Increasing Visual Literacy Skills With Digital Imagery

Successful Models for Using a Set of Digital Cameras in a College of Education

The use of images is becoming more pervasive in modern culture, and schools must adapt their curricula and instructional practices accordingly. Visual literacy is becoming more important from a curricular standpoint as society relies to a greater degree on images and visual communication strategies. Thus, in order for students to be marketable in modern society, they must acquire visual literacy skills (Roblyer and Edwards 2000). Looking from an instructional standpoint, multimedia formats capture children’s interest and are more easily understood, allowing the learner to focus on higher-level processes such as identifying problem-solving steps (Cooper 2003). One strategy to increase visual literacy is for teachers and students to use digital cameras, which are becoming cheaper, easier to use and more commonplace in K-12 schools. Many schools have effectively used classroom sets of laptop computers, but there are only a few successful models for using a set of digital cameras.

Fortunately, the College of Education at Arizona State University’s West Campus (ASU West) has successfully implemented a digital camera cart. Our two-year undergraduate teacher training program enrolls about 300 students a semester, with a total undergraduate enrollment in the college of more than 1,000. Throughout the 2003-2004 school year, our camera cart has been used on about 50 occasions by 16 different teachers. In the first semester of our program, all students in the program used the cameras in a variety of ways, as will be described later. During the course of the last school year, an estimated 750 different students used these cameras.

Course C'E 313 (Educational Technology in the K-12 Curriculum) is required of all students in their first semester of our teacher preparation program. The focus of this course is not technical skills, but rather the effective integration of technology into K-12 curriculum. Many of our students have digital cameras of their own, but few have given any thought about how they would use them in their classrooms.

Integration Examples

We model many uses of digital cameras in our C'E 313 course, and these examples fall into several categories. First, we model uses that promote teacher productivity. For instance, on the first day of each class, I take digital photos of all my students then combine their photos and contact information into one Word document, which I print and place in my course binder. This helps me learn student names and gives me handy access to their contact information.

An additional productivity use I model is to take photos of the whiteboard. Sometimes, a lecture or student activity leads to a whiteboard full of interesting notes or data. So, instead of copying this information down, which can be time-consuming, I often take a digital picture of the board to archive the session.

The course also models ways teachers can use digital cameras instructionally. For example, we show students how easy it is to import digital pictures into Word or PowerPoint documents. We also show students how they can build and organize collections of digital images for their own use or for the use of their students. Many other examples of teacher use are demonstrated throughout the course, including utilizing cameras to document the steps of a procedure (e.g., carving a pumpkin) or creating a photo journal of a field trip.

Once students have successfully imported digital images into their work, we take their digital skills to another level by requiring them to edit digital photos and combine them into one image (see example). We pair up the students, distribute one camera to each pair, and send them outside to take photos. When they return with a disk full of pictures, we show them how to use programs such as Photoshop to combine their images, or the images they have downloaded from the Internet, into creative images.

While students generally enjoy the assignment, we make sure to discuss the ethical aspects of digital imagery, such as the importance of giving credit for an image’s source. We also discuss how reality can easily be twisted or distorted through the use of digital imagery, and identify situations where editing of photographs is clearly unethical.

Among the supplemental resources we provide to our students are the two Web sites found at the end of this article. In addition, an article detailing how students as young as kindergarten effectively use digital cameras is among the course readings (Pastor, Kerns and Reddy 1997).

A growing number of ASU West teachers are incorporating digital cameras into their courses. In Course C'E 315 (Child and Adolescent Development), students take digital pictures of their final semester group project and place photos of the project into their electronic portfolios. A teacher in one of our reading methods courses also likes to capture activities in her classroom. The teacher checks out five cameras that she distributes to her students so they can photograph the proceedings, or as she puts it to her students, “Who wants to be the paparazzi today?”

Selecting the Cameras

As you can see, students can use digital cameras in many ways. However, no matter what the creative potential, technology needs to be as accessible and easy to use as possible or teachers won’t use it. Picking a camera to meet your needs is the most critical aspect of creating a classroom set of digital cameras. If at all possible, purchase a full set of the same model, because it is more efficient than giving students more than one set of instructions for a variety of camera models. Also, as you begin to look at models and prices, you need to consider how many cameras are needed to meet your instructional goals. Our C'E 313 classes tend to have about 30 students per section, so we ordered 15 cameras, figuring many activities could be done in cooperative groups.

When we purchased these cameras in the spring of the 2002-2003 school year, we chose the Sony Mavica MVC-FD200 model for many reasons, including its:

  • Ease of use - This particular model is simple for users to pick up and learn the basic operations.

