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Using Social Media to Teach Visual Literacy in the 21st-Century Classroom

Dave Guymon

Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho
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Increasingly, educators are acknowledging and welcoming the relative advantages of social media into the teaching and learning process. From creating school Facebook pages to connecting students with experts via Twitter, social media has taken root as a legitimate classroom learning and communication tool. The highly linguistic nature of social media allows us to create and consume ideas and information unlike ever before. Much attention has been given to composing an articulate blog post and condensing our messages to 140 characters or less. However, effective use of this 21st century technology requires that we not only become proficient in textual communication, but also in our ability to express ourselves and interpret others' ideas through visual literacy.

Why Visual Literacy Matters

Visual literacy is the ability to:

  1. Process and make meaning of information presented in an image.
  2. Communicate our own ideas through principles of design.
  3. Create our own messages that capture our visual thinking in a way that conceptualizes problems to given solutions.

The importance of including visual literacy instruction for our students in the classroom comes from the discovery that students gain a deeper understanding of a concept when they are encouraged and enabled to create a nonlinguistic representation of that concept. When paired with linguistic -- or text-based -- literacy, visual literacy can multiply students' ability to recall and think about what they have learned.

So, what does visual literacy in the classroom look like? If we were to answer this question from our students' points of view, we would likely say Instagram, Emoji and memes. But do any of these platforms offer value to the learning experience? Perhaps that depends on what, or rather, how you are trying to teach.

3 Modes of Visual Communication

As a photo editing and sharing network, Instagram offers much to the educational process simply in its ability to allow students to create and publish original content. But when considered from the context of instructional design, it takes on new dimensions that would otherwise be nonexistent. As stated before, visual literacy includes the ability to create messages that capture our own visual thinking. Imagine what this might look like when issuing students the challenge of capturing what Robert Frost was writing about in his timeless poem "The Road Not Taken" with a single Instagram photo sent to a common classroom hashtag. Not only would this approach encourage students to consider this piece of prose at higher-ordered levels of thinking, it would also free them to do so in the context of their own creativity.

Similarly, Emoji, or ideograms often used in text messaging, have incredible potential in directing our students to effectively communicate through visual designs. At the most basic level, people use Emoji to illustrate their emotions through minute smiley faces and faces with tears. But when utilized as an instructional tool, these otherwise informationally cosmetic accessories could encourage students to consider the emotional tapestry and perspectives of figures from history had they been provided the communication tools and platforms of today. Would President Lincoln have included a smiley face with an ideogram of theater tickets along with his social media update about going to Ford's Theater, or would he have conveyed the premonitions that some have attributed to him having on that fateful evening with something a little more sullen? Whatever it may have been, students empathizing with our 16th president would have to determine the message they want to share and then evaluate the effectiveness of symbols to do so.

Memes require this same level of analysis and application to share one’s intended message with social stickiness. Lending itself more to commentary on a given topic, understanding what a meme is saying requires mature linguistic and social dexterity. One of my favorite trendy meme characters is the Philosoraptor, an animated dinosaur apparently scratching his chin as he ponders the elusive meaning of life. Recently, I saw a meme created with this image that read, "What if math teachers were really just pirates who wanted us to find X just so they could locate buried treasure?" Understanding the humor inherent in this meme not only requires a basic comprehension of algebraic variability, it also asks us to process the demeanor of the Philosoraptor to identify the rhetorical sarcasm in the image. And while viewing and responding to memes requires one set of intellectual skills, creating them based on a current unit of study requires a skillset entirely different.

Embracing a Cognitive Opportunity

That we have evolved our favorite forms of communication is obvious without more than simply watching our students walk through the hallways. It would be easy to demonize social media and each medium that it provides for human interaction. But it would be educationally valuable to embrace it, turning it into an opportunity for our students to develop an appreciation for the advanced cognitive skills they employ on a daily basis. Why not study the highly visual communication models connecting the thoughts that mean the most to them with the social networks where they live their lives?

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Dave Guymon

Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Comments (27) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alyssa's picture

Social media has made a huge impact in the education and worldly experiences our students have. From Facebook to Twitter and Instagram and beyond, students have become actively engaged in the online environment where they are able to express their thoughts and opinions for everyone to see. One concern we encounter is our student's abilities to translate their 21st technology skills to the classroom and vice versa. Visual literacy is a form in which students can express their ideas that encapsulate their thinking and spread it to others. As your blog states, the use of visual literacy supports a student's ability to recall information, and allows them to present it in a way in which it is enticing to the eyes. As I think about the three modes discussed, I think of myself as one who partakes in the components of visual literacy as well. From taking and editing pictures on Instagram to share with family and friends far away, to using emoji conversations with friends, I truly have embraced the use of visual literacy. One area in which I know I still don't understand is that of memes. Maybe it is that I don't understand the humor or perhaps it is not something that pertains to my realm of knowledge, this particular mode is not one in which I favor. However, I can see students using this to support a variety of content areas in order to develop a quick and concise way to describe a topic with a visual representation that is available to all. I agree that it is valuable to embrace the opportunities presented through social media in order to ensure that students are getting exactly what they need to be successful.

