Visual Literacy

Ann Marie Olson, Ph.D.

Written and Photographed by Janet Ragland


"Visual Literacy is the ability to ‘read’ and interpret images."   — Dr. Ann Marie Olson

How would you give written instructions to someone in a developing country where illiteracy rates are so very high? Or how would you communicate, say, the dosage of a medicine, how many pills to take and when to take them? Would you show the sun coming up to denote taking pills in the morning and the moon coming up to denote taking the pills at night? But what if it is a cloudless day or a moonless night? What then?

Visual literacy is the ability to “read” and interpret images and to make meaning of images, whether photos, drawings or diagrams. It is the focus of new research being conducted by LeTourneau University English professor Dr. Ann Marie Olson.

When LETU students began designing a prosthetic knee joint four years ago and took it into developing countries to ease human suffering, they couldn’t have known their student design project could ignite a university-wide commitment to broaden global research opportunities in multiple disciplines far beyond just engineering.
LeTourneau Engineering Global Solutions, or “LEGS,” is now known as LeTourneau Empowering Global Solutions. It has expanded into other educational disciplines, like the English Department.

As LETU engineering students went abroad into developing countries to teach clinicians in those countries how to build their polycentric knee joint, many of the clinicians could not “read” or understand the diagrams on how to build the prosthetic knee.

“We were expecting them to take a two-dimensional picture and understand this three-dimensional knee when there is no culture of visual literacy,” Olson said.
Olson and her research student, Becca Westrup, a freshman English Education major from Kansas, will travel to Senegal and Kenya this summer with Drs. Roger Gonzalez and Stephen Ayers and LeTourneau University’s LEGS team of engineering students to conduct new research on visual literacy there. Their primary focus will be to work with prosthetists to help them “read” diagrams and to do qualitative and quantitative data collection with specific groups to identify types and levels of visual literacy already present.

“We are going into these countries with the LEGS team where most people don’t have paper and pencil resources,” Olson said. “We plan to conduct half-day workshops to teach them visual literacy skills to bridge them into working with LEGS prosthetic diagrams.
“We will identify answers to questions like, What diagrams produce the most problems? How do I find a starting point for visual literacy?” Olson said. “We hope that what we will learn will help us teach ourselves how best to design our materials for them to understand.”The ultimate goal is sustainability, Olson said, to provide global solutions for teaching visual literacy in underdeveloped countries.

“We want to develop a reference manual that will have longevity, a long-term of usefulness, because about half the world has no formal education,” Olson said. “Women in many of these developing countries want to pursue literacy to help change their social status, because in many of their cultures, being a woman is a financial and economic liability for the family. Women have no educational opportunities, no schools, no earning power. They are a financial liability. Boys have the learning power. For these women, literacy is a way to have voice, to have value and not be seen just as an economic liability.”

Olson said the attainment of visual literacy is fundamental to normal human learning. And while the term “visual literacy” has only been around since about 1969, the idea goes back to when cave men began drawing animals on cave walls.

“In the English Department, we have always been about ways of thinking and knowing, and reading is a big part of that,” Olson said. “This research into visual literacy shows that English has a practical application in research in the same way other university departments do.”

LETU Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Amiel Jarstfer applauds the interdisciplinary approach to research.

“This type of interdisciplinary collaboration is a continuation of the School of Arts and Sciences’ support for LEGS,” Jarstfer said. “Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Rispin helped pioneer this type of cross-discipline work by leading LEGS science teams alongside the LEGS engineering design teams for the last three years.”

Olson said she was inspired in this new research endeavor after attending a conference last October of the International Visual Literacy Association. Olson was asked to write and submit a paper on her research for their IVLA Journal, a nationally recognized peer-reviewed journal.

“This is a wide-open branch of scholarship, and it’s a little overwhelming, but I am comforted because I know God’s been there before,” Olson said. “Visual literacy is part of being made in God’s image, and as Psalm 19 says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God. That’s visual!’”