classroom presentations. These students are pushing their classmates to compete and setting classroom precedents. The speed at which technology is altering classroom communication is overwhelming. The time to address visual media literacy is now.

Currently, in high schools across the country, many students are expected to present complex visual ideas using a variety of multimedia applications without serious direct instruction. Student ability to "participate fully in public, community, and economic life" is quickly being redefined through emerging technology. Anyone who has suffered through an 8pt text-jammed PowerPoint presentation can recognize the delicate balance between verbal and visual. As we move to an increasingly visually-dominated culture (Kress, 1998), where students are expected to code and decode complex messages in a variety of media, shouldn't literacy instruction include visual media as well?

Redefining literacy
The broad field of visual literacy is loosely defined in this paper as the ability to communicate and understand through visual means. The New London Group has included in their "Pedagogy of Multiliteracies" a definition of literacy that includes the "understanding and competent control of representational formats that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word-- for instance, visual design in desktop publishing or the interface of visual and linguistic meaning in multimedia."(1996) By educating students to understand and communicate through visual modes, teachers empower their students with the necessary tools to thrive in increasingly media-varied environments. The definition of literacy is outdated and that the new definition must account for the technologically evolving landscape. For example, if students are to successfully meet the demands of new literacy, they must be able to navigate and communicate through evolving mediums such as hypermedia.

Hypertext/Hypermedia
Hypertext is most commonly seen and was developed in the 60s as a way to creatively link text together. Hypermedia expands the term hypertext (where the word or media is a link that can be navigated to explore the idea behind the link further,) to include audio-visual as well as written media. Because hypermedia is non-linear in nature and reflects a more genuine thinking style in the way each link can take the reader in many directions, hypermedia reading differs greatly from print reading. The increase in student use of online hypermedia for serious information gathering is altering the way students read and collect information, and will ultimately alter the way students write. Hypermedia writing/design challenges the student to organize compositions that give up sequential control of the text all the while struggling to integrate poignant illustrations through a variety of visual media. The audience or reader of hypermedia text is free to customize and tailor their experience according to interests and needs. Most hypermedia texts are designed for online display and therefore prompt the student to write and design specifically for an audience. Typeface size, style, color and page layout all must be considered, yet most students have no idea where to begin. What remains the cornerstone of hypertext is the reader/writer relationship where ultimately the reader takes on the role of the writer/designer. This shift is fundamentally changing the way generations to come will think about books, reading, and writing-- it cannot be ignored in the classroom much longer.

Hypermedia work has been observed in the classroom with compelling results. Garthwait's (2001) experiment using a basic hypermedia design program was well received by students who were excited by the idea of implementing visual and sound elements into texts. Some students displayed high level graphics manipulation using skills they taught themselves, an indicator of high motivation. Other students began working with color to organize thoughts in a pleasing manner. The overt visual nature of creating these texts reinforces the attention visual literacy deserves. Moreover, it is the visual nature of classroom projects like these that is alluring to children.

Traditionally, writers use language to convey ideas and metaphors while drawing upon images and graphs to reinforce writing. Kress has demonstrated a shift in science textbooks revealing the switch from visuals that support text explanations to text that supports visual explanations. Kress argues that graphics hold more meaning and are central to the meaning of modern texts and meaning-making systems. Hammerberg (2001) notes the increase in children's books that are interactive through sound or visual cues. These new books incorporate non-linear elements similar to hypermedia. Hammerberg argues that these visual and non-linear shifts indicate a disparity between what children read and what they are taught to write. "In the same way that instruction can take place on the conceptual level of the alphabet, instruction can also take place on the conceptual level of textual design and ever-shifting perspectives (e.g., hypertext.)" Young students are primed through experience to negotiate complex multimedia environments, however the disconnect in literacy education remains.

Visual Literacy and the Media
As students learn to decode hypermedia, they are also learning how to decode advertising. Visual literacy education should prepare students at a young age for the onslaught of advertising they will be exposed to during their lifetime. The immediate examples of seemingly innocuous sites are numerous: Nickelodeon advertises their commercial programming and includes shopping links. Zoog Disney seamlessly ties in merchandising links with its interactive programming. AOL Instant Messenger, a growing favorite among youngsters, is continually employing new pop-up advertising techniques. This kind of complete advertising integration transforms students' budding view of the world. "Their participation in global media culture shapes the way they communicate and the kinds of social identities they take on. It informs how they present themselves to others and their understandings about the social groups and communities to which they might conceivably belong." (Nixon, 2003)

Advertisers understand how to reach youngsters (and really, just about anyone) far better than educators. Professional visual communicators hold the power when communicating in the modern media image-centric environment. Just as the visual language of point and click and scroll has become transparent and embedded into modern culture, so have the messages to buy Coke and shop at the Gap. Why should we continue to let advertisers teach our children how to see while we hold ourselves ignorant to their methods?

