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Take visual literacy seriously

By Ajit Balakrishnan
September 08, 2015 12:43 IST
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StudentsStudents’ flagging interest in the written word is because of a generational digital divide, says Ajit Balakrishnan.

Teachers everywhere, be it at our IIMs or at our high schools or at American Ivy League colleges, are reporting that a third of their way into a lecture their students have started fidgeting and doodling.

Careful examination shows that it is not teacher quality that is to blame (both good and average teachers report encountering this problem).

Nor does it appear to be the subject (both teachers of maths and the humanities are reporting this).

Maybe John Seely Brown, the American scholar and futurist, has a point when he says that 'there is a new digital divide now -- and it is the divide between faculty and students. . . faculty [are] stuck in yesterday’s analog world confront students nicely fluent in the digital technology and the virtues of hyper speed'.

For most of us it will take some convincing to accept this, because it is an article of faith that the mark of an educated person was their ability to read and write the printed word.

Schools and colleges see it as their central mission that students acquire fluency with the printed word.

Tests to measure fluency with the printed word are used at the entry points to these institutions, to place the aspirant student in the right level of class, and again administered at the exit, or 'graduation' points.

In other words, a facility with the written and printed word is believed to be a key to success in the modern world.

It is easy to forget how recent this faith in the written word is.

The Chinese are credited with being the first with printing, when, starting with the ninth century, they invented paper and printing with engraved wood blocks and ink.

When this technology finally got to Europe in the 15th century and Johannes Gutenberg enhanced it through the invention of the printing press, humankind is believed to have changed.

The creation and production of books by writers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu paved the way to the Enlightenment; Martin Luther’s Bible made it possible for citizens to directly access the word of god and eroded the power of intermediaries like priests, and in turn the power of the Catholic Church -- finally leading to the Protestant Reformation.

'Print culture' is credited with all this.

It was Marshall McLuhan, of course, with his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, who sanctified the printed word and credited the printed word for the emergence of the modern nation-state, the belief in reason, the speeding up of scientific research, and the emergence of culture in standardised forms.

Modern man, someone wedded to these modern ideas, the 'Typographic Man', was, in his view directly traceable to the invention of printing press.

Thus, when someone says that this era of the 'Typographic Man' is coming to an end, it should cause no little surprise.

Stephen Apkon’s The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, makes just that case: that it is visual storytelling and not the printed word that dominates our contemporary world.

Technological revolutions in video recording, editing, and distribution are the equivalents of the development of movable type.

We are flooded with images from cinema, television and the Web and they come at us as text messages and video clips through a variety of devices, including our constant companion, our smartphone.

These smartphones can capture high quality photos and videos, and multiple tools and websites exist to immediately share these with the world.

Mr Apkon argues that those who do not have the skill to critically interpret and even create such visual messages will be left behind just as an inability to read and write the printed word did till recently.

It is not that any of us will argue against the power of visual images.

Take, for instance, Nick Ut’s 1972 Vietnam War photograph of five children running in terror from a napalm attack that was published around the world (if you were too young to have seen it in 1972 when it appeared, you can see it online), and which is believed to have turned world opinion against the Vietnam War.

Mr Apkon and a growing number of thinkers like him say that visual literacy has to be taught at the school level as rigorously as we teach reading and writing of the printed word.

Such courses, they say, should include lessons on how to decode the main idea or message in visual media like graphics, animation, comic books, television, web video; understand how symbols, images and sounds are used to construct meaning (for example, the scream of brakes and a thud to imply a car crash), the use of close-ups to convey intimacy, the use of long camera shots to establish setting and so on.

He says no student should be able to graduate from a school until he or she has mastered how to write a script for a short video, how to shoot a coherent piece of narrative, edited raw video footage to make a persuasive argument, learnt how to distribute this over the internet and be able to critically understand and deconstruct visual media.

The image is used for representational purpose only. Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO of, is the author of The Wave Rider: A Chronicle of the Information Age. He can be reached at

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