Visual Literacy, the Internet, and Education Meghan Andersen, Joan Wagner, and Bijan Warner



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Visual Literacy, the Internet, and Education

Meghan Andersen, Joan Wagner, and Bijan Warner

LIS 391


Chip Bruce

December 3, 2002

Visual Literacy, the Internet, and Education

Introduction


I. Visual Literacy and Education

A. Defining Visual Literacy

B. Historical Use of Visual Literacy in Education

C. Visual Literacy and Media Literacy

D. Teaching Media Literacy
II. Visual Literacy and the Internet


  1. Rapid Growth and Thinking Critically

  2. Discerning Image Truth

  3. Multiliteracy – Understanding Textual Images

  4. Reading Visually Online – A Study With No Conclusive Answers

  5. Critiquing Cyberspace

III. Visual Literacy and the Disabled

A. Literacy and the Disabled
Conclusion
Works Cited

Introduction

Until relatively recently, western culture has equated education with the ability to read and write. Communication through written and spoken words was valued higher than any form. Yet this emphasis on verbal literacy neglects many other important skills required to communicate effectively. Humans have always had a need to interact and communicate through the visual world. The need for an ability to navigate through the visual world has only increased in recent years as new technologies and forms of communication increasingly rely on visual images (Sankey http://www.usq.edu.au/electpub/e-jist/docs/Vol5%20No2/sankey.html). This ability can be defined as visual literacy.

Following the common perception of verbal literacy as the most important form of communication, schools have focused solely on teaching the tools to communicate effectively through words. Although some visual media were understood as important, such as graphs and tables, it was assumed that a bright student would have little trouble in learning to understand these once equipped with a solid verbal literacy (Knupfer 39). But verbal literacy is just one form of communication, and while extremely powerful, it lacks some of the advantages of visual literacy. There has been a recent movement in the schools to incorporate visual literacy to enrich education. Educators have also recognized our society is heavily affected by images seen in the various media. There is therefore a large stake in teaching students the skills to critically interact with these images (Zettl 18).

The most recent and influential visual media is the Internet. It combines visual and textual information in a format that can be shaped in many ways. It utilizes hypertext to organize text and images in a way that was previously not possible. Educators recognize the importance and possibilities of this new media, and are looking for ways to incorporate it into the classroom. Yet the syntax and tools of the Internet are still developing. As a whole, it is a powerful medium that requires both visual and verbal literacy to communicate.

The Internet and new forms of visual media are eclipsing the importance of traditional texts. This poses a problem for a large portion of the population that has disabilities that limit access to these new media. As the written word has been around for a long time, other technologies, such as Braille and large print, have developed for individuals who cannot directly interact with the written word. But the Internet presents many obstacles for individuals with disabilities, and few viable technologies have developed to improve access.

Visual literacy is a powerful form of human communication. Ironically, it is has been a skill that humans have always had yet its importance is only beginning to be studied. This paper details the development of visual literacy in education, the developments made possible through the Internet, and what all of this means for individuals who have less access to visual media due to disabilities.

I. Visual Literacy and Education




Defining Visual Literacy

A general definition of visual literacy is a group of competencies that allow humans to discriminate and interpret the visible action, objects, and/or symbols, natural or constructed, that they encounter in the environment (ERIC). This statement can be simplified further to the ability to see and interpret the visual world. The ability to see is taken for granted by most people without visual disabilities, but there is a complex set of actions before a visual image is interpreted into a meaning.

Visual literacy is analogous to verbal literacy, which is made up of letters, words, spelling, grammar, and syntax. The analogous basic components of visual literacy include color, texture, saturation, dimension, motion, and scale. Visual literacy requires a solid grasp on these concepts. But just as verbal literacy requires more than the ability to identify letters and words, so does visual literacy. The concepts of context and subjectivity have as much bearing on visual as verbal literacy.

Historical Use of Visual Literacy in Education

The importance of visual materials in education is not new, nor exclusive to the West. It is held that verbal communication is extended directly from visual communication. Early communication systems were iconic and representational, in that they were directly analogous to the visually observed physical world. But verbal language evolved further from being visually representational to being sound representational. An example of these two systems is the difference between the Japanese Kanji (a system of visually representational characters) and Katakana (a system of characters representing sounds) (Debes, Williams http://www.asu.edu/lib/archives/vhist.htm). Thus visual literacy predates verbal literacy and the very existence of verbal literacy stems from visual literacy.

