The Strength of Weak Ties

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Communicating Visually in the 21st Century

I’ve seen quite a few posts coming through my aggregator lately about video, and the potential of this medium on many different levels. That, coupled with my interest in digital storytelling, prompted me to create a series of belief statements about communicating visually in the 21st Century. So, here they are:

There is a biological basis for visual communication.
The auditory nerve transmits sound to the brain and is composed of about 30,000 fibers. Contrast that with the optic nerve which sends visual signals to the brain through 1 million fibers (Burmark 2002). Basically, you’ve got a dial-up connection from the ear to the brain and broadband from the eye to the brain. Teach kids to take advantage of the connectivity, and then teach them that…

Emotion, depicted through visual means, sells the message.
Students must learn how to convey meaning emotionally. That’s why digital storytelling, when done right, can be such a powerful learning experience. Anyone that has recently seen 4 Generations: The Water Buffalo Movie can attest to that. How many of you wanted to pony up $250 after viewing that? And take the recent video obituary (called the Final Word) of Art Buchwald at the New York Times where he says “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died” and they go on to tell his life story. Bizarre, yet powerful because of the emotion. Then teach them that…

The most powerful producer of visual imagery is the individual, it's you.
Digital cameras, cell phone cameras, citizen journalism, photos of the London subway bombings, of Saddam Hussein’s execution, of the sinking of the container ship MSC Napoli and 368,533,947 million photos at Flickr attest to the capability and absolute raw power of the individual to produce visual material and bring the world home. But simply producing this is not enough, because…

Individuals must be capable of working in multiple mediums to create visual messages, in accordance with the principals of visual literacy.
They have do something with that visual imagery and it has to be done the right way. Create. Remix. Mashup. Post to YouTube. Or use online content creation systems like JumpCut or Mogopop to create or distribute visual messages. Why is this necessary? Because….

Visuals, when combined with other multimedia, provide individuals with a competitive voice. One that can be heard. One that can be measured. One that says “here I am, and here’s what I think, here is what I have to contribute. Now what do you think?” Check out the three guys who did the AP Psychology Report on YouTube (via Will Richardson). How many teachers would be comfortable with this kind of product? And what would you give these kids as a grade? And producing videos like this becomes even more powerful, because…

Networks for sharing and collaboration extend that voice.
When one says something, all have the potential to hear. It’s about amplification. Make it go viral. Look at this video (one of my favorites), Where the Hell is Matt?. It’s 3:42 minutes of uplifting dancing by one guy, all over the world, and its been viewed 395,736 times. Could our students have that type of impact? So..the upshot?

Being visually literate is just as important as reading and writing and should be considered a fundamental literacy of a 21st Century education.

Would you add or change anything?”

Burmark, Lynell. Visual Literacy: Learn to See. See to Learn. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.

Posted also at the blog


  • At 2:14 PM , Blogger Unknown said...


    What an outstanding summary of the need to develop student's visual literacy skills in schools. I have just completed a collaborative project with our 11th Grade history teacher who asked his students to create a 1-3 minute visual answering the question, what did Vietnam mean? (see the first of my reflections at - more will be coming in the next few weeks, both student and teacher reflections).

    There were some students who were more engaged in this assignment. The quantity and quality of the work was equal if not better than if it had been a written paper. We found that some students could organize themselves better in a visual medium and others is their disorganization became more evident.

    The result of this project was a conversation I had with our history teacher and English teacher, who next year will try to bring their satire units into synch next year, with one teaching more written satire and the other teaching via a visual medium. It will be a powerful experience for the students.


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