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Journal of Jisual Literacv, 2011

Volume 30, Number 1,19-46
Visual Literacy and the Digital Native:
An Examination of the Millennial
Eva Brumberger
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA
The so-called millennial learners who currentlv populate college
classrooms are purportedlv digital natives whose repeated exposure
to a host of new technologies has allegedlv resulted in enhanced
skills in several areas, including those related to technologv and
visual communication. Bv extension, the argument has been made
that digital natives have a signihcant degree of visual literacv. This
article reports the results of an empirical studv that examines these
claims bv assessing post-secondarv students use of visuallv-oriented
technologies and their interpretation of visual material. The survev
data suggest that participants are not particularlv adept at producing
and interpreting visual communication.
Kev Words. digital natives, visual learners, visual literacy, technology
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
he students who currently populate our classrooms are known as
digital nativesmillennial learners (also known as the Net Gen) who
have grown up with a host oI relatively new technologies, including
computers, cell phones, and video games; they connect with Iriends and Iamily
through social networking, text messaging, and other technology-mediated
approaches. According to Marc Prensky (2001), who coined the term digital
native, repeated exposure to these technologies has resulted in enhanced
thinking skills in several areas, many oI which are visually-oriented: image
reading and interpretation, mental mapping, mental paper Iolding, and so Iorth.
By extension, the argument has been made that digital natives are
intuitively visual learners who come to us with a signifcant degree oI visual
literacy. In Iact, Coats (2007) argues that this group is 'the most visual oI all
learning cohorts (p. 126). In Educating the Net Generation, Oblinger and
Oblinger (2005) likewise maintain that digital natives have an inherent ability
to read images, that 'they are intuitive visual communicators who are 'able
to weave together images, text, and sound in a natural way (p. 2.5). Oblinger
and Oblinger continue on to suggest that, 'The Net Generation is more visually
literate than earlier generations. Many are fuent in personal expression using
images (p. 2.14). Others make similar claims about the visual literacy skills
oI digital natives. Tapscott, Ior example, argues that 'Net Geners who have
grown up digital have learned how to read images, like pictures, graphs, and
icons (p. 106).
The digital natives argument presumes that repeated interaction with visual
materialspecifcally visually-oriented technologiessomehow results in
visual literacy. For example, Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) note that, although
digital native characteristics are usually described as generational, 'age may
be less important than exposure to technology (p. 2.9). Similarly, Tapscott
claims that 'digital immersion has given the Net Generation the visual skills
that make them superior scanners. They`ve learned to develop the flters they
need to sort out what`s important Irom what`s not (p. 113).
Although Prensky`s arguments, and extensions thereoI, have become very
popular, those who advocate the digital natives perspective rarely provide
any empirical evidence or classroom accounts to support their assertions. As
Bennett, Maton, and Kervin (2009) note, the digital natives arguments 'have
been subjected to little critical scrutiny, are undertheorised, and lack a sound
empirical basis (p. 776). Instead, we are oIIered sweeping generalizations
about the visual literacy oI millennial learners, Ior example, that they are
'visual experts (Tapscott, 2009, p. 106) who 'preIer their graphics beIore their
text (Prensky, 2001). The study discussed in this article attempts to examine
empirically whether millennial learners are particularly visually literate.
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
Dening Visual Literacy
Defnitions oI visual literacy are numerous and not entirely in agreement
with one another (see, Ior example, Debes, 1969; SelIe, 2004), and they range
Irom the decidedly theoretical to the solidly pragmatic. However, the richest
defnitions include both an interpretative and a productive component. In
other words, they stipulate that the ability to analyze and interpret images and
other visual material, although critical, is not by itselI suIfcient Ior Iull visual
literacy; it must be accompanied by some ability to create visual material. As
Felten (2008) notes, 'Just as writing is essential to textual literacy, the capacity
to manipulate and make meaning with images is a core component oI visual
literacy (p. 61). Likewise, Bleed (2005) describes visual literacy as the ability
to both interpret and create visual media, and argues that this Iorm oI literacy
is now as essential as more traditional Iorms oI literacy (p. 3).
In 21st Centurv Skills. Literacv in the Digital Age (2003), the North Central
Regional Educational Library articulates Ior educators a number oI specifc
visual literacy objectives, stipulating that visually literate students:
Understand basic elements oI visual design, technique, and media
Are aware oI emotional, psychological, physiological, and
cognitive infuences in perceptions oI visuals
Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and
symbolic images
Are inIormed viewers, critics, and consumers oI visual
Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers oI
visual inIormation
Are eIIective visual communicators
Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successIul problem
solvers (p. 24)
This is a rather ambitious list, and conducting a large-scale assessment oI
student perIormance on all oI the objectives simultaneously would be diIfcult,
iI not impossible. In an attempt to gain some basic understanding oI students`
visual abilities, the study discussed in this article Iocuses on students` use oI
and profciency with visually-oriented technologies, as well as their skills
in interpreting images and being inIormed and critical consumers oI visual
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
The survey was conducted at Virginia Tech between the end oI April
and the beginning oI September, 2009, in Iull compliance with the guidelines
established by the Virginia Tech institutional review board Ior human subjects
research. The survey was administered electronically, through a web-based
survey tool ( available to Virginia Tech Iaculty, staII, and
Population and Sample
Virginia Tech is a research university with approximately 30,000 students.
According to the university website (, almost three-quarters
(71.6) oI the student population is Caucasian; the percentage is even higher
among the undergraduate student body. Just over halI (58) oI the students are
male. The participants in the survey, although selected through convenience
sampling, refect these demographics.
Because there was no practical method Ior reaching a large number
oI students directly, their participation was solicited through instructors.
The survey respondents were undergraduate students enrolled in one oI
fve coursesFirst-Year Writing I, First-Year Writing II, Business Writing,
Technical Writing, and ProIessional Writingcourses that include students
Irom multiple majors and across all class standings. I emailed all oI the
instructors teaching these courses, asking them to encourage their students
to participate. The emails included a brieI explanation oI the project, simply
stating that I was surveying students about their use oI various technologies, as
well as their ability to interpret visual materials. Over 500 students participated
in the project, but a number oI surveys were discarded because participants
skipped a section or did not fnish the survey. This reduced the number to
485 participants, who ranged in age Irom 18 to 23, with a mean age oI 19.4.
