Bridges and barriers to developing visual literacy
As learning developers, we are generally confident supporting academics and students with developing criticality and academic writing skills. However, communication today is multimodal and increasingly visual so our support is expanding to include developing visual literacy, i.e. approaching visual sources critically and using visuals to communicate effectively.
Both the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (QAA, 2014) and many individual subject benchmark statements require students to be able to communicate ‘in a range of formats’ and to ‘non-specialist audiences’ —and yet not all students seem to have the opportunities learn how to do so effectively, despite these national and disciplinary requirements. This presentation reported on the findings from research undertaken as part of an EdD that explored the extent of visual literacy development across an institution and what further enablers and obstacles exist that influence a student’s ability to develop the skills needed to effectively communicate in a visually rich landscape (see Bartram, 2021).
The research began with an institution-wide audit of 1,725 module specifications that categorised each module as explicitly, implicitly, potentially or not apparently developing visual literacy. This audit indicated that choice of degree is the first major bridge or barrier to developing visual literacy a student may face. Only three subjects had the opportunity to develop both critical and creative visual literacy skills in a good proportion (>25%) of their modules (Film, Media & Digital Design, Engineering & Geography, Earth & Environmental Science); two more had a similar number of opportunities to develop only critical skills (History and American Studies) and likewise with creative skills (Biology & Environmental Science and English & Creative Writing – but the majority had only modest or low numbers of modules with opportunities to develop any visual literacy skills. Interviews with academic staff teaching on modules representing all the above categories then considered why visual literacy is or is not developed. Barriers were identified such as resistance to change, lack of staff experience/confidence in teaching and assessing visual communication, and student expectations of assessments. The research found many bridges, such as the increase in public communication assignments to improve employability and the need for more inclusive assessments. It concluded that most barriers could be minimised by providing a range of sample assessment rubrics which emphasise assessment of visual elements. The findings have implications for learning developers who may need to support both students and academics who are not confident developing a new set of academic skills that take them out of their logocentric comfort zone.
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Bartram, J. A. (2021) Bridges and barriers to developing visual literacy in UK undergraduate students. EdD Thesis. University of Hull, March 2021. Available online: https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:18418 [Accessed 12/01/2022].
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