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Visual literacies and visual technologies for teaching, learning and inclusion: Introduction to the Special Issue


Published onJul 11, 2022
Visual literacies and visual technologies for teaching, learning and inclusion: Introduction to the Special Issue

Keywords: editorial

Part of the Special Issue Visual literacies and visual technologies for teaching, learning and inclusion

1. Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a major shift in teaching and learning, particularly within higher education and as a result accelerated the move to technology-enhanced learning and online teaching and learning. This was particularly evident in the increasing use of visual technologies such as video and video-conferencing systems and to a lesser extent augmented reality mobile apps and immersive virtual reality platforms. To fully utilise these technologies within higher education requires a high level of visual literacy, i.e. the ability to understand, create and communicate with visuals (Avgerinou & Pettersson, 2020).

Visual literacy is often seen as an essential requirement for students, educators and citizens as it is fundamental to understanding the visuals that dominate social media, digital education and digital citizenship. As higher education has rapidly moved to online delivery there has been an increasing focus on the professional development needs of academics and a growing desire to understand pedagogy and research surrounding the use of visuals in teaching, learning and assessment. The main focus of visual literacy research has been on the practical value of visual communication in teaching contexts (Avgerinou, 2003).

The definition of visual literacy is highly contested, and the literacy metaphor has been challenged as too simplistic (Kędra, 2018). Since Debes’ first definition of visual literacy in 1969, there have been many definitions including different disciplinary perspectives and there has been widespread use of the visual literacy metaphor (Avgerinou & Pettersson 2020). Though, like most analogies, it has its limitations and cannot explain all aspects of visual literacy (Cassidy & Knowlton, 1983). This led Cassidy and Knowlton (1983) to propose abandoning the metaphor completely. In response, Sless (1984) criticised their empiricist viewpoint and argued for a more generous interpretation that allowed for continued use of the metaphor.

Within higher education, visual literacy can be seen as an exercise in developing skills, knowledge and abilities, however, an alternative approach is to view it as a practice that requires a critical understanding of the context surrounding the use of visuals (Berger, 1972). For example, political cartoonists may offer an alternative social commentary that requires an understanding of the political, historical, cultural and social context within which it is set. When visual literacy is viewed as a practice, meaning is constructed from an understanding of not just visuals but also how they are positioned within the historical, cultural, political and social setting.

Within the field of technology-enhanced learning, visual literacy or competence in the use of visuals in education needs to include the ability to understand, create and communicate using visual through technologies such as video, video-conferencing systems and augmented reality platforms. These digital tools add another layer of complexity and require an additional level of digital competence from students, educators and citizens. For example, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of video-conference software has increased rapidly and spread throughout the general population to facilitate communication, formal education and informal learning in the community. In order to overcome isolation and access education, many people have had to rapidly learn digital skills in order to utilise the software, but they have also needed visual literacy to understand how to manage their identity online (Sime & Themelis, 2020).

Other visual technologies present unexplored opportunities to educators because of their novelty, such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies that provide immersive and highly visual experiences to users. For example, augmented reality delivered through a mobile app has become more accessible due to the increasing power of mobile phones and advances in software engineering (Bower et al., 2014; Maas & Hughes 2020). However, educators need to understand how and when it is appropriate to integrate this technology into their teaching practice. While the technical challenges can often be overcome by watching an instructional video, a deeper appreciation of a visual may not be so easy without visual literacy, for example, understanding what is and is not fake news on social media.

The move beyond text into multimedia and the use of video and audio has given rise to discussions of multimodality and the concept of multiliteracies. The New London Group (1996) proposed a broader view of literacy as multiliteracies which responds to two changes in thinking about literacy. This recognises, first, that in technology-enhanced learning there are multiple channels of communication and media (e.g. audio, video), and secondly that we should recognise and take into account the “increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today” (New London Group, 1996, p. 1).

The pedagogy of multiliteracies suggests that knowledge is embedded in social, cultural and material contexts and develops through interactions with others in a community whilst engaging in authentic ‘situated practice’. This change to a broader view of literacy can also be seen in digital literacy literature for example, the social context of digital literacy practices, such as ‘situated literacies’ (Barton & Hamilton, 2000), or emphasis on socio-material multimodality and the entangled nature of the social and the material elements of a system (Knox & Bayne, 2014). So, this socio-cultural view considers visual literacy as enacted in the everyday practices of educators, students and citizens and embedded in a social, cultural and historical setting.

From the technology-enhanced learning perspective the notion of multimodalities is also important as multiple perspectives necessitate a complex construction of meaning from the various channels of communication, situated within the social, linguistic and cultural context. Multiple media, such as video, blogs, podcasts, and games, contribute to the transmedia nature of communications nowadays. For example, film makers and games designers work together to communicate a storyline across multiple media such as through a film and a game that are released at the same time (Jenkins, 2003). High levels of understanding of how visuals can be used to communicate complex storylines can be seen in the work of film makers and games designers where transmedia storytelling has become popular.

While educators may not have as in-depth knowledge of visuals as game designers or film directors it is still important for educators to be able to understand how visuals can be used to construct technology-enhanced learning experiences for students and for students to be able to understand the communications. For example, a transmedia understanding is important in understanding presence and identity management where an educator’s identity is constructed from information across multiple platforms, such as institutional websites, social media and other online sources (Sime & Themelis, 2020). So, educators, students and citizens encountering multiple media online need to learn about and critically engage in visual literacy practices.

