THE IMPORTANCE OF VISUALIZATION
by Marylaine Block
I've been wondering lately if most librarians and teachers -- people who learn easily from text and love the written word -- fully understand and exploit the learning potential of one of the greatest capabilities of the Internet, visualization.
As Stephen Abrams points out in his conference presentations, the future will belong to the 80% of the population that does not learn easily from text, and increasingly, media and commercial publishing are adapting to their needs. How many of us are?
Some of us may suspect that such accommodation means "dumbing down," but in fact, charts, graphs, maps, photographs, animations, and streaming video have the ability to present complex ideas and relationships between them in ways that are more accessible to any learner. Visualization has the power to pin down vague abstractions and make them meaningful.
For instance, consider how hard it is for us to really fathom the differences in magnitude between millions, billions and trillions. The Megapenny Project http://kokogiak.com/megapenny/one.asp is one of several useful web sites that graphically demonstrate the differences: 100,000 pennies can be arranged in two cubes of one foot each, one million pennies can be stacked in a wall 5' high by 4' wide by one foot thick, one billion pennies occupy the same space as five school buses, and the Sears Tower is equivalent in size to 2.6 trillion pennies.
The Multimedia Physics Studio http://www.glenbrook.k12.il.us/gbssci/phys/
mmedia/index.html teaches principles like vectors and parabolas and gravity with animations of collisions, roller coasters, an elephant and a feather in freefall, and a zookeeper trying to deliver bananas to a monkey in a tree who has a habit of dropping from the tree as soon as he sees the banana -- where does he have to aim, and why?
Consider another key learning problem -- how are students to make sense out of the apparently random bits and pieces of information we ask them to learn in school? One way we can help them with this is to link in timelines on our web pages, which will provide a framework that allows students to place events and ideas in historical context. It's especially useful if the timelines show many types of simultaneous events, in science, history, literature, the arts, religion, and such.
Timeline of the U.S. Presidents http://chaos1.hypermart.net/pres/tusp.html, for example, places the presidents in chronological order, but also shows them in relation to events such as the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the invention of the cotton gin, the Trail of Tears, the Panama Canal, Amelia Earhart's disappearance, etc., and in relation to broad historical patterns like economic boom, the depression, and the cold war.
Photographs and maps are particularly valuable for teaching history, because the fundamental problem most students have with history is that it doesn't seem real to them. The PBS series Frontier House http://www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierhouse/ is a brilliant demonstration of how history can become a living thing. For a wonderful example of how historical photographs can become a jumping off point for student learning, see Debbie Abilock's Turn of the Century Child project http://nuevaschool.org/~debbie/library/cur/20c/turn.html.
As more and more libraries are digitizing photographs, posters, old newspapers, and manuscripts, rich repositories are available for any teacher to create a sense of what it felt like to live in a particular historical period, or to be in the middle of a particular historical event. A good starting place for finding them is the catalog of digital library projects at http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/b/bib/bib-idx?c=dlfcoll, which includes hundreds of collections on topics as diverse as historical advertisements, 19th century sheet music, Civil War photographs and letters, cookbooks from cultures around the world, and photographs and pamphlets from the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.
Another way in which our historical imagination fails us is our geographic sense; it is much too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that a map is a geographical fact rather than a political construction that has repeatedly changed over time. Perhaps one of the best ways of understanding current conflicts, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or India and Pakistan, for example, is to look at how the maps of those lands changed over history. That's why the collection of historical maps at the Perry Castaneda Map Library http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/index.html is such a valuable resource.
One of the most interesting internet search tools I've seen is Maps of the Web http://maps.map.net/start, a directory which, at every level as you drill down, visually arranges concepts and the relationships between them, and visually suggests the quantity of web information available for each.
I am and have always been a text-based learner, with little sophistication in reading images and film. But I am also incapable of dealing with extreme levels of abstraction -- the only way I can understand and explain abstractions is through metaphor, comparisons to concrete things I already know. The wealth of images, animations, and maps on the net has allowed me to learn the previously ungraspable, and has helped me see connections I never saw before. If the visualizing power of the net does that for me, think what it can do for people who DON'T learn well from text.
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NOTE TO READERS IN THE U.K.: I'll be visiting London soon and Scotland, where my son and his bride-to-be will have a blessing ceremony. I'd welcome any suggestions about "must-see" and "must-do" while I'm visiting; I haven't been there since 1972.
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It may be objected that . . . it's the job of libraries to house material and make it accessible, not to publish it in facsimile, which is where the commercial operations rightly take their place. This may be so, but digital technology introduces subtle and major changes to the traditional model. It makes it possible for the facsimile publisher ultimately to cut out the role of the library altogether, to deal directly with the users (at terms to be dictated) because they become the holders of the material in the way that libraries used to be. Such developments may be no more than inevitable and healthy aspects of economic evolution; but librarians, before they don their turkey hats and vote for Christmas, should reflect that they are the custodians of the documentary heritage, that they sit on the stuff which researchers want, and they should perhaps be playing a more active role in steering the development of digital content.
David Pearson. Digitisation: Do We Have a Strategy? Ariadne, 30, December, 2001, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue30/digilib/
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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