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:
- Process and make meaning of information presented in an image.
- Communicate our own ideas through principles of design.
- 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?