2. The special issue

The papers within this special issue are all linked by a focus on visual literacy in the context of technology-enhanced learning and can be grouped into three themes. The first theme shows the importance of visual literacy in the online environment including educator identity and presence (Dennen & Arslan, 2022), and fake news and digital citizenship (Farmer, 2022). The second theme relates to visual literacy and technology in education, specifically, educators’ production decisions and perceptions of framing in videoconferencing (Ramirez Martinell, 2022) and the pedagogic potential of augmented reality (Hurley, 2022). The third theme provides detailed examples of how visuals are being used in higher education settings: to examine the role of visuals in a change laboratory intervention (Moffitt, 2022), to study visual communication of critical health information in community settings (Newman & Bustamante, 2022), to understand how medical students are using visual artefacts as a tool for reflection in their experiential learning (Bendriss, 2022) and the challenges in the visual design of an inclusive, ‘dyslexia-friendly’, mobile app for English language learners based on webtoons, i.e. comics designed to be read on mobile devices (Sime & Tsampra, 2022).

Dennen and Arslan (2022) explore instructor identity and presence through an examination of how identity is visually communicated within online educational courses (e.g. photos, graphics), communications (e.g. memes, emojis) and through other public spaces (e.g. social media profiles). The implications of this transmedia presence are discussed in relation to professional development of educators who should develop their visual literacy and identity management skills so that they can manage their online identity more effectively.

Farmer (2022) discusses the importance of visual literacy in countering the effects of fake news images and disinformation. Fake news images can be used to provide negative portrayals of minority or marginalised groups and studies have shown that these groups are less likely to be producers of news. Set in an American context, this paper explores how education can empower learners to be visually literate and civically engaged citizens.

Ramirez Martinell (2022) discusses the role of videoconferencing technologies in emergency remote teaching in higher education. This rapid pivot to online education, during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 revealed that not all educators had the same experience of framing their appearance on camera. This paper provides insight into the visual literacy of educators via an analysis of their production decisions and perceptions of videoconferencing.

Hurley (2022) stresses the importance of visual literacy in relation to an augmented reality mobile app. Using a semiotic-dialogic framework, she analyses a number of augmented reality exhibits at Adobe’s online ‘Festival of the Impossible’ and questions their claims about the potential for collaborative learning and other pedagogic uses for learners.

Using a change laboratory methodology and the framework of cultural-historical activity theory, Moffitt (2022) examines how visual representations of social activity were used as mediating artefacts for a group to examine and change their own engineering education activity. The paper illustrates the key role that these visual artefacts played in stimulating change, facilitating questioning and provoking transformative agency.

Newman and Bustamante (2022) focus on scientific visual communication of health information. They share their experiences of teaching students in higher education about visual communication and literacy. An innovative aspect is that students engage in project-based experiential learning and connect with users in the community who have a real need for communicating complex health and scientific information. As a result, they have been developing visual literacy to improve health outcomes and have raised appreciation of the visual arts within the local community and the university.

Also investigating experiential learning Bendriss (2022) explores multimodality and visual semiotics in an investigation of a medical student shadowing programme. Visual images and photographs are used by students to capture their learning experiences and these artefacts are then used as a tool for reflection. The results suggest the positive benefits of visual artefacts in socialising students and promoting a professional identity in medicine.

Finally, Sime and Tsampra (2022) focus on design for inclusion through a discussion of the visual design of a mobile app based on webtoons for learners of English as an additional language as they learn about essay planning.  The innovative teaching method illustrated in the app uses multimodality to foster literacy and support the cognitive and affective needs of learners with and without dyslexia.  The paper offers some insight into the theoretical and practical challenges involved in designing a socially inclusive, dyslexia-friendly, mobile app.

This special issue offers a range of perspectives on visual literacy within technology-enhanced learning in higher education and aims to stimulate interest in improving teaching practice and engaging in further research into these issues. While visual literacy scholars are still debating the definition of visual literacy and agreeing on a visual literacy theory, the research literature showcased in this special issue demonstrates the value of visual literacy in technology-enhanced learning and offers some suggestions for improving educational practice and advancing theoretical understanding.

About the author

Julie-Ann Sime, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom.

Julie-Ann Sime

Julie-Ann Sime’s research interests are in innovation in technology-enhanced learning in post-compulsory education. Julie-Ann is particularly interested in online learning in groups, teams and communities and on design for learning practices, educational design research methodology, and social inclusion of students with dyslexia (and other specific learning differences), ADHD and autism.

Email: [email protected]

ORCID: 0000-0002-3964-0684

Twitter: @julieannsime

Article information

Article type: Editorial, not peer-reviewed.

Publication history: Published: 11 July 2022.

Cover image: Merlin Lightpainting via Pexels.


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Avgerinou, M. D. & Pettersson, R. (2020). Visual Literacy Theory: Moving Forward. In S. Josephson, J. D. Kelly & K. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of Visual Communication. Routledge.

Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (2000). Literacy Practices. In D. Barton, M. Hamilton, & R. Ivanič. (Eds.), Situated Literacies: Reading and writing in context (pp. 7-15). Routledge.

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Farmer, L. (2022). Visual literacy and fake news: Gaining a visual voice. Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(1).

Hurley, Z. (2022). Thinking with semiotic-dialogism: Re-orienting augmented reality and visual literacy. Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(1).

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Ramirez Martinell, A. (2022). Videoconferences in higher education: The good frame. Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(1).

Sime, J.A. & Themelis, C. (2020). Educators’ Perspectives on Transmedia Identity Management: Re-defining Tele-teacher Presence. Distance Education, 41(1), 70-85.

Sime, J.A. & Tsampra, E. (2022).  Extracting the story behind the CIELL essays: Inclusive visual design of the webtoons in the CIELL mobile app.  Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(1).

Sless, D. (1984). Visual literacy: A failed opportunity. Educational Communication and Technology, 32(4), 224-228.

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