In keeping with the demographics oI the undergraduate population at the
university, 59 oI participants were male, and 41 were Iemale; 82 were
Caucasian. The largest group (36) oI survey participants had majors within
the College oI Engineering and Mathematics, but all oI the colleges were
Survey Design
The survey had 90 questions, including those collecting demographic
inIormation. Several oI the questions were subsequently discarded and omitted
Irom the data analyses because a large number oI respondents skipped them or
they were otherwise deemed problematic (unclear or ambiguous, Ior example).
The survey took participants approximately 30 minutes to complete. Although
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
the survey addressed a range oI technology and communication abilities,
in this article, I discuss only the survey questions related to visual literacy
(approximately 50 oI the total). These included questions about students`
use oI a limited number oI visually-based technologies, their perceptions oI
their skill with common technologies used to create visual communication,
and their interpretations oI and ability to evaluate video and still images. The
specifc questions Ior each oI these areas are included with the discussion oI
the survey results.
The survey items were intended to explore directly or indirectly the
claims about digital natives` visual abilities. So, Ior example, a number oI
questions attempted to gauge just how muchand howparticipants are
using certain visual technologies that seem to play a pivotal role in the digital
natives argument: television, video games, and personal computers. Likewise,
several questions Iocused on participants` ability to 'read images, another oI
the central claims oI the digital natives argument. Finally, the survey questions
attempted to examine both productive and interpretive abilities, since Iull visual
literacy depends on both.
Data Analysis
The survey data were analyzed through several statistical methods,
including t-tests Ior comparing means, contingency tables and Pearsons` chi-
squares, and Fisher`s Exact Tests. The analyses were completed using SAS
JMP (version 8). The specifc analyses used are noted with the discussion oI
the survey results.
Use of Entertainment and Navigational Technologies
The survey looked at students` use oI a handIul oI entertainment and
navigational technologies in order to examine the claims that digital natives
are inveterate TV watchers and video game players who preIer graphics over
text. The results are not particularly supportive oI the digital natives argument.
Entertainment 1echnologies
The survey included two questions regarding the amount oI time students
spend watching television:
Approximately how many hours per week do you watch TV?
Approximately how many hours per week do you watch TV content
on the web (e.g. via Hulu?)
The response choices and the distribution oI responses Ior both questions
are shown in Figure 1. The data suggest that survey participants do not spend
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
hours each day in Iront oI the TV; in Iact, over three-quarters (79) watched
seven hours or Iewer oI TV per weekthat is, one hour or less per day; halI
oI the respondents (54) spent Iour hours or Iewer watching TV each week.
Watching TV content on the web (e.g. via Hulu) was not particularly popular
among survey respondents. Approximately two-thirds oI respondents (69)
watched TV content online Ior Iewer than two hours per week, or not at all.
Figure 1. Time per week spent watching television (a) and online TV
content (b). (1 does not watch, 2 2 hours per week, 3 2-4 hours per
week, 4 5-7 hours per week, 5 8-10 hours per week, 6 11 hours per
A Pearson`s chi-square comparing male and Iemale TV viewing habits
revealed a highly signifcant gender diIIerence (p.0003), with Iewer Iemales
at the heavy end oI the viewing spectrum; no gender diIIerences were observed
Ior watching TV content online.
The survey also asked respondents at what age they started playing video
games, the types oI games they play, and how Irequently they play them.
Those respondents who were gamers started young, on average at age eight.
The data suggest that respondents may be dedicating more time and energy to
gaming than to TV, although a Iull quarter (25) said they did not play any
sort oI video or computer-based games. There were three questions about how
Irequently participants play video games:
How oIten do you play video games on a game console (e.g.
PlayStation, Nintendo, XBox, Wii)?
How oIten do you play games on a personal computeronline
or otherwise?
How oIten do you participate in multiplayer online role-playing
games (e.g. World oI WarcraIt)?
The response choices and the distribution oI responses Ior each question
are shown in Figure 2. Most gamers played on a video console (e.g. Xbox,
PS3) or PC; multi-player online role-playing games (e.g. World oI WarcraIt)
were not particularly popular; over three-quarters (79) oI gamers did not
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
play them at all. A Fisher`s Exact Test revealed a highly signifcant gender
diIIerence (p. .0001): males were more likely than Iemales to be gamers. This
pattern carried through Ior each oI the gaming environments. Additionally,
males tended to play video games more Irequently than did Iemales.
Figure 2. Frequency oI gaming on a console (a), personal computer (b), and
multi-player role-playing online environment (c). (1 does not play, 2
once per week, 3 once or twice per week, 4 several times per week, 5
The survey also asked respondents which oI the Iollowing types oI video
games they play most oIten: text-based games, games that rely almost entirely
on still images (e.g. card games), or games that rely almost entirely on video
images. Respondents reported playing predominantly visually-oriented games:
three-quarters (76) oI the gamers most oIten played games that rely almost
entirely on video, while only 20 played primarily games that rely almost
entirely on still images (e.g. card games). A Pearson`s chi-square again revealed
highly signifcant gender diIIerences (p.0001), with Iemales more likely than
males to play text-based games and image-based games, and less likely to play
video-based games.
A chi-square showed an additional gender diIIerence (p..0001) in
respondents` selI-perceptions oI gaming skill: Iemales generally reported
lower skill levels than did males. Interestingly, there is a relationship between
respondents` perceptions oI their gaming skill and the type oI game they were
most likely to play (p.0001): as the reported skill level increased, so did the
tendency to play primarily video-based games. The video gaming data may
to some extent support the digital natives argument, but they may also simply
refect longstanding user patterns, as well as an ongoing industry shiIt toward
action-type video games.
