15 Terms That Can Deepen Your Understanding of Literacy & Communication in an Image-Rich World

Online discourse is increasingly expressed through visuals. More than that, much of today’s ideas and concepts are communicated and shared through visuals. Yet, this remains an area that garners limited attention in schools. We use visuals, to be sure, but exploring the nature of communication and life in an image-rich world remains something that is underdeveloped in most learning organizations.

Tweets are increasingly accompanied with images. Pinterest and Instagram are increasingly “go to” sources of browsing for “information.” The presence of a featured image on an online article can make the difference between a couple dozen readers and it going viral. Political and ideological banter online is often an visual sword fight. Visual memes sometimes have far more influence than carefully considered and discussed ideas. As such, some contend that are living in a digitized version of the pre-modern world. Others prefer to describe it as sometimes entirely new.

This is not new to scholars and media experts. If you take time to explore the scholarly literature, you will discover valuable insights about this reality going back decades, and all of this has important implications for how we educate and equip people for life, learning, and literacy in a connected and image-rich age.

You can find many popular articles and “tips for teachers” about the role of visuals today, but many of them fail to represent the fascinating, deep, challenging, and incredibly useful insights that exist in the more scholarly literature. With a little curiosity and time, exploring some of the key phrases and discourses on this topic can offer both students and educators access to a treasure room of cognitive and communication tools for our modern age.

To test your knowledge (and hopefully to piqué your interest), consider the following 15 phrases, each of which represent an increasingly deep collection of research findings, theories, debates, ways of thinking about our image-rich world, and insights that can help inform how we equip people for discourse and communication in the digital age. Review the list below. How many of these terms can you define? What have you read and learned about each? If one of captures your interest, consider taking a few moments to explore and share what you discover with a friend or colleague. Let’s join in collectively deepening our understanding of what it means to be literate in a connected age and how to better equip ourselves and others for such a world.

  1. visual literacy
  2. media literacy
  3. digital literacy
  4. multimodal literacy
  5. new media
  6. new literacies
  7. new literacy studies (yes, a different discourse from new literacies in the literature)
  8. transmedia storytelling, migration, and navigation (and check out the concept of convergence culture while you are at it)
  9. media ecology
  10. multiliteracies
  11. visual semiotics
  12. visual rhetoric
  13. visual anthropology
  14. visual sociology
  15. media psychology

From Content to Panic: Lessons from Lost Computer Files

Here is to lessons from lost computer files. In 1990, I sat in a computer lab working on a research paper that was due the next day. It was a semester-long project that occupied close to a hundred hours of work and filled almost forty pages. At that point in my life, it was my longest writing project. I remember staring at the screen, proud, content, and happy to be ready to type the final few pages. These last pages were not part of the formal paper. Instead, the professor asked us to conclude with a written personal reflection about the writing process, what we learned about ourselves through the project, and any lessons that we might take away from this experience. I decided to take a break, eat dinner, and return for this final section.

From Content to Panic

In those days, that meant saving the paper to my floppy disk. I did that, enjoyed my dinner with some friends, and returned to the lab. When I inserted the disk, my contentment shifted to panic. There was an error trying to read my disk. I tried everything that I knew at the time, elicited the help of the lab monitor, but to no avail. My entire paper was gone. Fourteen weeks and close to a hundred hours of research, writing and thinking gone.


I was a triple major at the time in education, history, and theology; and this class was called Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Essentially, it was a class on methods of interpreting passages in the Scriptures and the professor assigned me a small section in the fourth chapter of the book of Philippians. Philippians 4:11: “ I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Perhaps you appreciate the humor in this situation. There I was, staring at an error message on an otherwise blank screen with a massive paper/project due the next day. Did I mention that this project was worth a third of my grade? Without it, my highest possible grade was a “D.” And the topic of my study was a 1st-century apostle writing about being content regardless of the circumstance. I was far from content in this circumstance. I felt panic, despair, and anger…but eventually I just felt numb.

Then something else emerged. I vividly remember this thought. “You still have fourteen hours until it is due. Get to work.” So, even though I was numb, I just started writing again. I wrote the first section and, to my surprise, a good deal of it came back to me rather quickly. The same thing happened with the second, third, fourth, and fifth sections. I couldn’t remember the sources that I needed to cite, but I bracketed that problem for later. I wrote until the lab was closing and they kicked me out, which I think was about four or five hours later. I looked at the document, and I had a little under twenty pages written.