Visual materials had a smaller role in the classrooms of recent Western civilization, which was based on a language defined by sounds. As early as the late 18th century, the Swiss educator Pestolozzi realized that visual materials had a significant impact on learning. He pioneered the use of manuals, a visual medium, as he was limited by the technology of the time (“Prominent Historical Philosophers” http://www.coe.tamu.edu/~edpsy/cded/olexy1.htm).

In the second half of the 20th century, visual materials have become increasingly dominant in schools. However, educators focused on written texts for the early part of American history. It was believed that students learned more from reading words than seeing charts or pictures (Knupfer 41). There has been a marked evolution of the role visual materials played in the classroom. Introduction of new technology combined with changing attitudes in education allowed this to happen. The precise role visual materials would play in the classroom was uncertain at the time. For example Thomas Edison, a progressive thinker, predicted in the 1920’s that the school textbook would vanish from the classroom due to the motion picture (Debes, Williams http://www.asu.edu/lib/archives/vhist.htm). Although video technologies have a large impact on education, this is obviously not the case.

Photography presented a new way to visually capture objects and events. It was originally believed to be a way of documenting reality, objectively and not influenced by the photographer. This led to it being largely ignored by educators; photographs did not become a large part of curriculum until after the Second World War. For American educators in the early 20th century, photographs had an ambiguous place as visual educational materials. Textbook authors and educators preferred original artwork to photographs, even though the technology was in place to print textbooks with photographs. This reveals the attitudes of educators at the time. Educators in the early 20th century saw their role as not only supplying information, but also to supply the desired reaction and emotion drawn from such information. In American History textbooks, artwork proved a powerful medium to instill patriotic and ethnocentric themes along with lessons from history (Knupfer 40). The artwork would work as a complex text, encoding the desired emotions and attitudes in the visual medium. This is an obvious example of using visual literacy to a specific goal: indoctrinating patriotism.

A low level of visual literacy may be required to comprehend the ideas and attitudes in educational artwork. However, it requires a high level of visual literacy to understand the artwork critically and to interact with the artwork instead of seeing it as absolute truth. Brian Stonehill defines visual literacy as “the skills and learning needed to view visual and audio-visual materials skeptically, critically, and knowledgably.” Skepticism is an essential part of this definition, especially in a modern and visual based society.

In today’s classroom, and in the classroom of the future, new technologies change the way visual media are used in education. In particular, information technologies and the effect of the Internet change the dynamics of the classroom. Newton Smith sees this evolution as changing the role of teachers. “Knowledge now is constructed, teaching is akin to coaching, and learning is active or interactive. The classroom is no longer isolated from the world,” (Smith 40). Information technologies, increasingly presented visually, bring the classroom in real time contact with new information. Smith’s concept of “teaching as coaching” is not new, but has a different meaning in relation to information technology. If the student has access to limitless information, it reduces the teacher’s role as information supplier. But if the student is not equipped with the tools of visual literacy, this overabundance of visual information is useless, or worse. One of the aspects of “coaching,” as Smith calls it, is to teach critical visual literacy.


Visual Literacy and Media Literacy

Visual literacy is increasingly important as visual media become ubiquitous. Our interpretation of the world is based largely upon the images we are shown through television, the Internet, print, and film. Without a proficient level of visual literacy, these images can impact the receiver in ways that the receiver is not aware. Critical visual literacy is a form of media literacy. Media literacy is a very broad term that describes the ability to comfortably and critically communicates through all forms of media (Walsh http://www.media-awareness.ca). Frequently this term is used to describe the ability to receive information critically through media such as television, radio, and print.

Several statistics point to the saturation of media images in daily life, for example the average school-aged child views 1,000 hours of television per year (Goodman http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/mlr/readings/articles/goodman.html). Any theory on the importance of media literacy must take this into account. Steve Goodman addresses this issue in his article, “An Open Letter to Media Educators.” Media literacy is important because media construct our concept of reality. It presents its own ideology, which is tied to its economic structure. Media corporations are companies whose primary goal is to earn profit. Goodman states:

If the mass media are really billion dollar businesses that protect their own interests and communicate an ideology that furthers those interests, then it follows that a truly critical pedagogy would teach us to be more than "questioning consumers" with "good viewing habits." It would dig at the roots of the mass media and the market culture that it promotes.