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
Aavigational Websites
Although respondents` video gaming behaviors reveal a general preIerence
Ior graphics, their use oI websites Ior obtaining driving directions demonstrates
the opposite. Navigational websites such as MapQuest, Inc. and Google Maps
oIIer users both verbal and visual directions. The survey asked two questions
about use oI navigational websites:
When using Ior directions, which oI the Iollowing
do you rely on most heavily?
When using Google Maps Ior directions, which oI the Iollowing
do you rely on most heavily?
The choices Ior each question included: verbal/written directions,
interactive map, and I do not use Mapquest (or Google Maps). Use oI these
technologies was common among the college students surveyed, but data
suggest that there is little reliance on the visual displays. For example, over
three-quarters (78) oI respondents said they used Mapquest Ior directions,
but oI those respondents, only 15 relied heavily on the interactive map, while
85 relied on the written directions. Similarly, among the three-quarters (73)
oI respondents who said they used Google Maps Ior directions, only one-third
relied heavily on the interactive map, while two-thirds (67) relied instead
on the written directions. Thus, although both oI these websites oIIer users
interactive visual solutions, respondents` relied more heavily on the verbal
inIormation provided, not the graphics, which seems directly contradictory
to the notion that they preIer visual material over text.
Use of Digital Cameras (Still and Video)
Digital photographyboth still and videois one means oI producing
visual communication, and one might expect a cohort oI visually-oriented
students to be avid users oI this technology. However, like survey participants`
use oI entertainment and navigational technologies, their use oI digital
camerasand what they do with the images and video produced with those
cameraswas somewhat contradictory. Overall, the data suggest that the
students are not highly skilled in these technologies Ior producing visual
Still Cameras
The survey included several questions about the use oI still cameras:
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
Question Response type and choices
At what age did you start using a
digital camera? (open-ended)
How oIten do you use a digital
Multiple choice: Daily, Several times
per week, Once or twice per week, Less
than once per week
How skilled a photographer do
you consider yourselI to be?
Multiple choice: Expert/proIessional,
Very skilled, Somewhat skilled,
Slightly skilled, Entry-level amateur
What type oI digital camera do
you use?
Choose all that apply: Point and shoot,
SLR (interchangeable lenses), Other
Do you edit or modiIy the images
you take?
Multiple choice: Frequently, Sometimes,
Rarely, Never
How do you share the images
you take?
Choose all that apply: Upload them
to a photo-hosting site (e.g. Flickr),
Upload them to a social networking
site (e.g. Facebook), Email them to
people, Print them and send/give them
to people, Other.
Not surprisingly, well over three-quarters (82) oI respondents used a
digital camera. However, a Pearson`s chi-square reveals that whether or not
respondents used a digital camera diIIered signifcantly with major (p.02).
Most oI the diIIerence is Iound between students in Art and Architecture and
the remaining majors: within Art and Architecture, all respondents used a
digital camera. Across all participants, a Fisher`s Exact Test indicates that
women were signifcantly more likely to use a digital camera than were men
(p.0001). The majority (55) oI respondents use a digital camera less than
once per week, while almost one-third (30) use a camera once or twice per
week. A Pearson`s chi-square indicates that Iemale participants tended to use
their digital cameras more Irequently than did male participants (p.0001).
A Spearman`s p indicates a positive correlation between a respondent`s age
and the age at which he/she started using a digital camera; in other words, the
older the respondents, the later they started using a digital camera (p.0001).
This may appear to support the digital natives argument. However, it may as
well be due to Iactors that are unrelated to the participant`s age, per se, such as
the increasing availability and dropping cost oI digital cameras over the past
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
Iew years. Additionally, the age at which respondents started using a digital
camera varied widelyIrom age 5 to age 21and, on average, they were
almost 15 years old.
Although they are camera users, respondents were by no means experts
in this means oI visual communication. Over halI (54) oI the digital camera
users considered themselves to be slightly skilled or entry-level amateurs, with
just 11 describing themselves as very skilled photographers. Not surprisingly,
reported skill level corresponded with camera type, with those who claimed
a higher skill level typically being those who used a more powerIul and
sophisticated SLR (single-lens-refex) camera. However, the vast majority
(88) oI camera users relied only on a 'point and shoot camera.
A Pearson`s chi-square indicates that respondents who reported a
higher skill level also tended to edit their photos more Irequently (p.0001).
Interestingly, Iemale respondents reported editing their photos more Irequently
than did males, even though there was no gender diIIerence in reported skill
level. Overall, though, respondents were less likely to edit their photos than
one might think. Only 14 oI students reported that they Irequently edited
or modifed their photos, while at the opposite end oI the spectrum, 10 said
they never did so. The remainder oI students sometimes (37) or rarely (38)
edited their photos.
By Iar the most popular method oI sharing photos was to upload them to a
social networking site, seconded by sending them via email. The least popular
was to upload them to a photo-hosting site such as Flickr. In short, other than
recording and sharing their images electronically, these students are not, Ior
the most part, manipulating the images or otherwise using them in ways that
mark the photographers as inherently diIIerent Irom previous generations.
Jideo Cameras
The questions pertaining to video camera usage were comparable to those
Ior still cameras, with one exception. 'Daily was removed Irom the response
choices Ior the question regarding how oIten participants use a video camera,
and two additional choices were included: once or twice per month, and less
than once per month. The reasoning behind these changes was that video
camera use is more time-consuming, and potentially more costly, than still
camera use, which suggests that students would probably use video cameras
less Irequently.
As expected, survey respondents were Iar less likely to use video cameras
than still cameras: over halI (57) did not use a video camera at all (as
compared to 18 who did not use a still camera). Almost two-thirds (62) oI
those who used a video camera did so less than once per month. They started
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
using a video camera, on average, between the ages oI 13 and 14, although
the starting ages ranged Irom 4-22. Although videos tended to be shared as
photos didthrough use oI a social networking sitereported skill levels
were substantially lower, as was the prevalence oI editing or modiIying the
video. Additionally, almost two-thirds oI those who used a video camera (63)
described themselves as only slightly skilled or as entry-level amateurs; only
one respondent described himselI as an expert videographer. Close to halI
(43) oI those respondents who used a video camera said that they never edit
the Iootage they take; in contrast, Iewer than 1 said they edit their videos
on a Irequent basis.