A Dark Library

With no computer in my dorm room and the lab closed, I decided to get to work on looking up the sources again. I headed to the library, where I happened to work. That included the job of opening the library on some mornings, which meant that I had keys. So, I spent the entire night wandering through a dark and closed University library, hunting down the sources that I used in the paper, taking all the necessary notes. I was there until sunrise. I snuck out, slept an hour or two, and then headed back to the computer lab that morning to finish my paper.

The Deadline

An hour before the class and the deadline for submitting my paper, I found myself at the same spot that I was the evening before. I had a slightly shorter paper, about 30 pages, and all I needed to complete was the personal reflection. What did I learn about myself from writing this paper? What lessons will I take with me?

The Final Section

Should I tell the truth? I decided to do so. I explained the irony of writing a 40-page paper about the secret of contentment only to find myself in the discontent position of losing all of my work the day before the due date.

  • I wrote about the lesson of working through the initial feelings of loss, despair, anger, and apathy…ending up with a decision to just keep moving even though I didn’t feel like doing so. Just start writing and see what happens.
  • I wrote about how the more I wrote, the more motivated I became.
  • I wrote about how I didn’t lose my paper. In fact, the technological glitch was a gift in that it showed me how much of my paper was stored in my mind, not just on some floppy disk. Deep and meaningful projects change and grow us, and that is part of the purpose of such projects.
  • I wrote about how this second paper was better than the first. Then I reflected on the fact that, even if I failed to write this second paper, the experience reminded me that there was more to this experience than meeting a deadline or getting a grade.
  • I also included the practical lesson of remembering to always keep a backup of important work.

Lightning Strikes Twice

If only I had remembered that last lesson. Fast forward twenty-five years to last week. Four months ago I switched from a Macbook Air to a Surface Pro as my primary computer. With my Macbook Air, everything that I write is automatically backed up in two places in the cloud. The chances of losing something in the case of a computer crash are slim. Even in the worst case scenario, I might lose a day or two of work.

Since I’ve only had the Surface Pro for a few months, I didn’t get around to setting up those fail-safes yet. I should have done so, but I did not. During those months, I wrote 20,000+ words of a book that I hope to give to my children one day. I did thorough revisions of two nearly complete manuscripts on books that I hope to publish this year (one on formative feedback and another on self-directed learning). I also had just about 75,000 words of writing on other essays for upcoming articles, blog posts, and portions of these and other books. I write and edit for 15-20 hours a week, so I had far more than a couple hundred hours of work on that device…and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get around to backing it up.

The Pop

Last week I heard a pop on my new laptop and noticed that the keyboard stopped working. The battery was low so I tried to find a way to quickly set up a means of backing up my core files to the cloud by using the touch screen, but the wifi stopped working as well and none of the USB ports were functional. I tried several things only to watch the battery charge go to zero, the screen turn black, and the computer would not accept a new charge. It was/is, for all practical purposes, dead. I sent it off to a lab that specializing in data retrieval but the people at Microsoft tell me that you can’t retrieve data from this sort of integrated, solid-state hard drive. Time will tell. Regardless, I found myself with a very familiar set of emotions that I experienced twenty-five years ago with that first paper. I don’t know how this one will turn out. It was certainly foolish not to have a more recent backup of my work.

Nonetheless, I find myself looking for some lessons from all of this. Here is what I have so far.

  • Save your work. Really. We are in the digital age. That is as basic as looking both ways before crossing the street. Now that I have that out of the way…
  • You are more than what you write or create. In fact, what you write and create is often a way of becoming. You are refining your thinking. You are clarifying your convictions. You are deepening your knowledge and expanding your wisdom. You are becoming more of something as you write and create. That really is a valuable part of the experience, even apart from the final product.
  • Keep moving. There will always be setbacks. It is natural to struggle with some negative emotions, but keep moving through it because resolve and persistence is what makes the difference between an abandoned effort and a proud achievement.
  • Life isn’t about easy, but it can be deeply purposeful and meaningful.
  • I write. Sometimes what I write gets shared. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets saved. Sometimes it gets lost. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes I miss the mark. In the end, at this phase in my life, I truly believe that part of what I’m supposed to do is write. It isn’t just about the outcome or the product (although I do have some specific goals that I keep in focus). What is it that you just do, something that is about more than the outcome?
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8 Readings and Resources on #CognitiveLoad Theory

Cognitive load theory. Have you heard of it? It is one of digital-age learning theories with the strongest foundation in empirical research. It helps explains why math scores dropped when many people first put SmarBoards in their classrooms. it explains why many vivid graphics and images are not as effective as simple ones. It helps us consider how to manage the limited load that our brains can handle at any given time, learning to design learning resources in view of this load. Is that enough of a motivation to check it out? If so, here are eight resources to get you started, ranging from quick and easy reads to a couple of heavier research articles.