To truly think critically about the information one receives through the media, one must be aware of the structure of the media conglomerates. Media must be recognized as having an agenda that has the potential to distort the presentation of information. Thus, media literacy is a vital skill needed to navigate the barrage of meaning offered by media.

Teaching Media Literacy


Introducing media literacy into the school curriculum has raised some concerns. A common misconception is that teaching media literacy is just the needless incorporation of video into the classroom. Indeed, there are many cases where attempts to use video materials in the classroom are worthless, or even worse. In a survey of how media literacy has been incorporated into education, Renee Hobbs identified five common misuses. One common misuse is when a video is viewed, but there is no opportunity to introduce or discuss the viewed images. Other misuses of media in the classroom include using video as a reward for students or as a tool to keep students under control (Hobbs http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/mlr/readings/articles). Hobbs’ research concludes that these misuses of media resources are common. She adds that this is related to the fact that while most of the surveyed teachers have heard the term “media literacy,” few can accurately define it. From this study, Hobbs advocates a program to teach educators how to utilize media resources effectively. Teachers should inspire students to think critically about all information they receive, including visual information.

Although media resources can be abused in the classroom, they can be powerful tools in education. Educators must first confront the composition and complexity of media images. Images on television are manipulated in highly complex ways to create meaning. Kathleen Tyner states that students need to be taught more than just accessing information: “As students are inundated with media messages, the challenge is not to amass more information, but to access, organize and evaluate useful information from a variety of print and electronic sources. Critical thinking and good, old-fashioned research skills are essential for tunneling through the information glut” (http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/mlr/readings/articles/read.html).

Frequently, the best way to teach media literacy is through a guided examination of media images. Members of the community at MIT have created such a Web site, entitled “Deconstructing Images from the Media Analyzing Sound and News Footage” (Squire). Although this example is online, the Internet is not always necessary for this kind of presentation. It highlights a specific broadcast on CNN, and literally deconstructs the broadcast into its audio, visual, and textual components. Students are presented each form individually, and are given a set of questions to answer throughout the demonstration. At the end of the exercise, the student may be surprised at the contradictions of meanings between each form of communication. This is a particularly effective way of illustrating the need for critical media literacy.

II. How Visual Literacy Changes on the Internet



Rapid Growth and Thinking Critically

When the World Wide Web became available in June 1993, there were only 130 Web sites on the World Wide Web. Nine years later, in June 2000, there were more than 17, 119, 262 Web sites and probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions more, by the end of 2002 (Internet timeline http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/).

The Internet’s rapid growth caused a massive change in the number and kinds of people who used the Internet. Originally, a few computer programmers had the only access to the World Wide Web, and by 2000, millions of people around the world were able to access the Internet and any piece of information on it. The increasingly visually literate public, as we saw grow previously in the paper, had a new medium to experiment with, bringing about the question of what did visual literacy now mean in terms of the Internet?

According to Emmeline Seah, a researcher from the University of Singapore, “Never before has it been more necessary to learn to read, write and think critically” (http://www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/writing/ccwp10/emmeline/internet.html). Seah continues to say that the Internet is “becoming a major information and educational delivery system. However, electronically produced visual imagery requires a more fundamental role in thinking and learning… it also requires more intellectual effort on the part of the information consumer to develop valuable critical thinking skills and to evaluate the sources, quality, and quantity of that information. It's no longer the point and click procedure. Now it's point, read, think and click….”

Pamela McCorduck suggests “that knowledge can be embodied in different kinds of representations and some kinds of knowledge lend themselves better to certain representations than to others” (245). It can be inferred that online literacy is changing the traditional societal view that being literate means knowing how to read and write. Because online literacy is changing in such a way, the way literacy is taught and learned must change because “the privileged position text has occupied in our schools, indeed in our intellectual lives, is coming to an end” (as quoted in Tuman 245).

McCorduck asserts that “classrooms are saturated with text because text was the first cheap, mass-produced form of knowledge representation we had: it is called printing, and it made a revolution” (as quoted in Tuman 246). However, McCorduck asks, “How did we know before text? How did we represent what we knew before we could put it into writing?” (as quoted in Tuman 245). Unsurprisingly, she says, people drew pictures and visual literacy is one of the first methods of information literacy that humankind had.

