Saturday, August 20, 2011

Digital Consumerism

Visually we are there. You name it; we have it from streaming videos on YouTube to television shows on Hulu. And of course, let’s not forget the treasure trove of pictures from Google, Creative Commons, and more. In other words, we have all the visuals we need to design, create, and use in teaching. Students can consume vast amounts of digital content from countless sources. If there were ever a case for teaching visually, it’s now. But even more important is to teach students to think about and interpret the quantity of digital material they come across daily.

To grasp the types of visual interpretations, one has only to look at the Periodic Table of Visualizations with its 100 different methods for looking at information. Like the chemical elements, this periodic table classifies the types of visualizations into eight groups, including data, strategy, metaphor, compound, concept, information, process, and structure visualizations. The table is color-coded according to these groups, and each box in the table includes a pop-up example of that particular method. The fact that there are 100 different types included in this table does not take into account the countless others that were excluded or the enormous number of other images they see. In addition, understanding visualizations is not just relegated to the sciences and geography anymore, but rather it has become a routine way to present information.

We’ve all witnessed the daily craze in using infographics to make information “simple” to digest and the countless data maps for just about anything. Information, images, infographics are all a dime a dozen. “So What?” As the deluge of digital media grows, so does the exposure to it. With that, the amount of digital consumption goes up disproportionately to the amount we can take in and process. If it were our diet, we would be obese. We need to adapt methods to teach students how to think about the things they see not as fleeting views. They need to know how to study digital content for meaning as a matter of necessity in order to weed out digital junk.

Educating our digital consumers in how to move past the sound bites, the flashy images, and the interactive movements on the computer screen takes on a larger significance in a technological world full of gadgets and gizmos. Just like food, we have plenty of treats to eat that don’t necessarily have nutritional value. The same goes for the treats we are tempted by in the digital world. They, too, add to our experience, but they do not necessarily broaden our knowledge base. Learning to question the value of what to consume will develop skills for selectivity. Digital junk is produced daily and without instruction in an educational environment can be consumed without regard to legitimacy. As educators, we need to teach the nuances of knowing what’s on one's plate and whether it is good for consumption. Teaching students how to deconstruct the marketing, design, and interconnections of information will enable our students make healthier choices about what they choose to consume.


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