These data do not suggest that the survey respondents are particularly adept
with video production technologies; in Iact, they seem to suggest the opposite.
Use of Personal Computer Technologies
As one might expect oI college students, the survey participants reported
spending a signifcant amount oI time each day at a personal computer; over
halI oI them (56) indicated that they use a computer Ior fve or more hours
per day. Similarly to photographic technologies, students` use oI certain
computer technologies may provide insight into how comIortable and capable
these digital natives are with tools Ior creating visually communication. The
survey thus asked respondents about their perceived skill level with soItware
Ior presentations (e.g. MS PowerPoint), photo/image editing (e.g. Adobe
Photoshop), drawing/illustration (e.g. Adobe Illustrator), and website
authoring (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver)all technologies that have a strong
visual orientation. For each, the survey asked participants 'How skilled do
you consider yourselI to be with., where the remainder oI the question
was the type oI soItware; response choices included expert/proIessional, very
skilled, somewhat skilled, slightly skilled, entry-level amateur, and 'I have
no experience with this type oI soItware. The distribution oI responses Ior
each oI these questions is shown in Figure 3.
Because students are required to use presentation soItware in several oI
their courses, it was expected that they would reported higher skill levels Ior
this soItware. The survey thus included an additional set oI questions that
asked about participants` actual use oI this soItware:
Do you download PowerPoint slide designs and/or templates
Irom the Web?
Do you design your own PowerPoint slides and/or templates?
Do you integrate images into your PowerPoint presentations?
Response choices were Irequently, sometimes, rarely, never, and 'I don`t
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
know what you mean by slide designs or templates or (Ior the third question)
'I don`t know how to insert images.
Finally, the survey included a question asked about perceived skill with
HTML and/or XML coding and about whether respondents had ever created
a website. Overall, survey responses to the questions about personal computer
technologies do not suggest that students are particularly adept with soItware
tools Ior producing visual communication.
Figure 3. Perceived soItware skills. (1no experience, 2entry-level
amateur, 3slightly skilled, 4somewhat skilled, 5very skilled, and
As Figure 3 illustrates, three-quarters (75) oI respondents considered
themselves somewhat or very skilled with presentation soItware such as
MicrosoIt PowerPoint, and a handIul oI respondents (8) described
themselves as having expert/proIessional level skills. Just over one-tenth (13)
said they were slightly skilled, while a handIul (3) said they were entry-level
amateurs (see Figure 1). These data are comparable to those reported in studies
by Kvavik (2005) and by Smith, Salaway, and Caruso (2009).
However, supporting the notion that students` selI-assessment oI their
computer abilities tends to be exaggerated (see, Ior example, Kvavik, 2005),
the survey data suggest that respondents` use oI presentation soItware does
not necessarily coincide with their selI-reported skill levels. Only 8 oI
respondents said that they Irequently download slide designs or templates
Irom the Web, and only 13 said they Irequently design their own slides or
templates. In other words, the vast majority are simply using the pre-existing
templates that come with their version oI the soItware rather than seeking out
or developing more innovative, creative, or appropriate designs. Additionally,
while one might expect somewhat or very skilled users (and visually-oriented
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
digital natives) to consistently incorporate images into their presentations, only
halI (49) oI the respondents reported Irequently doing so. An additional 40
sometimes incorporated images into presentations, while the remainder rarely
or never used images in their presentations.
Photo/Image Editing
Reported skill levels with photo/image editing soItware (e.g. Adobe
Photoshop) were lower than those reported Ior presentation soItware: only
about a third (38) oI respondents described themselves as somewhat or very
skilled, 21 said they were slightly skilled, and an additional 22 described
themselves as entry-level amateurs. A mere 2 claimed an expert/proIessional
skill level; moreover, 17 oI respondents had no experience at all with photo/
image editing soItware (see Figure 3).
Survey participants reported even lower skill levels Ior illustration soItware
(e.g. Adobe Illustrator). Only 18 described themselves as somewhat or
very skilled, with a mere 1 claiming an expert skill level. Meanwhile, well
over one-third (40) claimed they were only slightly skilled or were entry-
level amateurs. And, 41 had no experience at all with illustration soItware
(see Figure 3). The survey data are in keeping with other studies that have
consistently shown graphics packages to be one oI the weakest areas oI
students` soItware skills (Smith, Salaway, and Caruso, 2009; Kennedy, et al.,
2006; Kvavik, 2005; McEuen, 2001).
Website Authoring
Finally, participants reported the lowest skill levels Ior website authoring
soItware (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver). Only 15 indicated that they were
somewhat or very skilled with this type oI soItware, and only 1 claimed an
expert or proIessional skill level. Meanwhile, 11 said they were slightly
skilled, and 20 said they were entry-level amateurs. Over halI (53) oI the
respondents had no experience with website authoring soItware (see Figure
3). The survey also asked students about their knowledge oI HTML and XML
coding, since they may be skilled website designers without using website
authoring soItware packages. The pattern oI responses was similar to that Ior
website authoring soItware: only 1 claimed they were experts, while 15 said
they were somewhat or very skilled. Meanwhile, 9 described themselves as
slightly skilled, and 26 said they were entry-level amateurs. Finally, almost
halI (48) had no experience whatsoever with HTML or XML coding. In Iact,
well over halI (60) oI the survey respondents had never created a website,
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
either with a website authoring program such as Adobe Dreamweaver or
through HTML/XML coding.
The website authoring data are comparable to those reported in other
studies that suggest college students are not particularly skilled in website
creation (Kennedy, et al., 2006; Kvavik, 2005; McEuen, 2001). Interestingly, a
chi-square suggests that the older participants were more likely to have created a
website than were the younger students (p.002), which suggests that students`
knowledge oI website creation and design is most probably learned in college.
Evaluation of Images & Video
In addition to their Iacility and comIort with visually-oriented technologies,
another trait that supposedly characterizes digital natives is an awareness oI
how easily visual material may be altered, and a concomitant mistrust oI such
inIormation when it is presented to them. In order to examine the validity oI this
claim, the survey included a series oI questions intended to gauge respondents`
perceptions oI images and videos that reach them through the Web, through
mainstream and non-mainstream news coverage, and through print media. The
questions were as Iollows:
When you see images on the Web, do you assume they have been
altered in some way?