Graphic design programs, the easy use of scanners, and an emphasis on making Web sites visually appealing has started a new revolution in education, just as the printing press established a text revolution. Just as books were made cheaper and more accessible, computer manufacturers are now making personal computers more affordable and easier for people to have in their own homes, proliferating a revolution of online literacy within the general public. According to Myron C. Tuman’s Literacy Online, “the overriding goal of literacy is to afford students the power coming from (or at least expressed in) a critical understanding of our world…. The goal of literacy is not greater efficiency in manipulating text….but a heightened sensitivity to the new ideas of others and, just as importantly, new ideas we generate ourselves” (6-7).

McCorduck and Tuman emphasize a common theme associated with learning from visual literacy online – critical thinking. Both acknowledge that in today’s society, information takes different forms. The Internet is the quickest tool to use when searching for information, so students need to be literate in more ways than just being able to read text in order to understand what is presented to them.


Discerning Image Truth

Because a number of visual images are being presented to the learner, critical thinking is especially important in the way learners evaluate the information given to them. Gregg Hoffman, a journalist with 25 years of experience and a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that:

Visual literacy is a requirement for clear thinking in the 21st Century. In most education systems, visual literacy is taught only to art students, or to those who want to become photographers or video producers. But, in the visual age, which actually has been with us for a couple decades, we all could benefit by better understanding visuals, especially those that appear in the media

(Hoffman http://www.generalsemantics.org/Hoffmann_Column/Visual_Literacy.htm)

Hoffman sees the need for a more critical approach to visual literacy now that the Internet reaches so many people. He gives an example of media coverage of the Elian Gonzales incident. “Two photos likely will become symbolic of the Elian Gonzales’ story. First is the Associated Press photo of the federal marshal, dressed in riot gear, demanding the boy be turned over. Second is the photo of the boy smiling with his father. People on both sides of the issue point to those photos to support their contentions” (http://www.generalsemantics.org/Hoffmann_Column/Visual_Literacy.htm).

Hoffman makes this point to show that images can be easily manipulated to represent one side or another about a certain subject or idea. As the number of Web sites grows on a daily basis and more people are turning to the Internet for information, the challenge of being visually literate is discerning what is fact, what is fiction, and how to approach making such decisions. Devices used in visual literacy, such as graphs, charts, television clips, movie clips, and photographs, are found in abundance throughout the Web. With many of these accepted visual literacy tools being coupled with audio files, the shift of visual literacy from print and television seems to have reinvented the idea of simple visual literacy into media literacy. The many elements found on the Web appeal to a number of one’s senses at once, and it is easy to become overwhelmed with visual and audio information and see only what the Web site’s creator intends. Critically looking at the messages behind the images on the Web is essential in its own right, and it becomes even more important when packaging images and text online.

Multiliteracy – Understanding Textual Images

Because of the many forms of literacy present on the World Wide Web, the idea of multiliteracies is brought up in a number of works regarding literacy in the information age. In order to be literate, one must understand a number of different literacies, such as print, verbal, visual, and media. Barbara Warnick writes that critical literacy “has been described as a literacy that encourages a reflective, questioning stance toward the forms and content of print and electronic media” (6). Critical literacy is used as an overarching term for the collaborative understanding of how, for example, visual, text, and media literacies are used in conjunction with one another and what kind of sense can be made out of this combination of approaches.

Electronic texts, unlike print texts, “have no boundaries. Represented in the computer’s circuitry as moveable bits of electronic data, they can always be expanded, condensed, or reassembled in new configurations” (Costanzo as quoted in Selfe and Hilgoss 12). Because text can be presented in many possible ways, the text in itself can become an element of visual literacy. It is not confined to physical pages that one flips systematically. It is a free form on the screen. “Much of the challenge in reading electronic prose lies in what Christina Haas calls ‘getting a sense of the text.’ When we read with a purpose – matching assumptions against the content of a document, forecasting what comes next, testing expectations, revision our assumptions – we rely largely on visual information” (Costanzo as quoted in Selfe and Hilgoss 12).

Reading Visually Online – A Study With No Conclusive Answers

An example of such challenging electronic prose is found in a feature piece written by Joyce Walker, a graduate student at the University of Illinois. The visual literacy essay that appears in Kairos, an online journal, derives a different meaning for each person who navigates it because the visual sense of the essay allows a number of different paths and no chronological order in which to read the text of the piece. The visual essay, entitled “Textual Textuality: A Personal Exploration of the Critical Race Theory” begins with a series of photographs depicting a moving bus. These still pictures appear one at a time, giving the sense of motion. As each bus still photograph appears, a word appears underneath so the final still reveals a complete idea: “movement and meaning finding a way through.” The word “through” is in a different color and linked to the next section of the essay. By using color as a visual clue, Walker challenges the reader’s visual literacy, as well as critical thinking skills. This opening page immediately conveys that this essay will be in no traditional textual form, and visual clues will be necessary to even attempt to explore the piece.