Visual Literacy in the Classroom
Integrating visual literacy instruction into classroom curriculum begins by asking a few key questions to spark the critical thinking process. Professional visual communicators evaluate visual messages by asking: What am I looking at? What does this image mean to me? What is the relationship between the image and the displayed text message? How is this message effective? Just as professionals ask critical questions of messages they examine, students should be just as critical of the messages they see too. In the visual design world, similar questions are asked during 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? Once students internalize these questions, not only will students be prepared to recognize and decode subversive advertising messages, but they will also be prepared to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through the multimedia-dependent environment of higher education and the modern work environment. Moreover, visual literacy instruction will better prepare students for the dynamic and constantly changing online world they will inevitably be communicating through.

There are many ways to integrate and address multimedia in the classroom to make it educational. Drawing upon Seymor Papert's (1980) research, researchers such as Resnick (1996) and Kafai (1996) have promoted the constructivist notion of learning by design where students learn by working on "real world" constructions. Educators create a project whereby students work together to create a web page or interactive movie where they are allowed to create their own messages like the professionals they're imitating. This learning environment, based on the constructivist learning philosophy that evolved during the 1970s and 1980s, has its foundations in cognitive learning psychology. The learning model is based on the concept that knowledge is constructed rather than processed from information received from an external source. In this process, the student assumes the role of the producer rather than the consumer of information. Through classroom construction of a multimedia project, an in-depth understanding of visual communication, or visual literacy, is learned along the way.

The examples of learning by design are numerous. Garthwait (2001), as mentioned earlier, used a hypermedia design program to encourage students to write while incorporating multimedia design. His results showed high motivation and learning retention. The key to Garthwait's experiment is the level of comprehension that developed out of designing hypermedia stories. Every student exhibited an impressive understanding of not only how hypermedia is displayed on the Internet, but also how to communicate in non-linear and visual modes of discourse. Exposure appears to be the key element in these experiments. Chandler-Olcott & Mahar (2003) explored the disparity between one student's high-level web design and communication completed at home through her enthusiasm for Japanese Anime and the non-existent technology education at school. Rhiannon, the student named in the study, wrote lengthy fanfictions or anime stories and posted them on a web site that she designed without any school resources but showed little interest in school-assigned writing. Rhiannon's expertise came from home access to the Internet, curiosity, and collaborative online learning, yet went unnoticed by her teachers.

Conclusion
Opportunities for web and hypermedia story design are passed over in the classroom every day in favor of traditional reading and writing exercises. As Rhiannon and countless other students are finding their way through new media, they leave their peers in the dust. Yet, our modern technology-driven society demands a level of communication that remains largely unaddressed in the classroom. If the goal of literacy education is to empower students with the tools to communicate and thrive successfully in society, shouldn't we consider the current literacy demands of the technological age? Who will ultimately teach our children to communicate?

Bibliography

Chandler-Olcott, K. & Mahar, D. (2003). "Tech-savviness" meets multiliteracies: Exploring adolescent girls' technology-mediated literacy practices. Reading Research Quartly, 38 (3), 356-385.

Garthwait, Abigail. Hypermedia Composing: Questions Arising from Writing in Three Dimensions. Language Arts. v78 n3 p237-44 Jan 2001.

Hammerberg, Dawnene D (2001). "Reading and Writing 'Hypertextually': Children's Literature, Technology, and Early Writing Instruction." Language Arts. v78 n3 p207-16 Jan 2001.

Kafai, Y. & Resnick, M. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ.

Kress, Gunther R. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996) Reading images : the grammar of visual design. New York : Routledge, 1996.

Kress, Gunther. Ogborn, John. Martins, Isabel (1998) "A Satellite View of Language: Some Lessons from Science Classrooms." Language Awareness, v7 n.2 & 3 p69-89 1998.

New London Group (1996) "Pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures." Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 66-92.

Nixon, Helen (2003). New Research Literacies for Contemporary Research into Literacy and New Media? Reading Research Quarterly, v38 n3 p407-13 Jul-Sep 2003.

About the author

Erin Riesland is a freelance graphic designer and M.Ed student studying Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Washington. Contact Ms. Riesland by email: erinsage@u.washington.edu .

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