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Virginia Journal of Education


Web 2.0 Tools for Visual Learners

by Glen Bull and Curby Alexander

Teachers have long understood that many students who struggle with text are still quite capable visual learners. Images often make text more accessible for such students. The National Reading Panel, for example, has cited instructional imaging techniques as among the more promising ways of fostering comprehension development.

The Web 2.0 era has resulted in an explosion in software that can be used to support visual learners. Visual narratives supported by text can be used to develop and strengthen image formation capabilities. Best of all, this software is available without charge to the end user in most instances. This makes a wider range of software available to facilitate visual learning than at any other time in history.

The most recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 93 percent of teens now use the Internet. Further, 64 percent of online teens are content creators, using tools such as these in their life outside school. These same tools can be employed to support instructional objectives in school. Because the applications and their stored work are available on the Web, students can continue to develop projects at home or on computers in the library or other public sites after school.

The range of Web-based tools for visual learning was recently underscored through a dramatic demonstration by Alan Levine, chief technology officer of the New Media Consortium. As an exercise, he produced the same digital story using 50 different Web 2.0 storytelling tools. You will find a description of all fifty at . These free tools allow at least two or more types of media - text, images, sound, video and animation - to be combined to tell a story that can be shared via the Web.

Categories of tools described include slideshow tools, timeline tools, mapping tools, media tools and mixing tools. Different types of tools may prove to be particularly useful in different subjects and disciplines. For example, timeline tools may prove to be useful in social studies, facilitating storytelling that arranges events in chronological order. Levine recommends xtimeline ( ) as a tool that is particularly well designed.

Similarly, mapping tools facilitate the creation of stories that take place across a geographic area. The Google mapping tool ( ) is both powerful and relatively easy to use. A timeline tool and a mapping tool can be used to tell the same story from two different perspectives.

Comic creation tools can be used to produce graphic novels (a rapidly expanding genre that is highly engaging to visual learners). Teachers are beginning to explore ways in which these tools can be used to facilitate student-created stories. Toondo ( ) is one of the more popular Web-based comic creation tools.

Media tools facilitate stories told primarily through the medium of audio or video. For example, Voice Threads ( ) supports creation of online media albums that allow others to contribute shared text and audio comments.

Employing these new capabilities in ways that enhance learning will require thoughtful integration and facilitation by school leaders. For example, creation of digital stories of the kind that Levine developed often involves narration in the student's own voice. This may require creation of learning stations with sufficient separation to avoid auditory interference.

Most Web 2.0 sites offer log-in capabilities so that students can save work and return to it later, but management of multiple login IDs for an entire class can require advance planning. Services such as Gaggle ( ) expedite establishment of teacher-controlled e-mail accounts for students. These accounts, in turn, can be linked to accounts on other Web 2.0 sites.

The potential rewards for effective use can be great. Students are spending increasing amounts of time on social media sites in their life outside of school. More than half of online teens (ages 12-17) report that they have participated in a social networking site such as MySpace or Facebook. Many of the digital stories that students create with Web 2.0 media tools can be embedded in external blogs and social media sites, increasing the relevance of their school work.

Corporations are increasingly using Web 2.0 tools for teamwork and collaboration, so experience with effective use of these tools for communication can be useful in that area as well. Consequently, Web 2.0 tools can simultaneously be used to support visual learning in school, while increasing relevance to life outside school, and developing communication skills that be used for collaboration in the workforce.

Bull is a professor of instructional technology in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Alexander is a doctoral fellow in the Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education.


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