The second screen begins by showing a single box with some text. In order to proceed with the essay, one must click on the box and reveal a new box that appears next to the already existing box. The reader must click on six boxes to reveal a bus metaphor for critical race and once more on the last box in order to finally receive an explanation about the entire piece.

Walker likens waiting for a bus and deciphering its schedules and maps to deciphering the maps in her online essay:

The first time I ever tried to ride the bus in a major metropolitan area, I was hopelessly lost. I didn't understand how to read the schedules, and the maps offered a frustrating lack of detail. Those of you attempting to navigate this text may find its mapping system to be similarly frustrating, at least at first. However, there are guides provided to help readers create a coherent reading experience

(Walker http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/7.1/binder.html?features/walker/text/index.html).


Walker then provides a detailed explanation of the symbols and colors used in order to help the reader navigate and map his or her experience on the site. Small orange boxes next to a word or phrase indicate that it is a link to a new section of the essay: “The words on each link are titles that indicate what the content of the new screen will be. By following these links a reader can create a unique pathway through this textual space, which reflects both his/her interests and my own sense of the non-linear connections that exist in this space.”

Links labeled “navigation” will call up a gray box in the top left corner of the screen that shows the reader which links they have visited and in what order, providing a visual guide with which to keep track of their journey on the site. Each line might correspond to boxes of different colors. Each color relates to a different category of the larger essay. For example, purple links are screens that relate to the critical race theory, blue links relate to complications of the theory, red relates to personal stories or reflections, green relates to textual structures, gold links to intertexts, and orange means the screen is placed in a miscellaneous category. In using navigational tools such as link labels and colors “readers can read all, or only some of the screens in the text. There is no home to return to...only new places to start.”

There is a link next to text on the introductory page that reads: “This might be a beginning.” Clicking on it brings the reader to a page with three choices. The numbers one, two, and three appear on the screen and a small piece of a story appears when the reader mouses over the number. Above the number is unlinked text reading, “These Stories Begin Here.” The story on the number one refers to the Columbine high school shooting, the story on number two refers to a hibiscus plant in a front yard, and the story on number three refers to missing the bus. Should none of these stories appeal to the reader, he or she can also click on the link that reads “or perhaps here.” This page begins the reader’s true journey into the Web site and does so with sparse visual aspects, but it is the amount of white space left on the screen that draws the readers attention to the numbers and short phrases on the screen, aspects of visual literacy that would most likely be overlooked if the essay was presented in a more traditional format. These stories are not just made available in a traditional list with some explanation after each choice, they are interactive choices that the reader, not the author, determines for him or herself.

There are a number of ways to describe the information provided when clicking on various links, and there are too many possible ways to read these stories to even attempt to describe, but this appears to be the purpose of the essay. As Walker states at the bottom of a page that addresses the Columbine shooting, “I offer this text as a trail of bread crumbs although I don't know where the trail leads.” Pictures, intertextual links, and links to other Web sites on the World Wide Web provide a rather confusing yet visually and intellectually stimulating experience. One cannot read the essay, one must critically search the text with one’s eyes in order to catch the nuances. Each nuance, each link, each thought is a new spin on the same basic theme – the critical race theory.

The very nature of this site involves critical thinking and reasoning. Some links, such as one entitled “hibiscus digressions” do not initially appear to have much to do with the critical race theory. However, these digressions often lead to bigger questions, such as using gardening as a cyclical metaphor of creation and destruction in order to lead to larger questions such as “Could I possibly take this feeling and displace it, move it onto my interactions in a larger social framework?” This question can be applied to the central idea of the entire piece, but visual literacy and the ability to navigate by clicking on links that appear interesting allows the author to address issues in a way not possible if the same approach were being taken in a traditional essay. A traditional essay would become so convoluted with digressions and stories that the reader would have a great deal of trouble discerning the main point. Patricia Sullivan notes in her article, “Practicing safe visual rhetoric on the World Wide Web” that in print, visual rhetoric guidelines mark a path for readers (109). Visual markers such as headlines and subheads are used to “guide readers to the key points” (Sullivan 109). Certain established guidelines limit the range of fonts and font sizes used in constructing what is considered “readable” text, however, these guidelines often appeal to authors of print publications who have little graphic design training (Sullivan 110).

