A Massive Open Online Course: Exploring Visual Literacies Through Educational Technology Lenses

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by Chryssa Themelis and Julie-Ann Sime

In antiquity, many Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were trying to understand visual objects and their role in society and their impact on an ‘informed’ mind (Benoît, 2015). Visuals can convey messages, share emotions and provide cognitive guidance in diverse ways. The artist is able to understand the impact of color, light, shape, lines, texture, dimensions, motion, angle, progression and sequence on our perception and use these tools wisely. Visual literacy was an educational movement in the 1960s, highlighting the need for students and teachers to understand the use and power of images (Avgerinou, & Pettersson, 2011). Today, the term is very commonly used in different fields.

Visual Literacies (VLs) are defined as a critical theory perspective of knowledge (as understanding, appreciation, usage and creation) on visual media (static, dynamic, interactive) and visual competences in different layers and levels.  The Visual Literacies (ViLi) research project is funded by the European Union (Erasmus+) to specifically research visual literacies from a technology enhanced learning perspective. The project team, comprising of Julie Ann Sime and Chryssa Themelis from Lancaster University (UK) has researched, developed and refined a range of open educational resources (OER), so as to deliver a free massive open online course (MOOCs) on visual literacies with five live webinars with academics from the USA and Europe, starting on the 8th of October 2018.   

The ViLi project is mapping the territory of visual media practice (what works for educators) and research on visual cognition (what works from a cognitive psychology and brain research perspective) because “we need a much broader reconceptualization of what we mean by literacy in a world that is increasingly dominated by electronic media” (Buckingham 2006, p.275). In a nutshell, the word ‘visual’ and not digital or media literacy was used because understanding, teaching and learning activates a visual part of the brain; even when an abstract subject is taught. Moreover, visual perception puts emphasis on the non-linear way of thinking which steers creativity and imitates the way networks disseminate information and influence the human brain. In the context of technology enhanced learning, ‘visuals’ refer to whatever is presented on screens, through lenses or projectors in front of our eyes; especially in the field of e-learning.

Visual Media: What Works for Practitioners

The course introduces the concept of visual literacies (VLs) from technology enhanced learning (TEL) lenses, along with real-life examples, research and literature review. The Informed Grounded Theory research plan of the ViLi project was based on 21 interviews of educators, cognitive psychologists and brain researchers that specialize in visual cognition and learning. Therefore, it is rooted in what works effectively from an interdisciplinary point of view. It includes guidelines for use of visual communication methods and techniques, but it does not focus on teaching how to use a particular technology. This is not a “how to” course but an exploration of the possibilities of new technologies to raise awareness of tools and techniques for visual communication and teaching.

The Research Perspective: Multiliteracies

Multiliteracies is a pedagogical approach developed in 1994 by the New London Group that aims to make classroom teaching more inclusive of cultural, linguistic, communicative, and technological diversity. This multiliteracies pedagogy encourages a wide range of cultural, communicative, and technological tools being used to help students better prepare for a rapidly changing, globalized world. (New London Group, 1996, pp.60-93). The multiliteracies perspective includes a lot of research that investigated the influence of visual literacies on learning. For instance, Seglem and Witte (2009) note that multiliteracies and multimodalities can give all students a wider dimension of content to develop their own skill sets: “Helping students to understand the diversity of print and nonprint texts as well as the visual connections that can be made between them is a practical way to connect the concrete and abstract thinking of students who struggle to make meaning from text” (Seglem and Witte 2009, p.217). As students become more visually adept on screens, educators must become aware of their visual literacy strategies in order to adjust their instructional practices/tools to support the new visual and verbal perspective in fast changing educational settings and learning for a living job market.

ViLi MOOC 2018

The 5-week course outline focuses on:

Week 1. The transformative power of static images (Webinar with Lesley Farmer, California State University Long Beach

Week 2. Dynamic visuals: films/video and animation

Week 3. Interactive tools- part A: Game-based learning, Augmented reality, VR, Mixed reality (Webinars with Kirk St. Amant Louisiana Tech University and University of Limerick & Avgoustos A. Tsinakos, University of Kavala)

Week 4. Interactive tools part B: Video conferencing and holographic teleportation (Webinar with Matthew Morena, Christopher Newport University).

Week 5. Live teaching with professor Mark Childs on the role of visuals for online identity (Webinar with Vanessa Dennen, Florida State University).

More information can be found in the project website: https://mooc.viliproject.eu/


Avgerinou, M. D., Pettersson, R. (2011). Toward a cohesive theory of visual literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30(2), 1-19.  

Benoît, G. (2016). The ‘beautiful’ in information: Thoughts about visual literacy and aesthetics. Journal of Visual Literacy, 35(1), 60-78.

Buckingham, D. (2006).    Defining digital literacy. What do young people need to know about digital media? Digital Kompetanse, 4-2006, (1), 263–276.

New London Group. (1996): A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard educational review, 66(1), 60-93.

Seglem, R. & Witte, S. (2009). You gotta see it to believe it: Teaching visual literacy in the

English classroom. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 53(3), 216-226.

Project N° 2016-1-UK01-KA203-024462



About the Authors:

Chryssa Themelis is a researcher at Lancaster University, professor/doctoral advisor at Bolton University and an expert of technology enhanced learning (TEL). She works as a researcher/trainer for EU projects such as Erasmus + and coordinates the annual VocTEL conference aiming to promote TEL in Europe. She holds a BA in Economics from Deere College, a MSc in Networked Learning and a PhD in the field of “E-research and Technology Enhanced Learning” from Lancaster University (department of educational research).

Julie-Ann Sime is a pioneer of online distance learning who has been teaching online for 25 years.  She also has 30-year experience of researching into the use of new technologies in training and education, including: use of video for reflection, game-based learning and virtual worlds for training professionals.  She is co-editor of a new book on Networked Learning: Reflections and Challenges (2018).

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.




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