“Images are not only works of art, but also instruments for disseminating knowledge”

Around 100 experts from 24 countries discussing visual learning at a conference organised by Budapest University of Technology and Economics

 “In recent years education has faced a major paradigm shift, presenting a significant challenge: in our increasingly digitalised world, children are exposed to more visual information than ever before. Which is why we have to think about how we can make the most of these new technologies in education”, said László Lovász, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) in his opening address at the multidisciplinary conference, held in the Main Building of the HAS and organised by the Visual Learning Lab (VLL) of the Department of Technical Education at BME’s Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences. The  Hungarian mathematician and recipient of the Széchenyi Grand Prize brought a personal example from one of his main fields of research to illustrate the importance of visual thinking: graphs, the basic elements of graph theory, can be interpreted as the visualisation of the links between objects. He also talked about the long, pioneering role played by the institution in visual culture and teaching methodology research, making it a fitting host for this event.

This was the 8th English-language Visual Learning Conference organised by the Visual Learning Lab. Its aim was to answer questions, such as: how far have we progressed from the notion of “visual aids” within the process of education and how close have we got to the idea of text–image integration, is scientific visualisation merely an instrument for popularising science or does it belong to the essential process of scientific discovery, has art education become genuinely affected by the rise of a new visual culture, what are the inevitable turns, amidst the breathtaking technological changes we experience, that educational theory and practice must take, and in the case of which elements should continuity prevail instead of reform.

The main topics of this year’s conference included educational theory and practice in the visual age, childhood studies research, art education, multimedia content development, scientific visualisation / imaging, diagrammatic reasoning, visual culture, the visual mind, sign languages, visual semiotics, new vistas in cognitive metaphor theory, film theory, visual rhetoric, as well as reform and continuity. The programme was compiled by the HAS-BME Open Content Development Research Group and the HAS-ELTE Visual Culture Research Group.

VLL was established in 2009 following the realisation that, although we naturally think in both words and images, educational theory has focused overwhelmingly on the verbal dimensions of teaching and learning. Its goal is to help the engineering and social science mindsets to get closer to each other and engage in high-level research in all aspects of visual education.

János Józsa, BME’s Rector stressed in his opening address that images were not only works of art and represented the values of universal human culture, but could be the most useful means of disseminating knowledge: a fitting visual image can provide more information even at a scientific lecture than dry graphs. The academician shared a personal example with his audience: at school he was taught to draw by a teacher who was also an artist, which on the one hand helped him to understand the geometry courses he had simultaneously attended and on the other hand proved to be very useful later, during his career as an engineer and scientist.

“The Visual Learning Lab focused on multidisciplinarity from the start and examined the potential role of various new media, which became more widely used, thanks to the changes in our info-communication environment, including their content and methods”, stressed András Benedek, University Professor of the Department of Technical Education at BME’s Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences and the main organiser of the event, adding that the conference series has always covered a wide spectrum of this field, but had now reached a milestone, since this year’s conference is larger than ever before.

Kristóf Nyíri, another professor of the department and also one of the organisers talked about the background of the meeting: from the 2000s their joint research activities with the HAS, financed by telecommunications companies, have looked at the potential and impact of mobile communication. “In 2001 it was still a question as to whether sending pictures by phone made any sense and what its consequences would be for information exchange”, the BME professor stated remembering the “golden era” of multimedia devices. He added: since then we have not only seen the emergence and development of new communications technologies, but also witnessed approaches and research by a new generation of researchers, expanding our knowledge on the subject.

“The 8th Visual Learning Conference is built on the achievements of the previous ones, while going even further”, Kristóf Nyíri told bme.hu after the three-day event. The latest gathering was the largest of the series: the previous conferences attracted 20-30 participants and this year’s was attended by 100 people from 24 countries. Another change was that it was hosted by the HAS; the various sections were held simultaneously in five rooms. He stressed: “the feedback proved that the participants were enchanted by the location, as well as the high professional standard of the conference”.

“This conference was a breakthrough from a theoretical aspect”, the professor explained. “Humans have always thought in images and we interpret the world around us in this way. Educational science and humanities in general, however, use the logic and terminology of spoken language to understand and interpret visual contours. Our aim was to prompt a shift in our colleagues’ attitude to focus on the image from the language, instead of the other way round, because the image is more important and we have to tackle its specific problems. The conference proved that we have achieved our goal.”

The organisers plan to publish three selections of edited studies in English, based on the lectures.


Photo: Janos Philip