Nuts and Bolts: Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design- This is an “easy to read” introduction to the idea of cognitive load theory. You will go deeper into the concept through some of the more scholarly sources included below.

Applying Cognitive Strategies to Instructional Design – This multimedia video presentation on cognitive load theory, introduces you to many of the basic ideas about the theory as presented by Richard Mayer, one of the seminal scholars on this topic.

Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning (PDF) – This scholarly article provides an excellent and practical summary of nine key cognitive load concepts, explaining how they can help to create more effective multimedia resources for learners.

The Cognitive Load Theory – This slide deck walks you through basic vocabulary in cognitive load theory, including examples for each. You will learn the difference between the three main types of cognitive load: extraneous, intrinsic, and germane. It concludes with some practical applications for educators. –

Cognitive Load Theory and the Role of Learner Experience: An Abbreviated Review for Educational Practitioners – This scholarly article provides an important summary of some of the more important research / studies conducted about cognitive load theory and how they apply to teaching and learning. This will help you design lessons that are more informed by current research in the field. –

On the Role and Design of Video for Learning (video) – Interview with Dr. Richard Mayer – Richard Mayer is arguably the leading scholar in the area of cognitive load theory. This video will give you a chance to hear directly from Mayer, while also learning about how the theory can inform the design and use of instructional video.

Cognitive Theories of Multimedia and Instructional Design (video) – This is an important video because it provides a series of practical examples, showing how cognitive load theory can improve the design of learning resources for students.

Cognitive Load Theory Critique – If you read my blog, then you know that I rarely discuss the affordances of something without at least taking a moment to consider the limitations as well. This article offers the limitation side of things. There are critics of cognitive load theory. This article will introduce you to some of those critiques, providing you with a more balanced view of the subject. –

The Power of Connections in the Digital World: Toward a Literacy of Connectivity?

“Collaboration across Networks.”  That is the second of Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills as described in his 2010 book, Bridging the Global Achievement Gap. As I understand Wagner’s description of that skill, it focuses upon working with people across time zones and distances in order to accomplish a common goal.  The need for such a skill is often justified by pointing out the nature of work in many global businesses, needing to work with people who are dispersed around the world.  Note that this skill is largely described in terms of collaborating with people who you already know or with whom you have some sort of pre-existing connection.

There is another important part to this conversation that focuses upon creating new connections with people that we do not already know, with resources that were formerly unfamiliar to us, and with new and diverse communities and contexts.  This is where connectivism, which I often mention on my blog, has something to teach us about life and learning in the digital age.  While I am not certain that it is a survival skill, learning to connect with new, diverse and dispersed people and ideas is a valuable literacy for this age.  Like any literacy, it gives one access to new conversations, allows one to consider and imagine new possibilities, and it provides one with opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

If I can’t read, there is only so much that I can get out of a book.  I can use it as a paper weight or to swat a fly, but I unless I am literate, I am unable to use the words in it to learn, imagine, or connect with new ideas and possibilities.  The same is true when it comes to cultivating the literacy of connectivity.  This is more than the state of being connected to others and the Internet using a variety of current and emerging technologies.  It also entails coming to understand and leverage various social, psychological, cultural and sociological aspects of connecting with other people, communities and resources.  It involves developing personal and or professional relationships with people on social networks, microblogs, and online communities; and maintaining these connections as one simultaneously navigates online and offline life.  It also involves designing and continually redesigning connections with a wide array of people and things as a way of pursuing our personal goals and aspirations. It is a literacy of connectivity that allows one to discover and use increasingly sophisticated answers to the following questions.

  • How do I leverage the digital world to raise funds for a new project or business?
  • How do I connect with people and resources that help me explore and resolve problems and challenges in your work and life?
  • How do I build a professional network that provides me with new ideas for my current work or even to explore new employment possibilities down the road?
  • How do I connect with people and groups that have a common passion or interest and enjoy sharing and exploring with one another?
  • How do I leverage collective knowledge from around the world to tackle a social problem that is important to me?
  • What are the most effective ways to share my ideas and expertise with people who are dispersed around the world, to get their feedback, and to refine my ideas based upon this feedback?
  • How do I meet new people online for personal or professional goals in mind?
  • How do I select and manage connections when there are billions of potential connections available to me?
  • How do I decide when and if to disconnect with some people, communities or resources?
  • How do I leverage the digital world to learn, grow, develop, and help others learn?