When you see news video Iootage Irom mainstream sources (e.g.
CNN, Fox, network television, etc.), do you assume it has been
altered in some way?
When you see news video Iootage Irom non-mainstream sources
(e.g. YouTube), do you assume it has been altered in some way?
When you see images in a newspaper, do you assume they have
been altered in some way?
When you see images in a magazine, do you assume they have
been altered in some way?
All oI the questions had the same response choices: always, usually,
sometimes, rarely, never. Overall, the data revealed that respondents tended to
suspect that the images they view on the web and in various media have been
altered in some way, but the data do not oIIer clear cut evidence that respondents
are consistently inIormed or critical viewers. That is, although respondents were
inclined to assume that images have been altered, this tendency is not as strong
as one might expect Irom students who are purportedly visually savvy media
critics. The distribution oI responses Ior each question is shown in Figure 4.
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......

Figure 4. Evaluation oI Images and Video. (1 never altered, 2 rarely
altered, 3 sometimes altered, 4 usually altered, 5 always altered)
Web Images
The data indicate that the prevalent belieI among survey participants is
that images on the Web are typically altered (see Figure 4), although a handIul
oI respondents (5) said they rarely made this assumption. The vast majority
(87) indicated that they sometimes or usually assume that the images they
see on the Web have been altered, and 8 always make that assumption.
Aews Jideo Footage and Images
Survey participants tended to view news video Iootage Irom non-
mainstream sources (e.g. YouTube) in much the same way as they viewed Web
images more generally. And, overall, participants considered non-mainstream
news Iootage to be somewhat less trustworthy than news video Iootage Irom
mainstream sources, as the distributions in Figure 4 illustrate. Well over
one-third (40) oI respondents indicated that they usually or always assume
non-mainstream news Iootage has been altered; Ior mainstream news sources
(e.g. CNN, Fox, network television, etc.), the curve shiIts toward the leIt, with
30 oI respondents saying they usually or always assume the Iootage has been
altered. Similarly, almost halI (49) oI the participants said they sometimes
assume non-mainstream Iootage has been altered, while just over one-third
(36) oI them assumed the same Ior mainstream Iootage. Finally, while only
11 oI respondents said they rarely or never assume that non-mainstream
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
video is altered, a Iull third (33) made this assumption about Iootage Irom
mainstream news sources. In short, participants were less likely to think that
mainstream news video Iootage has been altered.
The curve shiIts even Iurther to the leIt Ior newspaper images. In other
words, survey participants were much less likely to think that images in a
newspaper were manipulated (see Figure 4). In Iact, almost halI oI respondents
(47) said they never or rarely assume that images in a newspaper have been
altered. One-third (35) indicated that they sometimes assume the images
have been altered, and just over one-quarter (28) said they usually or always
make that assumption. The data suggest that the respondents consider printed
news sources more credible than television or internet news sources.
Magazine Images
Respondents were considerably less trusting oI images in magazines than
oI those in newspapers (see Figure 4). Although 10 oI respondents said they
never or rarely assume that magazine images have been altered, one-third (33)
sometimes assume they are, and over halI (58) usually or always assume
such images are altered. A Pearson`s chi-square revealed a highly signifcant
gender diIIerence (p.0001) in respondents` perception oI magazine images,
with Iemale respondents much more likely than male respondents to assume
that magazine images are altered.
Interpretation of Images
The fnal section oI the survey continued the Iocus on reading visual
inIormation by asking participants to interpret several images. The images
represented a broad range oI subjects; the majority were Pulitzer prize winning
journalistic photographs. The survey did not provide source inIormation Ior any
oI the images, since that inIormation could bias participants` responses. The
questions that accompanied the images were intended to assess participants`
methods Ior determining whether or not an image had been altered as well as
their ability to extract Iactual inIormation Irom a photograph (such as when
and where the image was taken). Additionally, respondents were asked to
indicate their perception oI the tone oI particular images. Overall, the survey
participants did not demonstrate marked abilities in recognizing contextual
clues in an image, although they were better able to interpret the tone.
Alteration of Images
For two images, the survey asked respondents whether or not they
believed the image had been altered. The survey questions Ior each image
were as Iollows:
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
Do you think that this image has been altered? (response choices:
defnitely, probably, probably not, defnitely not)
Please explain your response. That is, what makes you think the
photo was or was not altered?
The frst image was a photograph taken in the Bitterroot National Forest
in Montana, during a wildfre in August oI 2000 (see Figure 5). The image
which had not been altereddepicts two elk standing in a stream, with the
fre raging behind them.
Figure 5. Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. Photo courtesy oI
John McColgan, Alaska Forest Service. (2000). Available at http://
Well over three-quarters (80) oI respondents indicated that the image
had probably or defnitely been altered. However, what is most interesting
is not that respondents thought the image was altered, but their reasons Ior
thinking it. By Iar the most commonly cited explanation Ior this belieI was
the color and lighting in the photo. Respondents repeatedly indicated that the
colors were just too vivid and the contrasts too strong; they Ielt the lighting
was too dramatic to be realistic. Additionally, many respondents simply said
that the image did not look real or that it looked like a computer graphic or a
scene Irom a video game, without explaining these statements Iurther. Another
explanation given by many respondents was the placement oI the elk within the
image; respondents argued that elk would not stand in the river looking at the
fre, but rather would be running away. The prevailing sentiment among those
who thought the image was altered seemed to be that, as several respondents
put it, the image was just too 'perIectin composition, detail, contrast,
dramatic lighting, vivid colorstoo be real.
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
Overall, respondents seemed to judge the veracity oI the image based on
their own personal experiences rather than on a more objective set oI criteria
Ior determining whether such a scene could be real. That is, iI they had never
experienced a situation with such vivid colors, they judged the image to be
altered. Many oI those respondents who indicated the image was not altered
explained their response by saying that they had lived in an area subject to
wildfres, had seen similar photos oI wildfres in CaliIornia, or had actually
seen this particular photo on the news. Thus, again, Iamiliarity appeared to be
an important criterion Ior judgment.
