UOC UNESCO Chair in Elearning | Fifth International Seminar – Susan E. Metros: Visual Literacy in the Age of the Big Picture

13 November, 2008

Notes from the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Fifth International Seminar. Fighting the Digital Divide through Education)

Visual Literacy in the Age of the Big Picture
Susan E. Metros, University of Southern California

What does it mean to be literate?

Just reading and writing? The say that one image is more worth than a thousand words stands even more than ever. But there are many and many literacies: depending on the context, on the emitter, etc. the message does change.

Even many disciplines heavily rely on visual literacy: Maths (symbols), Art, Psychology (perception), Economics (chars and graphs), Geography (Cartography), Medicine, Communication (Semiotics)… Disciplines that have created whole theories around these visual literacies.

Visual literacy:

  • Decode and interpret visuals
  • Encode and compose meaningful visuals: making pictures is getting as important as looking at and understand pictures
  • Informed critic of visual information: understand what’s good or bad
  • Able to judge accuracy, validity, and worth: know what’s real and what’s not

Judging validity is one of the challenges we’re facing and which is posing many problems as is getting more complex, sensible, a matter of debate along time.

The big difference between being visually stimulated and being visually literate [an interesting statement regarding the digital natives issue]. The visual information overload plays with our perceptions (and specially with those of the younger ones)… but what about understanding, assimilating them? Is there a cognitive process or just sheer exposure?

Failure to communicate is not inherent in the piece of information to be transmitted, but in the design of the communication device. So, where’s the balance between amateur and authentic? Is there a trade-off between “freedom of expression” and appropriate, authentic, sense-making visual communication?

And besides understanding the vocabulary of visual communication, fluency is also required: not only to be able to understand, create, create with sense, but create and communicate with ease.

Becoming visually literate

It depends on your learning style: a behavioural preference (visual), a matter of a better processing of things (auditory), a way of concentrating better (kinesthetic)… Statistically, 65% of the population is visual. Which means that not only visual communication is pervasive, but that it is preferred by the majority of the population as a learning style.

But visual literacy is also bound to the social and cultural context, sometimes making it local some visual signs, sometimes making other signs universal, and more immediate than words.

There is a lot of code to be learnt — plain different from other codes like written text — that needs serious addressing and specific training.



Susan Metros asked Larry Johnson for his collaboration for a Visual Literacy experiment

The role of the visual
  • To document, e.g. The War Tapes, and document it in many ways, from different perspectives, to send different messages based on the “same” reality.
  • To validate
  • To communicate, in a very quick, straightforward, universal way
  • To inform
  • To engage, e.g. in gaming.
  • To expose, to bring to light and spread information that, otherwise, would be difficult or impossible to transmit
  • To politicize
  • To provoke
Affecting change

How to make people more visually literate? How to fight the visual literacy divide?

“Come to us”: build spaces for this purpose. The problem being that people want their own spaces, their own tools. OSU Digital Union just does thus: create a space people feel as theirs.

Woven into the curriculum: try and make visual literacy an embedded part of a bigger whole (e.g. USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy). Research and teaching on how to do things an do it a must.

Systemic change: A Global Imperative. The Report of the 21st Century Literacy Summit: develop a strategic research agenda, raise awareness, make tools for creating and experiencing new media, empower teachers, work as a community.

Q & A

Mara Hancock: how do we face the white space, how do we leave room for the sight to rest? A: It’s really important to teach students about white space, how not to exhaust the available space and let one’s sight breathe, and avoid vision overload. There is indeed white space in many other literacies.

Q: Images can lies. Sometimes the image does not correspond to an object, but to what this object represents. This has to be taught too.

Brian Lamb: How to be rigorous, how to contextualize? A: It’s all about being literate, but not only the emitter, but also the receiver so they can enforce the appropriate use of visual communication.

Q: How to fight the visual illiteracy of students? A: Is there such a thing as visual illiteracy? To be able to read you have to be literate; to be able to listen to music or see images, even if understanding can be rough, you still have the ability to hear and see. Which means that addressing this (partial) illiteracy might not be that hard.

Teemu Leinonen: Can design-thinking help to improve visual (and all other) literacies? Should design-thinking be a part of the visual literacy programme? A: Design competences might help to enhance digital literacy, but are not inherent to visual literacy. About design-thinking, don’t believe there is such a thing as design-thinking, but going back to humans or humanities, and ask ourselves why are we doing some things, etc. E.g. Ethics should not be an attribute of design-thinking, but of being human in general.

Q: ICT literacy is very difficult to integrate in primary school. Can visual literacy can make its way in elementary and secondary education? How can it be integrated into the curriculum? Or will it stay on its own? How does it relate with digital and ICT literacy? A: Kids already are making use of their visual and digital skills… outside the school. It is “just” a matter to bring these competences — and experiences — inside the curriculum, bring them inside the classes and guess how to do it. But it is already happening.

Javier Nó: In art, image is imposed; in design, image should be negotiated. It is not a matter of literacy, but of meaning. Designers often forget that design is not art and that there is an audience to be reached, so image should be negotiated with the users, engaging them in the debate of image use. A: Art, and design, is important to learn it in context. And lateral thinking plays an important role in this context learning. Decoding and encoding go hand in hand, and we have to be able to do both.

Ismael Peña-López: Are digital natives wired different? Have we to realize this and adapt? Or are they just over-stimulate and just need to “calm them down” in a visual, digital way? A: Even if everyone is using the same tools, the thing is that students are using them in other ways and they do have different skills or capabilities. Cut them wings would be a step backwards. Sometimes they are more engaged than we think of and, more important, the boundary between formal and informal environments are blurring. We should take advantage of this.

twin towers falling
a mother with a child
capa and abatted partisan

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