The Wider Context

Tertiary Education Strategy 2014 – 2019

The tertiary education strategy consists of six priorities:

  1. Delivering skills for industry.
  2. Getting at-risk young people into a career.
  3. Boosting achievement of Māori and Pasifika.
  4. Improving adult literacy and numeracy.
  5. Strengthening research-based institutions.
  6. Growing international linkages.

I have supervised two masters thesis dealing directly with two of the priority areas. The first explored how pasifika students use digital media to transition from high school to either further studies or employment, collecting data on students. The latest was practice-based research into improving adult literacy using smartphones. The full thesis can be found here and contains QR codes to download the literacy app. I personally am interested in the fourth priority area of developing literacy. In particular I am interested in developing people’s visual literacy skills through my PhD studies, as this is an important but often neglected skill.

Since the flagging of visual literacy’s importance in the 1960’s (Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997), technology has improved and become more pervasive seeing imagery consumption rates rise. Prensky (2001) note this increase in consumption over ten years ago, estimating by way of approximation that by the time the average American university student graduates, they will have spent over 20,000 hours watching television in which they will have been exposed to approximately 500,000 commercials. More recent statistics from 2013 show higher consumption rates of visuals spread across many different media with Americans spending 279 minutes watching television, 169 minutes online, 142 minutes on tablets, 122 minutes on smartphones, 33 minutes reading magazines, and 30 minutes reading newspapers (Statista, 2014a). It should be noted that these figures represent all the time spent with a medium, regardless of multitasking. New Zealander’s also consume large amounts of media that are visual or contain visuals, on average watching each day 162 minutes of television, 18 minutes of online videos (Youtube, Vimeo), 9 minutes of New Zealand on Demand, and 6 minutes of online TV (Netflix, Hulu) (Brunton, 2014). No current data exists for video game consumption in New Zealand (the most recent data being the time use survey 2009/2010), however Americans in 2013 on average spent an estimated 23.2 minutes a day playing video games (Statista, 2014b). Social media is consumed at an average rate 126 minutes per day in Australia at the start of 2014 (We Are Social, 2014). While this is not a New Zealand statistic, previous year’s statics have shown similar total social media consumption rates between Australia and New Zealand (Adcorp, 2012). New Zealanders also spent on average 135 minutes per day online in 2013 (Roy Morgan Research, 2013). These figures show that we consume enormous amounts of media that is visual or contains visuals on a daily basis.


The cultural change we are experiencing can be attributed to new technologies becoming common. This has seen two important cultural shifts. The first is new technologies such as; the internet, personal computing, smart phones, digital photography, digital content delivery, and video games are conditioning us to be visual in our life and learning (Bleed, 2005; Spalter & Van Dam, 2008). Spalter & Van Dam (2008) believe that technology is amplifying the necessity of visual literacy skills, arguing that digital visual literacy is now essential for many daily tasks. This is not a new idea, identified by Dake (1993) over 20 years ago, well before social media, or even the internet was widespread. Dake (1993) also states that while the need for visual literacy skills is a result of technology, the skills themselves are not technology specific. Spalter & Van Dam (2008, p. 91) expand upon a similar thought in regard to learners of today “Young people may already seem proficient users of visual technologies, but most are unaware of the principles underlying the tools they so readily adopt and cannot make important connections between types of visual technology and its uses.” Which brings us to the second shift; technological automation, together with outsourcing and abundance of resource, is replacing many traditional left brain tasks (Pink, 2005). This is seeing the world shift into a new conceptual age. To stay competitive in the workforce of the future, one will need to develop right brain skills such as “artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent”, which align with visual literacies skills (Pink, 2005, para. 5).

