By Elissa Vallano
“It’s like you’re telling a story,” says Mayra Aixa Villar. “That’s why I find data visualization tools so fascinating. They can give you new ideas.”
Turning static information into a compelling educational experience is Villar’s forte, and data visualization has become an invaluable tool in her eLearning arsenal. She currently serves as a bilingual instructional designer and independent researcher for National University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina, and she’s also writing her M.A. thesis in Applied Linguistics.
Data visualization’s growing popularity and effectiveness stem from its accessibility. In the past, it was mainly researchers who designed visuals for academic and lay audiences. But thanks to readily available technology, anyone can access the web tools to enter data and create a personal visualization of it. Long gone are the days when they were too complicated to create, and now everyone can benefit from making complex patterns easier to perceive and understand.
Villar’s path from traditional language education to tech-focused instructional design is one rooted in intuition and curiosity, where one open door eventually led to another.
After seven years as an English teacher, Villar began a Master’s program in Applied Linguistics. Through the program, she discovered a sub-field called Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). CALL is often used in virtual learning environments, which sparked Villar’s interest in eLearning. Villar started a blog in Spanish in 2009 where she wrote about her findings in eLearning and instructional design, and by 2010, she was appointed by the United Nations Headquarters to evaluate its eLearning courses.
“When people ask me how I got into instructional design, I tell them “I had this wonderful pedagogy background that I was able to apply to eLearning courses,” Villar says. And I’ve used these skills in international contexts as well. It’s been quite an amazing trip.”
Data visualization has become a strong asset in academia, and its benefits can be seen through a variety of programs. Tufts University has created Visual Understanding Environment (VUE), a concept-mapping tool that facilitates the creation of knowledge maps. Columbia University students use the VUE to create maps linking the complex problems of sustainability to issues in their own fields of biology, physics, and social sciences.
Students at the University of British Columbia created a Google Maps visualization to aid the community in locating local healthy food sources. And one of the most popular data visualization tools for education and eLearning is IBM’s Many Eyes – a personal favorite of Villar’s.
Since data visualization is such an essential component to eLearning, Villar often refers to Many Eyes – an experiment by IBM Research and the IBM Cognos software group that allows users to upload data to produce graphic representations. There is also a forum for users to share their visualizations, as well as to give and receive feedback. “When I discovered data visualization tools, I found that they’re very useful for organizing information in different ways,” Villar says. “Many Eyes lets you establish different relationships and find new ways of connecting information. And you can also assess how you’re going to present information in a more meaningful way and get people more engaged. It’s not just using a boring graph.”
As Villar’s research in applied linguistics continues, she’s noticed an especially strong connection between data visualization and language education after attending a webinar hosted by Stanford University. “They are applying data visualization tools to analyze different stories from a linguistic point of view. Establishing relationships between sentences and also characters,” Villar says. “It’s very interesting.” Stanford University created Constellation to serve as a visualization system for the results of queries from the MindNet natural language semantic network. It helps linguists perfect MindNet algorithms, and users are able to explore deeper relationships within the linguistics field.
One reason why data visualization is such an effective tool in eLearning is that when done right, it transcends educational barriers. “I always have to bear in mind different ages and learning styles,” Villar says, “but when you create an effective, meaningful graph, the students are going to understand it despite any differences. The key is to develop something so effective that it can be understood by everyone.”
In addition to Many Eyes, Villar also uses a Flickr-based visualization called Tag Galaxy and Revisit, a real-time visualization of the latest twitter messages around a specific topic. When it comes to data visualization and eLearning, she says it’s all about finding new ways to present content. And that same concept can be applied to the workplace, though Villar is quick to point out that not all data visualization is good data visualization.
“You have to be very careful because sometimes graphs can be too difficult or complex. It becomes all about the design, but they are not telling a story or getting the message across. It’s a great tool to share information, but you always have to stay focused on communicating your message effectively.”
As technology continues to evolve, so does Villar’s work in linguistics and eLearning. “My goal for this year is to be involved with an international project, and I’m going to start working with an eLearning agency in March. The idea for this agency is to provide quality standards for eLearning courses, and I’ll be developing courses and using data visualization to accomplish that.”
Elissa Vallano is a contributing writer to Mindjet. She’s based out of Philadelphia and is also a regular contributor to MyCityWay.