Visual Literacy in Higher Education: The Importance, Challenges, and Opportunities

Visual Literacy in Higher Education

In today’s visually oriented society, the ability to use images and visual media is increasingly important. Students need to know how to find and interpret these materials.

This article examines student visual literacy in higher education through questionnaire responses, paper and presentation analyses, and interviews with students. Findings suggest that students receive little guidance from faculty regarding how to select, evaluate, and use visual resources.

Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education

The visual information and communication literacies are increasingly recognized as essential for students in higher education. However, while discussion of transliteracy and metaliteracy often includes visual literacy, the development of specific instructional practices and standards around interdisciplinary visual information and communication remains a challenge.

The Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, created by the ACRL Image Research Interest Group and a member of the second Visual Literacy Task Force (VLTF) with support from an ACRL 2019 Carnegie-Whitney grant, seek to re-envision the 2011 ACRL Visual Literacy standards and provide tools for educators who wish to pursue visual literacy in their classrooms. The new document reflects both the 2016 Framework’s expanded understanding of information literacy and the changing landscape of both visual information and visual communication.

The visually literate student understands many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding images and visual media and accesses, uses, and creates such materials in an ethical manner. The visually literate student also understands how to work with image metadata and citation, as well as the impact of broader technological and cultural shifts on the perception and use of visual information and communication.

Developing Visual Literacy Competencies

Visual literacy is a broad topic that has multiple definitions. Scholars are still working to define and understand this inherently diverse field. However, most agree that it is an integral part of the 21st century educational landscape.

Educators need to integrate visual literacy in their teaching in order to prepare students for a visually-oriented world. From understanding how to interpret a flat pack furniture instruction manual to choosing an emoji that will convey the right tone in a social media message, visual literacy is an essential skill.

This special issue brings together a range of articles that explore different approaches to teaching visual literacy. By combining cognitive theories of visual literacy with ACRL’s Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, these authors show how librarians can teach visual skills in their subject classes. They also demonstrate how visual literacy activities help break down traditional textual teaching modes and provide opportunities for new, innovative ways of learning.

Developing Visual Literacy Learning Outcomes

Modern students are immersed in image-saturated environments, and their communication practices are largely mediated by images (e.g., photo and video sharing, video chatting, texting and using emoticons and emojis). But when they arrive in college classrooms, they are often forced to learn in a predominantly textual environment that is incompatible with their visual literacy skills.

The authors recommend that librarians work with faculty to introduce visual literacy concepts and competencies into the curriculum. They suggest that this may include providing training in how to identify and evaluate visual resources, teaching students how to use image-processing software, and encouraging research projects based on the collection or analysis of images.

Additionally, this study suggests that it is important to involve students in making their own visuals and videos, as well as in evaluating these. The students interviewed for this article emphasized that they learned more from doing than from reading or listening. This approach, known as “learning by doing,” also fosters higher levels of retention and engagement.

Developing Visual Literacy Assessments

While the development of visual literacy is crucial to individuals’ participation in a visually-oriented society, current academic standards do not explicitly include it. While discussions of multimodal literacy, transliteracy, and metaliteracy recognize the importance of visual communication in learning, the need for a dedicated framework for teaching and assessing this literacies remains unmet.

This study offers an intellectual framework and structure for pursuing visual literacy in higher education, building upon the Information Literacy Competency Standards as a foundation. By identifying and describing specific skills and subskills, the resulting Visual Literacy Standards articulate observable learning outcomes for educators to pursue in their classrooms.

Students use visual materials throughout the curriculum – gathering information from charts, graphs and diagrams in math or science; interrogating maps, photographs, advertisements, and political cartoons in history; and analyzing creative visuals in art, drama, or design. The research suggests that librarians can support the development of these visual communication skills by offering practical workshops on creating PowerPoint presentations, designing infographics, and processing images.

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