Interactive, Visual Student Reports

According to Wikipedia, visual literacy is

the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading.

In today’s digital information economy, visual media and visual literacy are more important than ever. Developing the skills necessary to successfully negotiate the digital information universe, however, can be a challenging task. While anyone can create and share visual media, from basic image sharing via Facebook or FlickR to curation sites that rely on images such as Pinterest, Learnist, or ScoopIt, it is as important to be a discerning viewer and user of visual media as it is to be an expert producer.

Producing visual media expertly  is a skill my 4th grade students recently tackled when working on a biography project. Students have been studying Florida history with their social studies teacher, Shelly Zavon, and are working on expository writing with their language arts teacher, Stephanie Teitelbaum. Their teachers assigned them to research and write an essay about a well-known Floridian or person with strong ties to Florida. Since the students already had several sessions with me learning about website evaluation when “Googling”, I decided to introduce them to another search tool, Sweetsearch, which only searches a defined, safe list of websites. It was very easy for each student to find source material to write their essays.

Rather than concluding the project with the essay, we decided to have students create a visual representation of their work. I had been playing around with ThingLink and decided it was the perfect tool. ThingLink allows users to create media-rich images. Links to different media content are embedded in an image and can be viewed/read/listened to without leaving the image. The idea is, according to ThingLink, to “tell your stories.”

Once students completed the essay-writing-process, their first task was to find a Creative Commons image to use as a visual representation for their project. Most students found an image of the person. But others used an image of a statue of the person, an image of the Ringling circus cart, and an image of an old fort. Understanding the ethical issues surrounding the creation and use of images has been an ongoing learning process for my students and this project lend itself perfectly to reinforce those skills.

In ThingLink, the selected image functions as a starting point for the various types of media added. On the image, each item is represented by an icon, or “nubbin” in ThingLink lingo, of choice. To ensure consistency across their interactive, visual report, we agreed on the type of nubbin for each type of media content.


In their ThingLinks, students were required to include their essays as links (a Google Doc published to the Web), the websites used as information sources for the essays (one “Person” nubbin each), and the proper citation for the images used (the “i” nubbin). All supplemental media content could incorporate any information in the bullets below, of which the students found a great variety.

  • Images
  • Biographical websites
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Interviews (text and audio)
  • Museum exhibits
  • Statues
  • Quotes
  • Book reviews

Finding and evaluating other media content required students to think more deeply about the person they were researching in order to create meaningful representations.

To complete the process of creating a ThingLink, students used a checklist for self assessment.

Despite the fact that my 4th graders have been learning about using information ethically all year, there were still two of the 20 students who used images that were copyright protected. Consequently, both had to redo their projects–which took each only about 10 minutes at the most. Creating the ThingLink itself is easily accomplished, but selecting content to place in context and evaluating it is rather time-consuming. For student learning, this project was clearly about the process not the product. To create their interactive, visual reports, students learned and continued to build upon various skills, from the research and writing processes to digital citizenship to technology to visual literacy.

(BTW, there is also a free mobile ThingLink app, which as of May 2013 is still quite clunky, but I cannot wait to work with it once fully developed.)

Just like my students, I think you are going to find this visual format appealing. Here are some examples of the stories they are telling (click the images to open):


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