What Are Visualization Tools?
Humans are complex organisms that possess well-balanced sensorimotor systems, with counterbalanced receptor and effector systems that enable them to sense psychomotor data and act on it using complex motor systems. Likewise, humans have reasonably keen aural perception, allowing them to hear a large range of sounds. Those sounds can be replicated or at least responded to orally by forcing air through the diaphragm, palette, and lips to create an infinite variety of sounds. However, our most sophisticated sensory system, vision, where the largest amount and variety of data are received by humans, has no counterposing effector system. We receive massive amounts visual input, but we have no output mechanism for visually representing ideas, except in mental images and dreams, which unfortunately cannot be easily shared with others. Visual images are powerful mediators of meaning making. Many of us often have to visualize something before we can make sense of it, but sharing those images is problematic. Therefore, according to Hermann Maurer, humans need visual prostheses for helping them to visualize ideas and to share those images with others.
To some extent, draw and paint packages provide those visual prostheses, enabling us to visually represent what we know. They provide sophisticated tools that enable us to draw and paint objects electronically. However, to represent our mental images using paint/draw programs, we have to translate those images into a series of motor operations because it is not yet possible to dump our mental images directly from our brains into a computer. Skilled artists commonly use these tools to visualize ideas, which can help others to interpret ideas. But what we need are tools that help most of us to visualize ideas.
This article describes a new but rapidly growing class of technologies that allow us to reason and represent ideas visually without the artistic skills required to produce original illustrations. These tools help us interpret and represent visual ideas and to automate some of the manual processes for creating images. Visualization tools can have two major uses: interpretive and expressive (Gordin, Edelson, & Gomez, 1996). Interpretive tools help learners view and manipulate visuals, extracting meaning from the information being visualized. Interpretive illustrations help clarify difficult-to-understand text and abstract concepts, making them more comprehensible (Levin, Anglin, & Carney, 1987). Expressive visualization helps learners visually convey meaning to communicate a set of beliefs. Crayons, paints, and paper or paint and draw programs are powerful expressive tools that gifted learners may use to express themselves visually. However, they rely on graphical talent. Visualization tools go beyond paint and draw programs by scaffolding or supporting some form of expression. They help learners visualize ideas in ways that make them more easily interpretable by themselves and other viewers.
There are five kinds of visualization tools: scientific visualization tools, mathematical visualization tools, digital cameras and mobile phones, video productions, and video modeling and feedback.
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