In my first post on Carleton College’s Visual Learning Conference, I shared a few highlights from the opening keynote by Scott McCloud and from my own session on visual engagement techniques. In this post, I’ll focus on other sessions I attended at the conference, which were, in general, fantastic. I’ll also note that the Carleton campus (seen in the photo here) was stunning in late September. Between the dedication of the Carleton faculty I experienced and the beauty of the campus, I have no qualms about trying to send my kids to Carleton one day!
The session following mine was on teaching with visuals across the curriculum, and it featured Deandra Little, assistant director at the Teaching Resource Center at the University of Virginia, and Chad Berry, professor of Appalachian studies and history at Berea College. Deandra and Chad are co-editing (with Peter Felten of Elon University) an upcoming volume of New Directions for Teaching and Learning on this topic. In their session, they shared the framework they’re developing for thinking about visual literacy. My sketchnotes:
Deandra and Chad first split the notion of visual literacy into two components: vision (the biophysical aspects of seeing) and visuality (the interpretative aspects of seeing). Then they broke the idea of visuality into three sub-components: visual thinking, visual learning, and visual composing. The differences among these three were a bit fuzzy (as they noted, it’s a framework still under development), but Deandra shared an analogy with me after the session that helped. In the world of writing across the curriculum, people talk about “writing in the disciplines” (WID) and “writing to learn” (WTL). WID refers to writing activities in which students practice the writing conventions used in the discipline. In math, that would mean having students write proofs, because that’s the kind of writing that mathematicians do. WTL, on the other hand, refers to more informal forms of writing intended to help students think and learn. In math, we might ask students to write about the process they used to solve a problem or outline a paper as an early step in the writing process. These are WTL activities. (See Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines by my grad school colleague Patrick Bahls for more info on WID and WTL.)
Deandra compared visual thinking to “writing to learn” activities and visual learning to “writing in the disciplines.” In this framework, many of the visual engagement techniques I shared in my session (concept maps, timelines, flowcharts, and so on) are examples of visual thinking,” visualizations that help students understand concepts and relationships. Visual learning activities are then ones that use the visual communication conventions of the field. In a statistics course, that might mean particular kinds of charts, graphs, or infographics. In a biology course, that might mean particular kinds of diagrams that are commonly used in the biological sciences literature. In a humanities course, that might mean analyzing primary sources that have visual components, including photos, maps, and illustrations.
The third sub-component of visual literacy that Deandra and Chad identified is visual composing, which refers more directly to activities in which students create visual artifacts. I’m not sure, but I think such creations could be in the service to visual thinking (“visualizing to learn,” so to speak) or visual learning (“visualizing in the discipline”). One example of visual composing that Chad shared was the Mappalachia project. From the project’s home page:
After World War II, Berea College created a general studies course called “Man and the Humanities,” in which students studied literature, music, and art. One of the first assignments asked students to draw their home community. Over the four-decade life of this course, some 7,000 drawings were saved. Because many of the students who came to Berea during these years were from Appalachia, these drawings are now primary sources that offer revealing glimpses of Appalachian life over the last half of the twentieth century.
The collection of maps is a digital humanities project, while the mapping assignment itself is an example of visual composing. As I did in my session, Deandra and Chad emphasized the utility of having students not only read and interpret visuals, but create them as well.
Speaking of creating images, computer science professor Sam Rebelsky of Grinnell College shared in his session ways he and his colleagues have included the creation of art in the introductory computer science course. Rebelsky noted that computer science is the study of algorithms used to solve problems. The problems the Grinnell computer science department faced included a large gender imbalance in their computer science program (mostly men, few women) and a lack of engagement from non-majors in their intro course. They decided to partner with arts faculty to build more visual assignments into the course. Here are my sketchnotes:
The new assignments had elements of both visual thinking and visual learning. For instance, in one assignment, students were asked to respond to the question “How would you teach someone to draw a smiley face?” by drafting different sets of instructions. One set would be used with the open-source image program GIMP, which allows users to program operations. Another set would be used with a set of discs of different shapes and sizes. A third set would be used to program a little robot that holds a pen as it moves across paper. Rebelsky noted that the visual aspect of this assignment seemed to help students understand the results of their algorithms better than more traditional coding assignments often do.
In the final project for the course, students were asked to create a visually interesting image using GIMP as a function of three variables: n (a positive integer), w (the image width), and h (the image height). They had learned something about “visually interesting” from the arts faculty who guest taught in the course, and were encouraged to be creative in the images they generated. This is a surprisingly complex and interesting assignment. I don’t know if students in the course shared their creations with each other, but I hope they did–they came up with some clever images. You can read the entire project assignment, and below you can see some student work (screen-grabbed from Rebelsky’s Prezi).
One last note about Rebelsky’s presentation: He began by telling us that he was inspired by Scott McCloud’s keynote the night before to make some big changes in his Prezi so that it would provide a better visual complement to his talk. I appreciate it when conference speakers reference keynotes (since they are sometimes the only shared experience a group of conference participants has), and I really appreciate it when they take some time to implement something they learned from a keynote in their own presentations!
I think I have at least one more post in me about the Visual Learning Conference. Stay tuned.Top Image: “Connections,” by me, Flickr (CC)