The New Literacy Equation, Visual Literacy is Non-Negotiable

“We stand here, the first moment in human history, that we are actually able to express ourselves, tell our own stories and share them across the world instantaneously and so the need to do that in a way that is literate and engaging is extremely important.” -Stephen Apkon, Founder, Jacob Burns Film Center

If we think of literacy as reading and writing words, visual literacy can be described as the ability to both interpret and create visuals. With the constant, overwhelming flow of information and communication today, both parts of this modern literacy equation are non-negotiable. Creating and interpreting photos, videos, art, graphics, icons, graphs, and other visual content is a must. Those who can take the avalanche of incessant information and intentionally curate and express it in meaningful ways will be the ones riding high atop the data avalanche instead of being buried alive.

Visual Literacy in the Sessions at ISTE

Over 40 sessions at ISTE included the term visual literacy, and even beyond that opportunities for encouraging and exploring a variety of expressive, digital mediums abounded.

1. Ken Shelton talked about building “observational literacy”during his session on visual storytelling and visual literacy. He highlighted the distinctions between storytelling and story listening and shared a simple, three step framework for incorporating the visual learning process: observation, creation, publication. Ken reminded us that we have a digital storytelling device right in our pocket and opportunities like never before to create and publish to an authentic audience.

Ken is just as inspiring and energetic in a small group as he is on the stage, I learned how to make chai tea and traditional Ramen soup from scratch, which restaurants in Austin I should frequent, and the history and correct pronunciation of gelato and bruschetta over our meal at the Original Dim Sum Garden following his session.

2. Susan Oxnevad shared a poster session titled Embracing Visual Literacy where attendees could explore how headings, font, graphics, images, and text affect students’ interaction with educational content. Susan, used her extensive ThingLink skills (she is the ThingLink Education Community Manager) to model how images can become learning prompts with intentional thought and attention to detail. Susan highlighted the importance of writing skills (for both student and teacher) to make content clear and accessible.


Susan also issued the ThingLink Summer Teacher Challenge, “A free, self-paced, online professional development opportunity designed to help teachers explore the powerful possibilities of using ThingLink for teaching and learning.”

Hot_Butter_Studio_What_is_an_infographic (1)

3. Jennifer Weaver compiled this excellent set of resources for her Great Infographic Challenge. The session even had pre-work to be completed before arriving at ISTE, so more time could be spent focusing on the actual creation of content during the session. Cathy-Hunt-Session-ISTE-725xpw There were plenty of opportunities for educators to refine their own visual literacy skills with workshops like Filmmaking for Teachers and Google Treks as an emerging instructional strategy. While other sessions focused on encouraging visual literacy in our students like Cathy Hunt’s Making Images with Text: Engaging Visual Tasks For Literacy. Visual literacy was so prevalent at ISTE that things came full circle with these two session titles: Using Data Visualizations to Support Student Learning and Visualizing Student Data to Support Learning. I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

Out and About

Beyond the sessions and workshops, visual literacy played a noticeable role in the Exhibit Hall.  

Visual Notetaker, Minh Ngo, created incredible visual recordings onsite in the Google booth. As presenters spoke and shared their ideas, she drew icons, arrows, text and images to represent the important ideas and connections as she listened.

Pearson Booth at ISTE
Pearson Booth at ISTE

Even the Pearson booth included sticky notes where attendees brainstormed potential future careers on a dry erase backdrop with hand drawn lettering, shapes, and images.

More Sketchnotes

In case there was any remaining doubt about the Doodle Revolution at ISTE this year here is a small sample of the many participant sketchnotes created during the event.

1. Closing Keynote Sketchnotes by Victoria Olson

2. ISTE Live Sketchnotes by Anna Sexton     

3. Reigniting Research Session Sketchnotes by Lisa Butler

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