However, “the Web’s conduciveness to interactivity, to animation, and to video all work against the stable and static visual esthetics that have grown to carry meaning on the page. The more Web cultures evolve, the more they suggest that the production of writing and the production of Web sites are not the same activities and indeed the face different challenges” (Sullivan 116-117). Training in visual literacy can help diversify the types of text available when applying text online because these mediums that Sullivan mentions will only continue to grow in use, mirroring the larger media culture that has evolved outside of, but is invading, the Internet. It is this culture of large amounts of information presented in different ways that influences essays such as Walker’s, where text and ideas are broken down visually and can be taken in at one’s own pace.

If one asked a reader of this visual essay to share the points of the essay the person read that lead them to what he or she felt was the central idea, there is a good chance that each person asked would have taken a different path, clicked on links in different orders, and did not read every single screen in an orderly fashion. This visual literacy essay allows one to think critically on his or her own without the constraints of a traditional expository essay that has only a thesis, specific support, and a conclusion.

The beauty of this visual literacy essay is that it has no official conclusion; the only conclusion is what the person saw. The challenge of this literacy is seeing the information in a critical way and remembering, as Hoffman emphasized, to think of what is on the screen, and how the information is being used and presented. Walker’s essay intends for the user to make his or her own path, but do so in a critical manner that allows them to consider each visual element carefully.


Critiquing Cyberspace

While critical thinking skills and the ability to read carefully with a purpose is essential to understanding visual literacy, one must also keep larger implications in mind.

Although Web sites allow for more creative and non-traditional presentations, this change from the typical essay presentation is one that requires extra thought on the reader’s part. In order to cope with this newly emerging form of literacy, one must have the “skills necessary to effectively construct and comfortably navigate multiplicity, to manipulate and critique information, representations, knowledge, and arguments in multiple media from a wide range of sources, and to use multiple expressive technologies including those offered by print, visual, and digital tools” (Williams 22). Visual literacy is not only an aesthetic experience. It is one that requires a great deal of analytical training, and the importance of “critiquing cyberspace” is one that pervades all lessons of visual literacy (Williams 22). Once able to effectively and objectively evaluate the images and text found online, a person not only can glean more information from the Internet but also apply these cognitive skills to the rest of society, particularly the media.

While online visual literacy is a key tool for teaching the critical thinking skills needed in a visually based society, access issues ranging from Internet training and availability to physical disabilities could have serious implications on a society’s ability to understand what is being communicated. If this increased visual literacy is becoming a key aspect to understanding the information in today’s society and some are physically unable to access the technology that will provide them with the thinking skills needed to be considered fully literate, one must ask whom this literacy is meant for. If it is meant for everyone, how do we make the opportunity to develop these skills available for everyone?



III. Visual Literacy and the Disabled




Literacy and the Disabled



Although simple material disadvantages, such as not being able to afford a computer, can interfere with the acquisition of critical visual literacy skills, a pressing yet unsolved quandary remains in the realm of visual literacy education – special education. While access and socioeconomic status are issues at stake, they are issues for a slightly broader discussion. In terms of education and pedagogy, special education is an area that needs to be specifically addressed. If a person has a difficult time physically accessing a computer, how does this affect his/her visual literacy? Is this person less “literate” than other people who have frequent and easy exposure to the Internet?

Most of us take literacy for granted. We open a book or look at a cereal box or go to a web page, and reading what’s there is a totally commonplace and unremarkable activity. For people with disabilities, however, reading and discerning pictures is not always such a simple task. People who are blind, deaf, or have cognitive disabilities face unique challenges when both acquiring and exercising literacy.

According to the Web site for the American Foundation for the Blind, there are approximately 10 million blind or visually impaired people in the United States, and someone in America becomes blind or visually impaired every seven minutes. A person qualifies as visually impaired when his/her corrected vision is no better than 20/70. When someone’s corrected vision is no better than 20/200, he/she is considered legally blind. Often the visually impaired require text to be printed in at least a 14-point font, and photos/pictures must be described verbally. Limitation of visual stimuli can be compensated for by strengthening the other senses instead (Wagener 250). Pictures are the easiest symbolic form for children to grasp, but the blind/visually impaired are prevented from utilizing this form (Graham 7).