  • Durability - Many K-12 schools use Sony Mavica cameras because they are able to withstand the wear and tear from students.

  • Cost - This Mavica model was midrange in terms of pricing. One key component of a digital camera’s cost is the level of megapixels it can capture. This model takes pictures up to 2.0 megapixels, which is sufficient for our student projects.

  • Storage options - We teach C'E 313 in both Macintosh-based and Windows-based labs, and every computer in each lab has a floppy drive. The Mavica model stores its pictures in JPEG format directly to floppy disks, enabling quick transfer of pictures from the camera to the computer. This camera model also has the option of saving to a memory stick, with capacities of 512 MB or more, which allows you to capture movies of up to several minutes in length.

In addition, it’s important that you make it as convenient as possible to download pictures and movies from your set of digital cameras. If you plan to use memory sticks or other storage media, you need to make sure that readers for those media devices are widely available and easily accessible. Many computers have USB ports, but they are often located in spots on the CPU that are not easy to reach.

Choosing the Camera Cart

Once you have purchased the cameras, you can decide on the specifications for the cart. Although a cart is not necessary for maintaining a set of digital cameras, there are a number of reasons to purchase one. First, a cart is convenient for moving the cameras; more important, it provides a secure place to store and charge them. As with any technology relying on battery power, keeping the cameras fully charged is another crucial aspect in keeping them easily usable.

We had a difficult time finding a cart that would meet our needs, but following a great deal of research by our school’s technology support analyst, we found one that, with a bit of retrofitting, would serve us well (see image above). On the top and bottom shelves, behind the cameras, is a power strip that accommodates the power cord for each camera on that shelf, as well as for several cameras from the middle shelf. All of the power cables and adaptors for each camera remain in the cart while the cameras are in use. The cords are secured by twist ties, reducing the amount of tangling. In the back of the cart, at the top and bottom, are two openings through which the power strips are plugged into an electrical outlet. Through the use of the cart and the power strips, the cameras only require a small space and one outlet to remain charged.

  • The cart we chose is a bit too upright, making it somewhat susceptible to tipping over.

  • The wheels/rollers on the cart are too small, so if the cart is only going to be transported over carpeted or tiled hallways, wheels of this type are adequate. However, if you have to transport the cart between buildings over rougher surfaces, such as we do at ASU West, the cart d'es not roll smoothly. If this is the case, we recommend you choose a model with larger wheels.

  • While this Sony camera model takes good movie images, there is no built-in device to record sound and no port for audio input. If you want to capture sound along with your movies, make sure the cameras you buy have that capability.

  • Make sure your users understand the settings relating to image size. On the Mavica MVC-FD200, if you set the image size to the highest resolution (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), you get sharp looking digital photos. However, you will only be able to fit about four pictures on a floppy disk at this size. On the other hand, if you set the image size to the lowest setting (640 x 480 pixels), you can generally get 25 or more pictures on a disk. We have found that unless there is a need for the image to be particularly sharp, the pictures taken at the lowest setting are generally clear enough for our purposes.

  • As noted above, keeping batteries charged is an important aspect of making the camera set easy to use. Batteries can be purchased with a variety of charge lengths the longer the battery life, the higher the cost. At ASU West, 100 minutes or so of battery life is fine; our camera set is seldom used more than two class periods back to back. However, your institution may have a need for additional battery life if students take the cameras on an all-day field trip. Bear in mind that most rechargeable batteries do not stay charged for great lengths of time, even if the devices they power are not in use. If our Sony cameras are not plugged in, the batteries tend to discharge within a week.

  • Setting up a process for erasing the media when the cameras are returned is also important. Many instructors provide their own disks or have their students bring disks to use with the camera. However, we do keep about 20 disks in the cart at all times. If a teacher chooses to use those disks, we don t want pictures from previous classes to be on them for many reasons. First, those pictures are taking up space on the disks, reducing the number of pictures that can be taken. Second, pictures left on the disks by previous classes can be very confusing to the current users as they attempt to download and view the pictures they have taken.


Overall, our first year of implementing the digital camera cart has been relatively problem-free. So far, in a full year of use, we have had no mechanical problems with any of the cameras; the pictures have been easy to import on both platforms. We have managed to build a modest set of examples of how this technology can be integrated into classes in the college. We also anticipate that usage of the cart will increase as we share these examples with our instructors. More important, we hope when our preservice teachers have K-12 classrooms of their own, they will start e-mailing us new and innovative examples of their students’ work.

- This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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