These are questions that challenge us to think about what it means to cultivate a literacy of connectivity.  What I am writing here is not new.  This is largely informed by the study digital literacy, the connected learning movement, new literacy studies, the work on connectivism, as well as no small influence from Howard Rheingold’s contributions to the literacy of cooperation.   I’ve been hesitant to use the word literacy in this context, as some argue that we have begun to overuse the term.  Yet, I find myself returning to the contemporary understanding of literacy as a social practice that involves meaning making.  it is more than just a static set of discrete skills.  What I am referring to here is looking at connectivity as a social practice in which one constructs knowledge through the connections that one makes and severs. In that sense, this is a literacy of connectivity.



An Infographic is not Accurate Just Because It Looks Good

While I’ve been in higher education for the last seven years, I started my career in a middle school classroom.  I remember teaching social studies and often using the KWL method with the students.  Accordingly, I would ask the them what they already knew about the subject that we planned to study next, and we would create a massive (or minute) list on the board.  Quite often, the items that students recalled came from a movie or an episode on the History or Discovery channel.  Some of what they remembered was accurate, but not all.  Frequently, their knowledge fit into the category of historical fiction, which was expected, given that many of the movies related to the subject (the Civil War, for example) fit into that genre.  What became clear to me was that teaching the subject required teaching something new to students, but also helping them to unlearn some of the “visual facts” that already existed in their minds.  In fact, students often enjoyed learning about the subjects because of the high-interest film version of the events.  After reading about these events, many also enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences between what they were learning and what they saw on the screen.  They didn’t need to stop liking the films, but they did need to re-categorize that information, sometimes moving it from the non-fiction to the fiction shelves in their minds.

Images stick.  Think back to some of the first movies that you saw as a child.  If you are like me, you can conjure up at least one or two vivid scenes from that movie.  The same is true for many of us when it comes to still pictures, commercials, and multimedia messages that we’ve encountered over the years.  There is a reason that companies invest large amounts of money into creating image-rich advertisements and messages about their products and services.  It is because they are effective.  This is why information and media literacy are such important skills today. If we consider traditional literacy important so that students can function in a world of print, then it is equally important to help cultivate literacies that prepare us to live in a world of multimodal text (texts using more than one type of message: print, audio, video, images, etc.).

Over the past decade, we saw a rapid increase of infographics as a popular example of multimodal texts, and I’m delighted to see them.  In fact, I collect infographics, especially those dealing with topics related to eduction or digital culture. At their best, infographics convert pieces of data into a vivid, concise and high-interest knowledge visualization.  They are wonderful teaching and learning tools, and inviting people to create their own is an excellent way to help learners work at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as they make sense of information about a given topic.

Just as there are affordances, there are also limitations when it comes to infographics.  When students started typing and submitting papers using a word processor, I noticed something interesting.  When you type a rough draft on a word processor and print it out, it looks clean and complete, even if the content is far from clean and complete.  Visually, the paper looks good.  If anyone takes the time to critically read the paper, then it becomes apparent that it is not a finished product.  The same is true with infographics.  The data in an infographic is no more or less accurate because it is visual, regardless of how good it looks.  Just like that draft in the word processor, the visual rhetoric of an infogrphic requires that one read it carefully and critically. Toward that end, here are some of the questions that we might want to consider asking during and/or after reading an infographic.

  • Is the data accurate?
  • Are there unstated assumptions?
  • What biases are present (not that biases are necessarily bad, but surfacing them is still valuable)?
  • Who created the infographic?  Does that person or organization have a mission or agenda (Again, this not necessarily bad, but it helps us to understand the context.)?
  • What sources did the creator use?
  • Did the creator provide access to those sources so that I can check it out for myself?
  • What is fact and what is opinion?  How do they support the opinions and substantiate the facts?
  • What relevant data is excluded (Since infographics are usually intended to be concise, much is usually excluded.  This is both an affordance and limitation of infographics.)?
  • How do the graphics and how do the design decisions influence the way that I and other readers might think about the topic?  How would the message change with a different visual representation?

Many of us, myself included, do not take the time to ask many of these questions when we read infographics.  Often, I read them for entertainment as much as information, also for examples of different ways to visually represent ideas.  And yet, infographics are often educational tools, communicating messages intended to stick with us, even to influence the way that we think or act.  At minimum, they serve to draw greater attention to a topic.  That alone is a means of influence, elevating the significance of a topic by prompting us to think about it a bit more than we did before, leaving visual residue in our minds that is often easier to recall than text.

Similarly, I’m not sure that infographics are usually designed in a way that encourages us to analyze and ponder.  Quite often, they are made for quick consumption, intended to gain the attention of the “readers” for a minute or two before they move on to something else.  To read such a visual critically may require that we discipline ourselves to pause, think, even research a bit; and that is a difficult thing to do.