Visual literacy vital now more than ever

Visual Literacy in Education

Considering the amount of visual content students consume in their day-to-day lives, visual literacy has become the language of the modern classroom and workplace.

Rachel Lilley .

Our world is more visual today than it has ever been. Memes, emoticons, photos and videos are everywhere. Our students are saturated with digital imagery from friends, publishers and advertisers. Technology conglomerate Cisco projects video alone will account for 81% of all internet traffic by 2021. Today it stands at 79%. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 90% of secondary students today have their own smartphones; 67% of primary students have their own mobile screen-based device. 

Images of global events and polarising opinions are as close as the devices in their hands. Biased, false and unregulated content is freely available online. ‘Fake news’—presented professionally as more established news sources—is too easily accepted as fact. 

The important question is how well do young people understand and evaluate visual messages and cues they receive through images? Have their critical thinking skills kept pace with their technical abilities? In today’s world, more than ever, our students require astute visual literacy to make reasonable and intelligent sense of the media they are immersed in. Images play a multi-sensory role in building and understanding their world. And this world has great educational potential. 

Speaking at the International Literacy and Education Research Network Conference on Learning, Anne Bamford defined visual literacy as being able to “use, interpret, analyse and think critically about images and the significance of what is being seen”.

The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Visual thinking contributes in the ability to see the big picture—to provide context and an understanding of relationships. This is why visual thinking is so important to creativity.

Video, by its multisensory nature, is a learning tool for long-term memory and recall. It gives easy to understand demonstrations of often abstract concepts, and improves students’ ability to learn independently, in an environment they’re native to. Speaking at the Global Engineering Education Conference, Edna Bravo noted video increases intrinsic motivation and interest, promotes a sense of satisfaction, autonomy and efficacy while fostering continuous improvement in student understanding.

There are benefits for short-term memory too. Alan Baddeley observes in In Working Memory and Education that short-term memory is limited to three to five pieces of new information. But when that information involves multiple senses—visual and auditory—different parts of the brain are stimulated and memory and learning capacity increases. 

The line between learning and leisure is becoming finer, which is an opportunity to improve student engagement in both. Students increasingly demand to have access to the same technologies inside the classroom as they do outside. Writing in the Oxford Review of Education, Neil Selwyn notes that personal technologies are being “subsumed” by schools by way of BYOD. 

Video has now become the backbone of flipped learning pedagogy for blended, one to one, bring your own devices (BYOD), and online classrooms. Students view new videos on their own devices and engage in deep analytical thinking and feedback in the classroom, which deepens their critical thinking and collaboration skills. 

It is important that young people learn to competently evaluate the information they receive via their devices to make their screen time—at home and school—more meaningful. And teachers are crucial to supporting students to interpret and communicate visually.

Video is everywhere in todays workplace. It continues to supplant text documents as information and communication. With decreasing cost of bandwidth and video production, businesses are adopting it for internal and external communication, employee training and collaboration. Employers increasingly value its role in communication.

The ability to read, write and communicate visual information, the ability to learn, think and solve problems in the visual domain is a desirable skill for success in professional life today—and according to Cisco’s forecasts, increasingly tomorrow. 

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