Instead, children in school engage in tactile rather than visual exploration; in language learning, they learn to associate objects with words by obtaining tactile knowledge. For example, they might learn to understand the concept of hard versus soft by touching a block of wood and a stuffed animal. In general, poor vision or total lack thereof requires that visual images be transformed so that the impaired person can understand the information through the other senses, such as touch or hearing.

The World Wide Web Consortium states that when it comes to computers, certain issues should be taken into account when designing sites that are accessible for the visually impaired. Web site designers must make sure that there is enough color contrast between the text and the background so that it can be comfortably read by users who are colorblind or have otherwise poor vision. Joyce Walker’s online essay, for example, would pose serious difficulties for visually impaired users because of its reliance on different-colored links. A colorblind person would find the site frustrating because he/she may not be able to distinguish the difference between all the colors and therefore not understand the categorization of the site’s sections. For this reason, designers should not rely on color alone to convey information. If there are pictures, graphs, or other kinds of graphical content on the page, there should be some kind of auditory description of these images available. Information should be able to transition smoothly from the screen and vision-assistance devices, such as audio screen-readers or Braille display units.

According to the Census Bureau, almost 8 million people in the United States are deaf or have a hearing impairment. Ordinarily we might not consider hearing problems to be particularly relevant to the Internet, but they can be, as it becomes easier to stream audio on the Web and more and more Web sites begin incorporating audio in synchrony with visual images, such as the use of audio and video on news Web sites such as www.cnn.com. In many cases, children who are deaf/hearing impaired are several years behind their peers in reading level. Thus, hearing impairments sometimes lead to language impairments as well (Metcalf 198), which naturally affects reading comprehension and acquisition of literacy. In communicating with the hearing impaired, the emphasis, of course, must be placed on the visual and tactile as opposed to the auditory. Movies and television programs must have closed-captioning or some other similar kind of textual alternative to the audio soundtrack. Web sites should provide similar accommodations; for example, news sites with video clips should provide textual transcripts of the narration and sounds in the film, just as television programs do.


The mentally impaired/learning disabled are an often-overlooked group, but, nevertheless, visual media should consider these users when designing programming and Web sites. People with mental impairments or specific learning disabilities, especially language/reading disabilities, sometimes encounter difficulties understanding complex sentence structures or intricate visual layouts. At times they can be distracted by garish stimuli and have difficulty concentrating in the presence of such distractions (Thomas 85). Navigation mechanisms should be kept fairly simple and consistent, and overly technical language should be avoided unless required.

Designers should also avoid blinking or rolling text because these are distractions that can make it nearly impossible for some users to concentrate on the true content of the site. If blinking or moving text exists, users should be given the option to make it stop. In addition to being a distraction for impaired users, flashing objects can also trigger seizures in epileptics or cause other disturbances for people with various neurological disorders. Graphics and photographs should be carefully chosen so as not to be misleading; often the photographs that accompany news articles can be deceiving.


Conclusion

The rapid growth of visual information in society requires advanced critical thinking skills in order to comprehend visual images shown through television, movies, and photographs. However, the growing use of the Internet as an information source is also incorporating this visual literacy in new and different ways. Text is manipulated and can link one to other Web pages with a simple click of a colored, underlined link. Verbal literacy becomes visual, and the photographs and visual images of the Web are often gateways to other corners of the Internet.

Because of the growing number of Web sites and Web users, visual information on the Web must be approached with strong abilities to apply higher critical thought processes to the information shown on the screen. Web users must discern whether an image is being manipulated in a way the original was not meant. Educators must guide students through these visual elements on the Web. Web designers must consider what it takes for a person with a physical disability to access visual information in conjunction with other multi-media plug-ins.

Visual literacy requires the use of a number of other literacies, such as critical, verbal, and media literacy. The need to be multiliterate in today’s society is great, and without proper education suitable for students of all physical capabilities, people run the risk of misinterpreting information, or, worse, missing it all together. The ability to weed through colors, flashing text, manipulated photographs, and audio streaming is important because without higher thinking skills, one will not get the information he or she needs. That person will only become confused or misled, and the growth of literacy in the information age could become stagnant in the general population. Just as visual elements are essential to Japanese script, books, and newspapers, they are also an indelible part of the World Wide Web, a medium that is growing faster than many can predict. In order to take advantage of technology and receive clear and distinct information, visual literacy is necessary. In this age of information, the need for incorporation of an online visual curriculum in education is irrefutable.

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