Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Literacies for the digital age: Visual literacy

I have identified thirteen literacies important for students to master, which you can see below. This is the second in a series of literacies I feel are important for students to master.

The topic for this month is visual literacy.

Visual literacy, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, “is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.”
I am going to break down this definition into its separate components in order to add information and sources that can help you embed aspects of visual literacy into the curriculum. Visual literacy can be applied to photographs, posters, advertisements, presentations, and infographics, to name a few. I am just going to speak to photographs in this post.


Sources of images for students to use can be found in many places. Discovery Education Streaming has over 33,000 images to pick from in many categories and at all grade levels. Many of these images are also tied to curriculum standards. These images can be downloaded and edited to be used in projects if you have a subscription to Discovery Education Streaming.
  • The Digital Public Library of America includes almost 8 million items from libraries, archives, government depositories, and museums. Many of the images in the collections can be shared, but not downloaded.
  • The Library of Congress has over 1 million photos, prints, and drawings in its database. Each of the collections may have a different license for use of the items in the collection, so remind students to read the “fine print”. For teachers, they have pulled together primary source sets on specific curriculum topics such as the Civil War, the Constitution, the Dust Bowl, and even have a link for primary sources by state.
  • Google Images, Bing, and Flickr are, of course, where students first go to look for images. With the advent of the Creative Commons licensing project, in which creators can assign explicit permission for using their images, each of these image search tools includes a way for students to search the images they are already allowed to use. (Of course, they can always ask for permission from the image creator to use an image that is not Creative Commons-licensed or to use it in another way.)

With Creative Commons licensing, these are four conditions a content creator can apply to their work: attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works, and share alike.
The attribution option means that the creator lets others copy, distribute, display, and perform their copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way the creator requires.
The noncommercial option allows the creator to specify that others can use their work, but cannot make money off of it. If they want to use it commercially, they have to ask express permission and may have to pay the creator, too.
If the creator applies the no derivative works option to their work, they are allowing others to copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of their work, not derivative works based upon it. If they allow derivative works, users can edit, change, and republish their image, with attribution.
The share alike option is one that I call “pay it forward”. This option follows the option of letting the user make derivative works.  This option allows the user to transform the content and create a derivative work, but requires them to apply the same Creative Commons license to their work as the one they originally consulted to create their work.
As far as students finding images that have Creative Commons licenses, this has become easy in these three image search engines.
In Google Images, after you conduct a search, click on SEARCH TOOLS, and you get a drop-down for Creative Commons-licensed images. Once you pick the appropriate one, the collection of images in your search will change
In Flickr, once you conduct a search, you see the CREATIVE COMMONS link right on the toolbar to limit your search to just Creative Commons-licensed images.
In Bing, after you limit your search to images, you see the license option on the toolbar. Public domain images are those that are free to use, but the rest of the choices refer to Creative Commons-licensed images.


Becoming visual literate involves practicing with interpreting images. This is more commonly called “photograph analysis”. Both the Library of Congress and the National Archives have wonderful teacher and student tools for doing this in addition, of course, to many, many images that can be used in support of the content you are teaching.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress Teacher’s page dealing with primary sources includes information about engaging students with primary sources, promoting student inquiry, and having students apply critical thinking and analysis skills. Here is the list of questions from their page.
1. Engage students with primary sources.
Draw on students’ prior knowledge of the topic.
Ask students to closely observe each primary source.
  • Who created this primary source?
  • When was it created?
  • Where does your eye go first?
Help students see key details.
  • What do you see that you didn’t expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?
  • Encourage students to think about their personal response to the source.
What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
What questions does it raise?
2. Promote student inquiry.
Encourage students to speculate about each source, its creator, and its context.
  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?
  • What does the creator do to get his or her point across?
  • What was this primary source’s audience?
  • What biases or stereotypes do you see?
Ask if this source agrees with other primary sources, or with what the students already know.
  • Ask students to test their assumptions about the past.
  • Ask students to find other primary or secondary sources that offer support or contradictions
3. Assess how students apply critical thinking and analysis skills to primary sources.
Have students summarize what they’ve learned.
  • Ask for reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions.
  • Help students identify questions for further investigation, and develop strategies for how they might answer them.
In addition, the Library of Congress offers online, self-paced (one hour) professional development modules for teachers which include “Analyzing Primary Sources: Photographs and Prints” and “Copyright and Primary Sources” and also an online LOC: Primary Source Analysis Tool.
National Archives
The National Archives provides a Photo Analysis Worksheet in their collection of document analysis worksheets which also include written documents, artifacts, cartoons, maps, motion pictures, posters, and sound recordings.


My favorite list of how to use online tools to improve student visual literacy comes from David Jakes on his Visual Literacy Continuum page. The page has been up for a while, and if some of the links don’t work, you can easily find new tools to use because Jakes explains how to use the tool in his description. For example: “Using a variety of online tools to re-purpose visual information in support of a learning goal…with Filmloop, Bubblr or Captioner.”
Frank Baker has collected a ton of resources for teachers in the area of visual literacy including readings, standards, lesson plans, texts, videos, and journal articles that can help you target the visual literacy skills.
My favorite tool for creating image-based presentations is Haiku Deck. It is available as both an online tool and an iPad app. It has the unique feature of pulling in Creative Commons-licensed images as you type the small amount of text on your slides. Once you pick one of those images, a link to the original source is included with the presentation, as you can see in the upper left-hand corner of the published slide below. I think Haiku Deck’s search only pulls in images that are allowed to be used with attribution, not ones that can be edited. And using Haiku Deck does not teach students about remembering to cite a source, but it does allow students to understand a source citation is needed and this tool makes it easy since the source link is automatically included!


One way to help students understand some of the “tricks” that are used in photographs is to teach them about composing a photograph. The New York Times Learning Network includes a lesson plan (Picture Perfect) which has students learning about the “up, down, and through” shot types. The lesson has them examining samples of each type, reflecting on why the photos were taken in that way, identifying other images with those shot compositions, and creating their own.
With students able to locate Creative Commons-licensed photos that allow modification, they can create their own images by combining (or mashing up) two or more images to create a new image. By asking students to “fool” or persuade the viewer of their new image, the discussion can begin about doctoring of images and what one needs to know to determine if an image is “real”.
There are online image editors like FotoFlexer and Pixlr that can help with this type of project, On the  iOS platform, Adobe Photoshop Mix will let you remove portions of photos and layer one on another. Adobe’s Photoshop Touch app ($9.99) for iOS and Android is a very full-featured image editor for the tablets that can be used in many ways across the curriculum.

How do you incorporate visual literacy into your curriculum? Share your ideas on Twitter! #kathyschrock