Breaking out the Visual

There is no question that our culture today is a highly visual one. Images and graphics that accompany text, videos, artwork, and other visual modes of representation are used to communicate information. With the accessibility of visual hypermedia made possible by the Internet, we have an inescapable obsession with the visual. Bolter (2001) argues that print is being remediated by the emergence of visual modes in his fourth chapter of Writing Space entitled “The Breakout of the Visual”. This does not present so much of a problem as it does an interesting challenge in which both teachers and learners need to adapt to the multimedia environment. Though the image will not ever completely overtake the written word, as is suggested by Bolter, there will definitely be challenges to the increased use of multimedia for information presentation.

Remediation of Print

Visual representation is becoming a dominate way to communicate ideas. Pictures are forms of expression that can add to or even replace the need for prose alone. Writing in its traditional form was pictorial in nature many years ago. Just as print has remediated manuscripts and oral communication, print itself is now being remediated by visual modes of representation (Bolter, 2001). Bolter points out that text rarely exists today without graphics and print is continuing to remake itself in order to represent reality as effectively as digital and other visual technologies (2001).

A reason for this growth of visuals is because of the growth in amateur photographers and the ease with which they can produce photographs (Bolter, 2001). Multimedia and computer programs allow for just about anybody with access to a camera to post and produce visual art. Graphic design is more common as programs have become available at lower costs. The accessibility of such technology has therefore refashioned the traditional writing space.

From an educational view, the use of diagrams, graphics and other visuals are extremely beneficial for reinforcing concepts. For instance, in his article entitled, “Gains and Losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning” Kress believes certain information is best expressed with a diagram, such the nucleus of a plant cell (2005). A diagram lessens the need for language interpretation and focuses on a shared understanding. However, the parts of a diagram require personal connections and prior knowledge in order to construct meaning. McTigue and Flowers conducted a study that found that children in grade four had a hard time comprehending nonlinear, highly visual texts (2011).  They also found that there have been increases in the frequency and variety of visual graphics in textbooks and other educational resources. McTigue and Flowers suggest that teachers educate children on visual literacy, because textbooks often do not discuss the graphics in detail in the text portion and this is created graphic comprehension problems.


Bolter believes that animations and videos can supplement and even bypass prose altogether (2001). Often, as forms within hypermedia, we see text displaced in favour of graphic presentation such as videos, images, symbols and so on. This is changing our method for acquiring information from interpreting text to now interpreting a picture or graphic. With the Internet and hypermedia, we can access much more information than was possible in the past and in less time. What learner wouldn’t want to learn about something from a five minute video rather than reading and comprehending a lengthy article on the same information? Our need for immediate information has driven our thirst for information to be presented in a quick and effective manner.

Digital Literacy

As our culture becomes even more engrossed in the visual mode of representation there is a need for digital literacy education. Students look to the animations, videos, images and sounds to help them process and understand. The images and sounds within digital media claim to create immediacy and authenticity (Bolter, 2001). Dobson and Willinsky discuss in their paper on digital literacy the importance of considering the effects of the networked text environments on the readers’ abilities to navigate information (2009). An author’s perception of appropriate linkages of material may not be reflective of the reader’s. The nonlinear, associative thinking may not improve comprehension, and therefore reading through a webpage may be more challenging and confusing than perhaps a linear printed book. Further considerations in this area need to be taken in order to ensure best practices in teaching students.

Another challenge with hypermedia is the multiple entry and exit points on websites. Students no longer have to read left to right, top to bottom. Often, there are images dominating the organization of web pages (Kress, 2005).  This visualization may affect how a student deciphers information on a page and what route they will follow to gather more information. The multiple, nonlinear paths create opportunities to so much more information than has been available to students in the past. The effect of the access to and retention of this abundant information also needs addressing.


The written word will not be fully replaced by the visual. Instead, it will be refashioned to be shorter, more concise and either accompanied or bypassed with a form of digital media. With this change in information presentation, teachers need to be aware of the costs and benefits to their students’ learning. They must address multimedia in the classroom and find effective ways to incorporate digital literacy skills in order to have students capitalize on the vastly changing multimedia sources available to them.


Bolter, J. D. (2011). Writing as technology. Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), pp. 5-22

Dobson, T., & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.) Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McTigue, E.M., Flowers, A.C. (2011). Science visual literacy: learners’ perceptions and knowledge of diagrams. The Reading Teacher. 64 (8), 578-589.

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2 Responses to Breaking out the Visual

  1. Danielle Dubien says:

    Hi Alicia,

    Your topic is similar to mine. Were you as surprised as I was to see that visuals can either be useless or harmful to learning? Teachers and textbooks certainly need to explain visuals properly. I suppose that simplicity and consistency of design elements probably go a long way in making interpretation of images and graphs easier.

    When you talked about networked environments, I thought of the link below, that I recently discovered. It is an animation with tips for Instructional Designers in corporate training. It serves to explain why excessive and directionless hyperlinking is harmful to learning, and how to deal with these issues.

    If you open the link, a voiceover will start, and you’ll see two images. Click on the one to the left. It’ll take about 2 minutes to view.

    If you or anyone else is interested, I’ve started collecting blog posts from this course on visual literacy. More themes will be added soon.


    • awernicke says:

      Thanks for the video, Danielle. I was a little shocked that visuals could be useless or harmful to learning. I definitely will not assume that just because I show a visual, my students will automatically understand it. I think all teachers could use a reminder on this and work towards educating the students on interpreting visuals.

      I am now following your blogs on Delicious. Thanks for the links!


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