Despite the visual nature of today’s culture, education systems still have not adjusted for this change as schools still predominantly assess verbal literacy and math skills (Arnheim, 1969; Bleed, 2005). This could be due to critics raising concern that mediated images are “dumbing down” the general population (Bleed, 2005; Lester, 2011). Critics do have statistical backing fuelling their fears, a popular statistic for example; the average 14 year olds vocabulary used to be 25,000 words in 1950, but has dropped to only 10,000 in 1990 (Bleed, 2005). However, this popular comparison has been criticized and the original publisher has retracted the claims as it has been revealed these are not averages, but totals (Adams, 2007). The first number, 25000, is the total unique words used by 100000 students in 1950 when tested, while the second figure of 10000 represents the total unique words used by 5000 students (1/20 of the original cohort size) in 1990 (Adams, 2007). The vocabulary comparison reporting decreasing vocabulary is therefore incredibly misleading. This statistic has seen mediated images receive criticism for ruining vocabulary, with television often receiving the blame (Adams, 2007; Bleed, 2005; Lester, 2011). Rather than fight and reject mediated images, what is needed is the acceptance that people now receive information in new ways, and that the nature of learners are changing in response to their changing culture (Bleed, 2005). Therefore it is time for schools to also change and adapt, to better equip learners for coping with what is now their primary source of information.

In response to this, I am currently drafting my own model for a decentralised ubiquitous learning of visual literacy. It is essentially a mish-mash of m-learning, rhizomatic learning, cognitive theory, and constructivist theory. The common thread is analysing images will lead to learning. The model is currently unpublished and will be revised through rounds of interviewing stakeholders and conducting user-experience testing on its implementation. This model however is implemented in a smartphone application which I am developing. An interactive wireframe that is presently being used for user experience testing can be seen here.  If you are unfamiliar with this format, it consists of low fidelity screens with basic interactivity to help focus on information architecture, interface, and user experience. The app can be thought of as the Uber of visual literacy learning – in that it is a  decentralized self organizing community.

Partnership, participation, and protection.

AUT honours the treaty of Waitangi in its dealings with students as this forms part of New Zealand’s constitution. The treaty in education is often honoured based on the guidelines in the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy which offered three broad categories: participation, protection, and partnership. While the treaty was originally between European colonists and the Indigenous Maori population, I choose to interpret the three p’s in a modern context to include all peoples of all cultures where possible to create an equal learning environment.

Partnership is essentially ensuring you work in collaboration with stakeholders. At a student level, I see a constructivist pedagogical stance helps with this. By taking the role of “guide on the side”, it is much easier to get on the same level as students and share power, knowledge, and decision making. This stance also affords the ability to empathize with students and respect their values.  This can be seen in many of the online communities I run for my students, such as this current Google+ page where students are encouraged to share and direct the knowledge of the paper within a semi structured framework. Another strategy I have recently tried is to use Twitter streams in class as a back channel to lectures. I recorded this back channel using Tags Explorer. This gives students an active voice in the classroom, essentially allowing them to contribute to lectures with their own thoughts. At a lecturing level, I see partnership as working with the staff around you. I believe that lecturers should not own a paper, instead it should be a community effort where all relevant parties are given opportunity to shape the paper. In visual communication for example, a paper I lead, I will send assignments and curriculum to all lecturers for their input and changes. I will also consult with practitioners seeking their feedback. I do feel however, that partnership is limited within my present role due to political, funding, and time constraints. Therefore I try champion working in collaboration as much as possible to affect some change within my university’s school. Tools I use to do this are google docs to collaboratively write curriculum and slack as a communication channel, as well as all the tools I also use with students such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter. Partnership can also be seen evidenced in the numerous publications already cited, as I often encourage and am encouraged to publish these collaborations (see here, here, and here).

Participation in education is about providing students equal opportunity to engage in learning and their environment. It is also about inclusion in decision making processes. As a lecturer, I must endeavor to provide an environment that is inclusive. I often provide this by allowing students to set their assignment topics within a semi-structured framework – again social media channels, such as Google+ communities  and Twitter are fantastic for this. This allows students to bring their culture into the papers they participate in. Additionally, I feel as a lecturer it is also important to expose students to diverse cultures. Another common framework I use in my papers is WordPress. Essentially each student keeps a blog documenting their progress on assignments. While the university has a system that allows students to set up an online space, by allowing students to use WordPress they feel more ownership of the space. This helps each learner bring their own culture, values, and perspectives to their learning. An example of this and personal favourite from two years ago involved a Spongebob meme interweaved throughout the students posting on their thought process. As part of their formative assessment criteria, students must visit their peers blogs and offer constructive criticism on their work. This assessment criteria sees students exposed to the culture of their peers, seeing even introverted students culture shared. This framework also grants students some power to make their own decisions. Here is a list of blogs from one such class run last year, demonstrating this in action. You will note that despite the differences in visualisation and rhetoric,  all the different blogs structures are the same. This ensures learning criteria are met, while still affording students the opportunity to have control over how they participate.