Kayla Deak's picture

The world that our children now live in is greatly impacted by video games, social media, television, and so much more. Social media has not only become huge with adults, but also with children. It is surprising the number of students who have facebook and instagram, but also cell phones and ipads to allow them to access these sites on the go. Students are interested in information that they see and read while on these sites. The school that I currently teach at has tried to go towards using more technology within the classroom. Our school uses a website, similar to facebook, that all teachers and students are members of. Teachers can create "groups," for their classes. From this, they can post homework, start discussions, and communicate with parents. In class, if a student asks a question that requires alternative research, the teacher may say, "Look that up for us and post about it tonight." Students love communicating in this form and seem more motivated to complete assignments and ask questions. When a new topic is discussed in class, the teacher may start a discussion on line and ask each student to respond at least one time. I have seen such a change in the attitudes toward learning and homework with the switch to increasing the use of technology.

tstory's picture

I recently attended a Bring Your Own Technology Tour in Forsyth County, GA, and observed firsthand the use of social media to teach visual literacy in the 21st Century Classroom. Students used social media as a way to communicate with teachers, and to take ownership of their learning process. Social media gave students the opportunity to collaborate with their peers in an engaging and interactive setting. The use of personal mobile devices and social media allowed learners to expand their learning beyond the classroom walls at any time of the day.

On this tour, I observed students using social media and mobile devices to communicate their ideas through visual literacy. The use of visual literacy captured the attention of students and kept them engaged while completing class assignments. Students in the 21st century are constantly engaged in interactive activities and using various mobile devices.

Cost use to be the deciding factor in whether to purchase a mobile device; however, many companies have developed low cost mobile devices to meet the demands of consumers who could not purchase high cost mobile devices. Many students use mobile devices daily to communicate with family and friends; in addition, many use various mobile apps and social media to complete and collaborate on class assignments.

Through the use of social media and technology, students now have the ability to process and comprehend any presented information. Students now have the ability to communicate and express their own thoughts and ideas through visual literacy. Students now have the ability to create their own visual literacy which allows them to communicate their ideas, thoughts and solutions to problems.

Courtney's picture

I thought this post was so interesting. It is filled with wonderful ideas that will not only get students motivated, but also introduce new concepts and materials in a way that is students friendly, and relevant to their lives. I very much enjoyed the example of having students post pictures on Instragram of their idea of Robert Frost's A Road Not Taken. This example is not only a fun idea to have students engaged in the lesson, it is also a way to encourage students to create mental images of the poetry, which can often be difficult to teach students. I also enjoyed the meme example. This could be a great way for students to talk about what they read in a way that is pertinent and fun to them.
Using technology that is relevant and useful to them helps the students bring their world to the world of learning. It makes what they do in the classroom seem useful and something they will see in the future. I know that many school systems frown at the thought of cell phones and social media as outlets to learning, but this is a wonderful idea that could be so engaging for the students.

Jessica Sells's picture
Jessica Sells
Middle School Art Teacher + Photographer + Blogger


This is an excellent article - I wish more educators would learn to embrace social media as a teaching tool (if used correctly). I taught photography to 8th graders, and we used a multitude of photo editing apps which allowed the students to creatively manipulate even mundane images and turn them into works of art. They were often quite astonished at the visual impact of the images they created, and they'd be proud and want to share them on Instagram to show their friends. So I think it's a very powerful skill for students to be able to communicate using an image alone to make a statement, tell a story, or share something about themselves.

I look forward to reading more of your articles here!


esther's picture

I think this is a fantastic idea. One of the ways to engage anyone is to meet them where they are the most comfortable. With this generation they love technology and will probably embrace and excel if presented with anything on social media. My children and grandchildren brought me into the new millennium by assisting me with the purchase of the smart phone years ago so that I could communicate with them through social media. So I believe in this and am sure it will be widely accepted and will open doors for other teachers to follow. If you can reach them, you can teach them.

Dave Guymon's picture
Dave Guymon
Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Kayla, thank you for sharing your insights with me. I agree that technology in the classroom can have a positively motivating effect on student learners. The social learning platform you describe sounds a lot like My Big Campus or Edmodo. I have used both with students in the past. Not only can they enhance learning, They can help to create a narrative of learning that will transform the learning experience entirely.

Dave Guymon's picture
Dave Guymon
Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Esther, that is excellent. Just as your family modeled effective technology use for you, we can do the same for our colleagues and students. I love your slogan, "If you can reach them, you can teach them." That has so much dimension to it that can serve us well as we work to educate our students.

Thea's picture
High School English Teacher

This is wonderful! I teach older students and they are constantly using social media for different things. I really like the example of how to integrate Instagram into lessons...I have never thought of using that one before. I am also very interested in the creative side of this. Letting students be creative with their work and be proud of it is very important to me. I think a lot of teachers have been trying to fight the battle of technology/phones in my school right now. This is a perfect way to embrace it and use it in the classrooms.

I look forward to reading more articles from you.

Helen Marie White's picture

I really enjoyed the first part of this article. It is something I am going to do in my classroom next week, for a twist on the new Wonders program. The stories are somewhat interesting and the latest had some poetry in it. I would love for my students to take a poem and capture it in one image. I also like the poem listed, the road not taken. I am just flooding with some ideas for this. It is going to be interesting.

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