excerpt from the research paper. Master Education of Arts, HKU 2016
supervision Evert Hoogendoorn.
Achieving  conscious competence in reading and applying Visual Language.


This paper explores the combination of game design and education in order to investigate how to enlarge the student’s competence. The spotlight is on the most important language for applied arts and visual design students: that of visual communication.

The theory and expert-views are used for the design of an educational game. The values in the game correspond with my own view on education, which is a combination of hard fun, collaboration, challenge and implicit learning, made explicit through reflection.

1. Introduction

1.1 Cause and context

In my practice as a teacher I notice that first year students are often not yet skilled in reflective capacities. The studies are aimed at visual Design through media and the average student is a practical-creator who thinks and acts by doing. Even though learning through practice is key, reflective skills are essential for a profound learning experience and are based on the theoretical part of that practice or field. When looking at a number of activities in which the students are working on their own ‘big production-projects’ it becomes clear that practice is preferred. They are fully into the moment and work hard and motivated. This does however not account for a number of other classes in which the direct goal for the student is less obvious, e.g. knowing about design issues (abstract goal) versus making an awesome music video (clear goal).

I find it socially significant to devote my profession towards learning activities that provide a longer lasting impact and help students becoming motivated to learn.  Cobbling together elements from the studies on Constructive, Self-Regulated, Situated, and Collaborative Learning (Corte, 2011-2012) we know that students change from passive learners who absorb concepts and facts (“routine expertise”), to active learners that have an inquiry-based attitude (“adaptive expertise”). When explaining about design theory or art history for instance, students show difficulties connecting it with their own work. The fact that lecturing often lacks hands-on experience, does not help the knowledge transfer, certainly not for students who are practice-orientated. My purpose is to help them, by developing a playful, hands-on experience. The Master Education in Arts combined with practice as a teacher provides the perfect possibility to explore new ways of teaching through both practice and play, hence the decision to explore pedagogy and the field of game design and combine them with an essential topic in the education of design students. This made me wonder whether it is possible to provide a longer lasting knowledge transfer by designing a different setting in class.  To explore this and formulate a solid research question I use the context of my own classes and my expertise on design and visual literacy.

1.2 Motivation of content

The omnipresence of images is clear to all, but the way these images are constructed and the way they can be manipulative are an often under-estimated fact. The psychology of forms as described by Solarski (2012) is influencing the consumer of these images and thus it is elementary to the visual designer. This accounts specifically for student-designers, who are often focusing on the latest trends and technical possibilities rather than being focused on the possible meaning of the mise en scene or the construction of the visual elements.

Next to this there are two main reasons for enriching the capacities of students. One is the fact that they refer to other popular images without knowing what these images refer to, in line with Baudrillard’s hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1981). As Camiel van Winkel describes in Regime of Visibility (2005) only the dominant iconic images, which are shared over and over again, are the ones having value. In order to counter these tendencies of the visual primate, the grammar of visual language should become clear on a conscious competence level for a larger audience, starting with the student-designer herself.

The second motivational reason concerns the fact that nowadays everybody is a possible creator. A vast number of people have access to creative tools for photo/video editing and the platforms for publishing like YouTube or Flickr. In addition to those tools and platforms, the constant bombardment of visuals, ensures a growing capacity in reading and interpreting all forms of media (Johnson, 2006).

The capacities needed, can also be noticed in various elements of the 21st century skills as described by Thijs, Fisser, & Van der Hoeven (2014). For instance, one of the characteristics of ‘Critical Thinking skill’ brings the possibility to interpret, analyse and apply any form of information. In the description of the ‘Communication skill’ multiple characteristics can be connected to an increase in (visual) literacy: effective exchange of information; understanding the core of a message; and being able to handle communicative means effectively (Thijs, et al 2014). In their report they expound: “ . . . activities that require knowledge-construction ask students to interpret, analyse, synthesize, or evaluate information or ideas.” However these 21st century skills are quite general and not specifically directed towards visual literacy. The capacity of understanding, ordening and creating visual information in any form – often referred to as graphicacy – is only slowly entering the realm of primary education (Aldrich & Sheppard, 2000). In their paper they focus on the ability of children in primary school to decrypt and read coded images. Aldrich and Sheppard offer a solution for expanding the students visual literacy through the knowledge-construct-skill, the communication-skill and the critical thinking-skill, that were described by the 21st Century Learning Design program . Having more people skilled in visual literacy, the professional should reposition herself and distinguish her work from that of the amateur.

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