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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Design Of Information - Empowering Students To Create Authentic Visuals

This week I am giving some guest bloggers an opportunity to share their ideas with you. This is a guest post from Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac. 

Students with access to tablets, laptops, and digital devices today are blessed with a wealth of visual resources at their fingertips. At the same time, they are inundated with graphics from smartphones, streaming media, and video games. As a consequence, rightly or wrongly, most children think of themselves as visual learners. The potential is steep for apps and web tools that invite students to create their own educational images. The risk, however, is that these pictorial projects will fail to actually illuminate any information and will instead result in a mess of colors, layouts, and fonts.

We’ve been experimenting this year with a few specific iOS and Internet resources to emphasize visual design as a way of adding context to content. We abide by the strict saying, “Content first, pretty second.” At the same time, we try to introduce students to the importance of visual displays in communicating information cleanly and effectively. These visual skills center on decoding and encoding. Students can “read” images to comprehend the essential meanings, and they can also generate graphics themselves to demonstrate thematic mastery.


Our middle schoolers, for example, use the Smore website to create digital portfolios of their work. They curate their creations across all of their subjects, storing them in a sharable digital archive. Smore is a free, flexible, open-ended resource originally billed as a tool for designing posters and flyers. Its user-friendly nature to embed and link media, however, makes it an ideal space for students to collect their visual projects. Teachers, too, can use Smore for cataloging class portfolios, to share electronically with parents and to maintain safely in a cloud-based platform.

Infographics also make for elegant visual presentations to arrange facts and figures. Although infographics have saturated the modern business climate, they are still emerging in the educational world as canvases for student work. Our students use the Visualize and PicCollage apps on their iPads to fashion social studies graphics about country statistics. Because they blend words, pictures, and data, infographics can be key tools to simplify and reimagine course material. They also make children aware of the media potential for bias in advertising. Even elementary learners enjoy the practice with color, fonts, and layout as they refine the clarity of their images.

Sketchnoting can offer another avenue for marrying class content with students’ individual learning preferences. Our students combine multi-sensory note-taking with the interactive possibilities of Thinglink. Sketchnoting by hand is an expressive, higher order process of capturing information that offers choice in exploring the visual metaphors of a day’s learning. Then, students can photograph their drawings using the iPad and upload their images to Thinglink. They annotate their illustrations with Thinglink hot spots, featuring paragraphs from their class blogs. These dynamic designs can be embedded or shared via social media like Twitter.

Overall, our students appreciate that well-designed visuals are rewarding in personalizing the understanding of content. As teachers, we see improvement in the way children internalize content and look carefully at their creations. This literacy in rendering optical inputs speaks to the interrelated nature of our students’ visual world.

Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac are K-8 teachers and media specialists in Roslyn, New York. They are also the co-founders of The American Society For Innovation Design In Education and co-editors of the ASIDE blog (@theASIDEblog), whose work has been featured in Edutopia, EdTech Magazine, and other outlets. They write about technology and literacy in publications such as ISTE’s Learning & Leading With Technology, Edsurge, and Al Jazeera.