The second image was a Ialse color composite satellite image oI FairIax
County, Virginia (see Figure 6). A Ialse color composite is created digitally,
using inIormation gathered by the satellite, in order to emphasize particular
types oI inIormation (in this case, moisture diIIerences); the satellite image
is initially black and white. The color version is reIerred to as a Ialse color
composite because the colors are usually not representative oI the true colors
oI the scene; in this case, the image relies on intense, almost neon, hues oI
purple and green to highlight moisture diIIerences
Figure 6. False Color Composite Satellite Image oI FairIax County.
Courtesy oI the Chesapeake Bay Irom Space Program. Available at http://
Given their comments about the color in the Iorest fre photo (Figure 5),
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
one might expect survey respondents to have indicated resoundingly that the
satellite image was altered. In Iact, Iewer respondentstwo-thirds (66)said
the image was probably or defnitely altered. Not surprisingly, the explanation
those respondents gave was that the colors were artifcial and overly vivid or
intense Ior the subject matter, which the majority recognized as some sort oI
satellite image. Interestingly, among the one-third (34) oI respondents who
thought the image was probably or defnitely not altered, many noted that
they recognized the image type (though some described it as a weather radar
image). However, they questioned why anyone would alter this type oI image
and indicated that it looked 'real. Several respondents said it was a map and
made statements like this one: 'Maps don`t really need much editing. The
remainder oI the respondents said that they did not know what the image was
depicting and thereIore had no reason to believe it was altered. Thus, Ior an
image that did not depict a clearly recognizable or Iamiliar scene, respondents
used diIIerent criteria Ior assessing veracity and were more willing to accept
that the image was unaltered.
Extracting Factual Information
Like respondents` ability to judge whether or not an image has been
altered, their skill at extracting Iactual inIormationsuch as identiIying where
or when a photograph might have been takenis inconsistent. In Iact, the
data suggest that, overall, these students are not particularly adept at reading
Iactual clues in images.
Figure 7 shows a marine on the beach at Da Nang, Vietnam. The photo
was presented to survey participants in black and white instead oI the original
color in order to remove clues that might make it overly simple to identiIy.
Respondents were asked when they thought the photograph was taken.
Although a handIul oI respondents (5) thought it was taken in the 1920s or
1930s, the largest group (22) thought the image was taken in the 1940s. The
remainder oI the responses were distributed Iairly evenly across the decades
that Iollowed, with only 15 oI respondents placing the image in the 1960s,
when it was actually taken. Thus, respondents were neither successIul at picking
out visual clues that might date the photo (e.g. uniIorm style) nor at using their
knowledge oI history to aid the interpretative process.t
The photograph shown in Figure 8, taken in 2006, depicts a Iemale Jewish
settler resisting Israeli security Iorces in the West Bank. The desert landscape,
as well as the clothing and skin tone oI the fgures in the photograph, provides
clues that might help a viewer determine the location. Respondents were asked
where they thought the photograph was taken; the response choices were the
United States, Iraq, Israel, and Mexico. While over halI (58) oI the survey
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
respondents chose Israel as the location Ior the photo; the remainder oI the
responses were almost equally divided between Iraq (19) and Mexico (21),
with 2 oI respondents choosing the United States.
Figure 7. 'Da Nang, Vietnam..A young Marine private waits on the beach
during the Marine landing. Public Domain. Records oI the U. S. Marine
Corps (127-W-A-185146). Photographer unknown, August 3, 1965 (original
in color)
Figure 8. A Jewish settler challenges Israeli security oIfcers during clashes
that erupted as authorities cleared the West Bank settlement oI Amona.
(2006). Photo Oded Balilty, Associated Press.
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
Similarly, the image in Figure 9, taken at the shrine oI Azrat Ali in Mazar-
i-ShariI, AIghanistan in 2001, oIIers viewers several contextual clues that
suggest where it might have been taken. In the background are domes and
minarets typical oI a mosque. Additionally, most oI the men in the image have
their heads wrapped in a characteristically Muslim headdress that would be
commonly seen in the Middle East and Southern Asia. Finally, the clothing oI
the background fgures suggests the location is a less developed eastern country.
Survey participants were again asked where they thought the photograph
was taken; the choices were Peru, AIghanistan, Russia, and the United States.
Not surprisingly, respondents recognized that the image was not Irom the US.
However, 9 oI respondents though the photo was taken in Peru. HalI (50)
said the photograph was taken in Russia, while 41 were able to correctly
identiIy the setting as AIghanistan.
Figure 9. At the shrine oI Azrat Ali in Mazar-i-ShariI, AIghanistan. (2001).
Photo James Hill, (New York Times).
The fnal photograph (Figure 10) depicts a memorial service Ior two slurry
bomber pilots whose plane crashed while they were fghting the Big Elk Fire
near Estes Park, Colorado, in 2002. The photo includes several Iairly obvious
clues as to where it might have been taken. It shows a woman walking toward
the camera holding a Iolded US fag; in the background are Iorest service
personnel in uniIorm, with the Iorest service patch clearly visible.
Survey participants were asked at which oI the Iollowing events they
thought the photograph was taken: the Iuneral oI a US soldier, the Iuneral oI
a police oIfcer, the Iuneral oI a Canadian Mountie, and the Iuneral oI a Iorest
ranger. Just over halI (57) oI the participants selected the correct response
(Iuneral oI a Iorest ranger). The remainder oI the responses were distributed
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
as Iollows: 17 oI respondents thought it was taken at the Iuneral oI a US
soldier, 13 at the Iuneral oI a police oIfcer, and 13 at the Iuneral oI a
Canadian Mountie. Interestingly, a gender diIIerence appeared Ior this image
but Ior none oI the other images. A Pearson`s chi-square revealed a signifcant
gender diIIerence in the pattern oI responses (p.01), with a Fisher`s exact
test confrming that male respondents were more likely to choose the correct
response (p.005).
