Who Should Respond? A Systemic Approach to Media Education
We have identified three core problems that should concern everyone who cares about the development and well-being of America’s youth:
- How do we ensure that every child has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant in the social, cultural, economic, and political future of our society?
- How do we ensure that every child has the ability to articulate his or her understanding of the way that media shapes perceptions of the world?
- How do we ensure that every child has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that will shape their practices as media makers and as participants within online communities?
We have also identified a set of core social skills and cultural competencies that young people should acquire if they are to be full, active, creative, and ethical participants in this emerging participatory culture:
Play The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving.
Performance The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.
Simulation The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes.
Appropriation The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.
Multitasking The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details.
Distributed cognition The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities.
Collective intelligence The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.
Judgment The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
Transmedia navigation The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities.
Networking The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information.
Negotiation The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
Some children acquire some of these skills through their participation in the informal learning communities that surround popular culture. Some teachers incorporate some of these skills into their classroom instruction. And some after-school programs infuse some of these skills into their activities. Yet, as the above qualifications suggest, the integration of these important social skills and cultural competencies remains haphazard at best. Media education is taking place for some youths across a variety of contexts, but it is not a central part of the educational experience of all students. Our goal for this report is to encourage greater reflection and public discussion on how we might incorporate these core principles systematically across curricula and across the divide between in-school and out-of-school activities. Such a systemic approach is needed if we are to close the participation gap, confront the transparency problem, and help young people work through the ethical dilemmas they face in their everyday lives. Such a systemic approach is needed if children are to acquire the core social skills and cultural competencies needed in a modern era.
The integration of important social skills and cultural competencies remains haphazard at best. Media education is taking place for some youth across a variety of contexts, but it is not a central part of the educational experience of all students.
In the above descriptions of core social skills and cultural competencies, we have spotlighted a range of existing classroom practices that help children become fuller participants in the new media landscape: the use of educational simulations, alternative and augmented reality games, Webquests, production activities, blogs and wikis, and deliberation exercises. Such exercises involve actively applying new techniques of knowledge production and community participation to the existing range of academic subjects in the established school curriculum. We have seen how history classes are making use of educational games, how science classes are teaching youths to evaluate and construct simulations, how literature classes are embracing role-play and appropriation, how math classes might explore the value of distributed cognition, and how foreign language classes are bridging cultural differences via networking. As these examples suggest, many individual schools and educators are experimenting with new media technologies and the processes of collaboration, networking, appropriation, participation, and expression that they enable. Real-world inquiries require students to search out information, interview experts, connect with other students around the world, generate and share multimedia, assess digital documents, write for authentic audiences, and otherwise exploit the resources of the new participatory culture.
We see this report as supporting these individual educators by encouraging a more systemic consideration of the place these skills should assume in pedagogical practice. We believe that these core social skills and cultural competencies have implications across the school curriculum, with each teacher assuming responsibility for helping students develop the skills necessary for participation within their discipline. Clearly, more discipline-specific research is needed to fully understand the value and relevance of these skills to different aspects of the school curriculum. Skills that are already part of the professional practices of scientists, historians, artists, and policymakers can also help inform how we introduce students to these disciplines.
Much of the resistance to media literacy training springs from the sense that the school day is bursting at its seams and we cannot cram in any new tasks without the instructional system breaking down altogether. For that reason, we do not want to see media literacy treated as an add-on subject. Rather, its introduction should be a paradigm shift that, like multiculturalism or globalization, reshapes how we teach every existing subject. Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience and, as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment.
Much of the resistance to media literacy training springs from the sense that the school day is bursting at its seams and we cannot cram in any new tasks without the instructional system breaking down altogether. For that reason, we do not want to see media literacy treated as an add-on subject. Rather, its introduction should be a paradigm shift that, like multiculturalism or globalization, reshapes how we teach every existing subject.
After-school programs may encourage students to examine more directly their relationships to popular media and participatory culture. After-school programs may introduce core technical skills that students need to advance as media makers. In these more informal learning contexts, students may explore rich examples of existing media practice and develop a vocabulary for critically assessing work in these emerging fields. Students also may have more time to produce their own media and to reflect on their own production activities. The approach proposed here takes the best of several contemporary approaches to media education, fusing the critical skills and inquiry associated with media literacy with the production skills associated with Computer Clubhouses (discussed below), and adding to both a greater awareness of the politics and practice of participatory culture.