The principle of protection is primarily about protecting Maori knowledge, interests, and values. Within the classroom, I do not just include Maori in this, but those of all cultures. This can be as simple as ensuring assignments are open enough so students can include there own culture in their learning. Sometimes I will also make grant special considerations for students to step outside the bounds of assignments if they want to include more of their own culture in the assignments, or if they feel the assignment does not align with their beliefs or values. An example of this I have been involved with have been not only allowing but encouraging students to turn in video assignments in Maori and other languages, instead of english. Similarly, in my web design courses, I often write the assignments open enough so students can express their religious and cultural views in their assignments.

Cited Works:

Adams, C. (2007). Does the average American student have less vocabulary today than in days gone by? Retrieved 21–8, 2014, from

Adcorp. (2012). Social Media Statistics July 2012, Australia & New Zealand. Retrieved 25–11, 2014, from,-australia-new-z

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Avgerinou, M. & Ericson, J. (1997). A review of the concept of visual literacy. British Journal of Educational Technology, 28(4), 280–291. doi:10.1111/1467-8535.00035

Barnes, S. B. (2011). An Introduction to Visual Communication: From Cave Art to Second Life (1st ed.). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Incorporated.

Berger, A. (1989). Seeing is believing : an introduction to visual communication. Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield Pub. Co.

Bleed, R. (2005). Visual literacy in higher education. Educause Learning Initiative. Retrieved from

Brunton, C. (2014). Where are the audiences? Benchmark survey of New Zealanders’ media consumption. Retrieved 18–8, 2014, from

Dake, D. M. (1993). Visual Thinking Skills for the Digital Age.

Dondis, D. A. (1973). A primer of visual literacy. Cambridge, Mass: Mit Press.

Frascara, J. (2004). Communication design: principles, methods, and practice. New York: Allworth Communications.

Hanifan, T. (2008). “It”s more than reading and writing’:The nature and extent of adults’ literacy issues. In Benseman, John and Sutton, Alison and Coben, Diana (Ed.), Facing the challenge: foundation learning for adults in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 125–135). Dunmore Pub.

Horn, R. (1998). Visual language : global communication for the 21st century. Bainbridge Island, Wash: MacroVU, Inc.

Lester, P. M. (2011). Visual Communication: Images with Messages (5th ed.). Boston, MA.: Wadsworth.

Marcum, J. W. (2002). Rethinking information literacy. The Library Quarterly, 72(1), 1–26.

Mitchell, W. T. (1994). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Olson, D. R. (2007). Jerome Bruner: The cognitive revolution in educational theory (Vol. 3). London: Continuum.

Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and knowledge: An essay on the relations between organic regulations and cognitive processes. Edinburgh University Press.

Pink, D. H. (2005). Revenge of the Right Brain. Retrieved 5–6, 2014, from

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 2: Do They Really Think Differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1–9. doi:10.1108/10748120110424843

Roy Morgan Research. (2013). Digital vs traditional media in New Zealand. Retrieved 17–4, 2015, from

Spalter, A. M. & Van Dam, A. (2008). Digital visual literacy. Theory into Practice, 47(2), 93–101. doi:10.1080/00405840801992256

Statista. (2014a). Average daily media use in the United States from 2010 to 2014 (in minutes). Retrieved 25–11, 2014, from

Statista. (2014b). Daily time spent playing video games per capita in the United States in 2008, 2013 and 2018 (in minutes). Retrieved 25–11, 2014, from

The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–93. Retrieved from

Wade, N. J. & Swanston, M. (2001). Visual perception: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Psychology Press.

We Are Social. (2014). Social, Digital & Mobile in APAC in 2014. Retrieved 25–11, 2014, from


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