Figure 10. At memorial services Ior pilots oI a slurry bomber that crashed
fghting the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park. (2002). Photo Joe Mahoney,
Rocky Mountain News.
In short, although the images in the survey contained varying degrees oI
contextual detail, respondents were not adept at identiIying and using even
the most immediately visible clues.
Visual Facts Composite
In order to get a more holistic sense oI survey participants` ability to mine
inIormation Irom images, a visual Iacts composite was created that incorporated
the responses Ior all oI the images in Figures 7 through 10. First, the responses
were recoded as correct and incorrect, then the correct responses were summed
to produce the composite; the values ranged Irom zero (no correct responses) to
Iour (all correct responses). Figure 11 shows the distribution Ior the visual Iacts
composite; the mean was 1.87. That is, on average, survey participants were
able to correctly extract inIormation Irom images just under 50 oI the time.
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
Figure 11. Visual Facts Composite distribution (0 no correct responses, 4
all correct responses)
In short, mining inIormation Irom images does not appear to be a strength
oI the survey participants. There were no signifcant diIIerences in the visual
Iacts composite due to age, gender, major, or class standing, nor were there
diIIerences linked to technology skill, gaming or entertainment behavior, or
any oI the other Iactors examined in the survey.
Interpreting 1one
In addition to asking respondents to extract objective inIormation Irom
images, the survey required respondents to interpret the tone or mood oI
several photographs. For each image, the question pertaining to image tone
was as Iollows: 'Which oI these terms best describes the mood/tone oI this
photograph? Like the survey questions Iocused on contextual details, the
question about tone was multiple choice, with Iour possible responses Ior
each question:
Overall, respondents were much better at detecting visual tone than they
were Iactual details. However, because photographs tend to be complex in their
tone and message, and because viewers` interpretations oI images are inherently
linked to their own experiences, in some cases more than one oI the choices
provided could conceivably be justifed as 'correct. For example, Ior the
Bitterroot wildfre photo (Figure 5), almost halI (47) oI survey participants
described the tone oI the image as awe-inspiring, which was intended to be
the correct response. But, the remainder oI respondents were divided between
describing the tone as Irightening (28) and describing it as sorrowIul (24),
with a scant 1 fnding it reassuring. It could be argued that the image refects
elements oI each oI the frst three descriptors, and, depending on respondents`
personal experiences, one message may emerge more strongly than the others.
Similarly, 55 oI survey participants said the tone oI the Vietnam photo
(Figure 7) was resigned, the intended response. However, another 40
identifed the tone as Irightened; it could be argued that the soldier`s expression
contains both resignation and Iear. Only 5 oI respondents chose one oI the
other two options: aggressive (3) and enthusiastic (2). Interestingly, when
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
the responses are re-coded 'right (resigned) and 'wrong (all other responses)
a signifcant diIIerence due to class standing emerges in a Pearson`s chi-square
(p.0006). This may suggest that respondents` interpretation oI the image relies
more on what they have learned during college than it does on some inherent
level oI visual literacy.
Additionally, it proved extremely diIfcult to provide Iour equally plausible
tone choices Ior each image, which may have helped respondents arrive at the
appropriate response in part through process oI elimination. For example, Ior
the West Bank image (Figure 8), 78 oI respondents choose the appropriate
descriptor (desperate); the other choices were weak (12), proud (9), and
respectIul (1). Similarly, almost three-quarters (75) oI survey participants
chose spiritual as the correct descriptor Ior the photograph taken at the shrine oI
Azrat Ali in Mazar-i-ShariI, AIghanistan (Figure 9); the other choices included
cheerIul (19), tense (6), and IearIul (0). Interestingly, a Fisher`s exact
test reveals that Iemale respondents were signifcantly more likely than male
respondents (p.0001) to choose the appropriate descriptor Ior this image.
Finally, 83 oI respondents labeled the memorial service image (Figure 10)
as 'somber rather than peaceIul (11), Iorgiving (3), or angry (3).t
Visual Tone Composite
Similar to the visual Iacts composite, a visual tone composite was
generated in order to provide a more holistic sense oI survey participants` ability
to detect the tone/mood oI images. Again, the responses, based on the image in
Figure 5 as well as those in Figures 7-10, were recoded as correct and incorrect,
then the correct responses were summed to produce the composite; the values
Ior the visual tone composite ranged Irom zero (no correct responses) to fve
(all correct responses). The distribution is shown in Figure 16.
Figure 12. Visual Tone Composite distribution (0 no correct responses, 5
all correct responses)
As the fgure illustrates, survey participants` ability to detect visual tone
was substantially stronger than their ability to extract Iactual inIormation; the
mean was 3.39 correct responses out oI fve possible. However, the data Ior
the tone composite also suggest that the ability to identiIy the visual tone oI
images diIIers with gender; a Pearson`s chi-square revealed a highly signifcant
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
diIIerence (p.0007). Overall, women were better able correctly identiIy visual
tone, even though proportionally Iewer oI them received a perIect score.
Although the data point to some clear patterns in participants` ability to
produce and interpret visual material, patterns that seem to counter the digital
natives arguments about visual literacy, the survey also has some important
limitations. First, oI course, is the sample. Because oI the sampling method,
the data cannot be assumed to be representative oI the entire population oI
digital natives. A largerand randomsample would be required Ior that.
Additionally, a broader sample would allow more meaningIul comparisons
to be made based on socioeconomic Iactors as well as other demographics,
including age. For example, the survey data revealed a statistically signifcant
age diIIerence (p.0451) in respondents` perceptions oI news video Iootage
Irom mainstream sources. Countering the notion oI the digital native, the
oldest students (mean age19.76) were most likely to always assume that such
Iootage has been altered; in contrast, the respondents who never assumed that
such Iootage was altered were the youngest (mean age 19.00). However, the
question remains as to whether such a slight age diIIerence is meaningIul in
practical terms, and whether more such diIIerences would be apparent in a
random sample with a broader age range.
A second limitation is due to the survey instrument itselI. The survey was
designed to capture a broad spectrum oI data regarding visual literacy, in order
to establish a Ioundation and possible directions Ior Iuture studies. Because
oI this approach, the survey was lengthy, which precluded asking more than
a handIul oI open-ended questions. It is also possible that the length oI the
survey impacted the time and thought respondents put into answering those
open-ended questions. Thus, although the survey generated a substantial data
set, it simultaneous limited the quantity oI in-depth qualitative inIormation
A fnal limitation relates to both the research method and visual literacy
itselI. A survey depends on careIully constructed questions that do not
lead participants to respond in a particular way. At the same time, visual
language depends upon the interaction oI a complex and interconnected set oI
understandings, experiences, and abilities, and its meaning is oIten less clear cut
than that oI verbal language. So, Ior example, respondents may have diIIerent
conceptions oI what it means Ior an image to be altered. However, were the
survey to provide a defnition Ior 'altered, the defnition could actually skew
their responses. Additionally, the various nuances oI a complex imagethe
Vietnam soldier in Figure 7, Ior examplemay not be equally important
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
Ior diIIerent viewers. As the data illustrate, one viewer may see Iear, while
another sees resignation. But, how much oI this variation is due to diIIering
levels oI visual literacy and how much to diIIering liIe experiences? Similarly,
to what extent are diIIerences in the ability to extract contextual inIormation
Irom images a product oI visual literacy and to what extent do they depend on
knowledge oI history, geography, politics, cultures, and so on? And, can we
entirely separate the two? These questions point not only to a limitation oI the
survey but also, and more signifcantly, to the need Ior a deeper understanding
oI visual literacy itselI.
Implications & Conclusions
While the study discussed here oIIers only a limited amount and type
oI data, the results suggest that, contrary to the digital natives argument, the
students who currently populate our classrooms do not possess a high degree
oI visual literacy. The data indicate clearly that the survey participants are Iar
Irom adept at producing and interpreting visual communication.
Even according to survey participants` own selI-assessment, their skill
with technologies Ior producing visual communication is limited. Further
research might examine these skills through a more hands-on study, in which
participants are actually required to complete a series oI tasks with the soItware
in question. This approach would yield a more comprehensive understanding
oI students` abilities. Given the tendency Ior students` to overestimate their
technology skills, such a study may well indicate that students` skills are even
weaker than the survey suggests. II conducted with a broad enough sample
oI students, it could also point to usage patterns that highlight areas in which
students might beneft Irom instruction. Ultimately, however, the question
needs to be not just how profcient students are, but how profcient they need
to be. The level oI soItware knowledge that students require will depend on
their feld oI study and intended career path. That is, although we may defne
visual literacy as both productive and interpretative, a less comprehensive set
oI criteria may be more realisticand still appropriateIor many students.
However, even with a pared down set oI criteria that Iocus solely on
interpreting visual communication, the survey participants do not demonstrate a
high level oI visual literacy. The data certainly give no indication that students
can 'translate images and inIormation eIIortlessly (Riddle, 2007, p. 1) as
the digital natives argument would have us believe; in Iact, their ability to
respond critically to visual material appears rather weak. This is an area that
merits Iurther research, particularly since the ability to read images seems to
be more and more important, regardless oI academic or proIessional discipline.
Repeating the second part oI the study with a broader base oI images and a
Brumberger - Visual Literacy and digital native......
more diverse group oI participants would be a valuable frst step, as would
gathering more inIormation about participants` reasons Ior their responses,
through Iollow-up interviews, Ior example. Additionally, a study that examines
more closely students` interactions with mainstream and non-mainstream
news images would be useIul. Further research in these two areas would be
invaluable Ior educators, providing an empirical Ioundation that would enable
us to better match pedagogical strategies and content to student needs as we
help them to become more inIormed and critical consumers oI visual material.
Ultimately, the survey results not only challenge the claims oI the
digital natives argument, they also highlight two problematic assumptions
oI that argument. First is the assumption that so-called digital natives share a
particular characteristic that is linked to technological access and ability. As
PalIrey and Gasser (2008) point out, 'The vast majority oI young people born
in the world today are not growing up as Digital Natives. There is a yawning
participation gap between those who are Digital Natives and those who are the
same age, but who are not learning about digital technologies and living their
lives in the same way(p. 14). Ironically, this suggests that a limitation oI the
surveythe sampling methodmay have resulted in data that demonstrate
stronger visual literacy traits than those oI the general digital natives age group,
because the survey participants are Irom somewhat privileged backgrounds,
and should, thereIore, have greater access to technology. Beyond the rather
obvious Iact that not all members oI the generational cohort have equal access
to the technologies in question, the survey data suggest that even those with
access do not necessarily demonstrate Iacility with the technologies. In Iact,
the survey results point to some distinct diIIerences in technology use linked
to gender, in keeping with other studies that have Iound males are more likely
than Iemales to play video games and to use technology tools more Irequently
(Kennedy, et al., 2006).
Second, and possibly even more important, the digital natives argument
presumes that repeated interaction with visual material somehow results in
visual literacy. However, as Felten (2008) notes, 'Living in an image-rich
world.does not mean students.naturally possess sophisticated visual literacy
skills, just as continually listening to an iPod does not teach a person to critically
analyze or create music (p. 60). That is, exposure to visual inIormation does
not necessarily lead to visual literacyto the ability to decode and create
visual messageswhich is one oI the underlying assumptions oI the digital
natives argument. As signifcantly, a students` ownership or mastery oI visual
communication technology (a digital camera, graphics soItware, etc.) does
not equate to an ability to create eIIective visual communication through the
application oI design principles and techniques, nor does it show the way to
Journal of Jisual Literacv, Jolume 30, Number 1
analyzing the visual work oI others.
In short, even iI our students are exposed earlyand repeatedlyto visual
material, be it through video games, television, advertisements, the World Wide
Web, or a host oI other media, and even iI they have access to and skills with
visual communication technologies, we cannot assume they are visually literate,
as the digital natives argument suggests. II we accept that visual literacy is an
essential ability Ior the 21
century, we must teach our students to be visually
literate, just as we teach them to be verbally literate.
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