The media literacy movement emerged in response to the rise of mass media. Here, for example, is a classic definition of media literacy created by the Ontario Association for Media Literacy in 1989:
Media literacy is concerned with developing an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of those techniques. It is education that aims to increase students’ understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products. 118
Although some media literacy educators have instituted groundbreaking work on digital media, the bulk of presentations at national conferences are still focused on more traditional media—print, broadcast, cinema, popular music, advertising—which are assumed to exert the greatest influence on young people’s lives.
Media literacy educators are not wrong to be concerned by the concentrated power of the media industry, but they also must realize that this is only part of a more complex picture. We live in a world in which media power is more concentrated than ever before, yet the ability of everyday people to produce and distribute media has never been freer. Existing media literacy materials give us a rich vocabulary for thinking about issues of representation, helping students to think critically about how the media frames perceptions of the world and reshapes experience according to its own codes and conventions. Yet these concepts need to be rethought for an era of participatory culture.
Existing media literacy materials give us a rich vocabulary for thinking about issues of representation, helping students to think critically about how the media frames perceptions of the world and reshapes experience according to its own codes and conventions. Yet these concepts need to be rethought for an era of participatory culture.
Consider, for example, the framework for media literacy proposed by Share, Jolls, and Thoman:
- Who created the message?
- What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
- How may different people understand this message differently than me?
- What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in—or omitted from—this message?
- Why is this message being sent? 119
There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context, they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended, they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation, and they are not tied up with a language of victimization.
Yet note that each question operates on the assumption that the message was created elsewhere and that we are simply its recipients (critical, appropriating, or otherwise). We would add new complexity and depth to each of these questions if we rephrased them to emphasize individuals’ own active participation in selecting, creating, remaking, critiquing, and circulating media content. One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying core questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences. This inquiry process seems key to overcoming the transparency problems identified above.
By contrast, education for the digital revolution stressed tools above all else. The challenge was to wire the classroom and prepare youths for the demands of the new technologies. Computer Clubhouses sprang up around the country to provide learning environments where youths could experiment with new media techniques and technologies. The goal was to allow students to set and complete their own tasks with the focus almost entirely on the production process. Little effort was made to give youths a context for thinking about these changes or to reflect on the new responsibilities and challenges they faced as participants in the digital culture. We embrace the constructivist principles that have shaped the Computer Clubhouse movement: youths do their best work when engaged in activities that are personally meaningful to them. Yet we also see a value in teaching youths how to evaluate their own work and appraise their own actions, and we see the necessity of helping them to situate the media they produce within its larger social, cultural, and legal context.
We embrace the constructivist principles that have shaped the Computer Clubhouse movement: youth do their best work when engaged in activities that are personally meaningful to them. Yet we also see a value in teaching youth how to evaluate their own work and appraise their own actions, and we see the necessity of helping them to situate the media they produce within its larger social, cultural, and legal context.
We have developed an integrated approach to media pedagogy founded on exercises that introduce youths to core technical skills and cultural competencies, exemplars that teach youths to critically analyze existing media texts, expressions that encourage youths to create new media content, and ethics that encourage youths to critically reflect on the consequences of their own choices as media makers.
School-based and after-school programs serve distinct but complementary functions. We make a mistake when we use after-school programs simply to play catch-up on school-based standards or to reinforce what schools are already teaching. After-school programs should be a site of experimentation and innovation, a place where educators catch up with the changing culture and teach new subjects that expand children’s understanding of the world. After-school programs focused on media education should function in a variety of contexts. Muse ums, public libraries, churches, and social organizations (such as the YWCA or the Boy Scouts) can play important roles, each drawing on its core strengths to expand beyond what can be done during the official school day.
We also see an active role for parents to play in shaping children’s earliest relationships to media and reinforcing their emerging skills and competencies. The new media technologies give parents greater control over the flow of media into their lives than ever before, yet parents often describe themselves as overwhelmed by the role that media plays in their children’s everyday activities. As UK Children Go Online concluded, “Opportunities and risks go hand in hand.... The more children experience one, the more they also experience the other.” 120 Rather than constraining choices to protect youths from risks, the report advocates doing a better job of helping youths master the skills they need to exploit opportunities and avoid pitfalls.
Parents lack basic information that would help them deal with both the expanding media options and the breakdown of traditional gatekeeping functions. Most existing research focuses on how to minimize the risks of exposure to media, yet we have stressed the educational benefits of involvement in participatory culture. The first five or six years of a child’s life are formative for literacy and social skills, and parents can play an important part in helping children acquire the most basic versions of the skills we have described here. Throughout children’s lives, parents play important roles in helping them make meaningful choices in their use of media and in helping them anticipate the consequences of the choices they make. Adults often are led by fears and anxieties about new forms of media that were not a part of their own childhood and which they do not fully understand. There are few, if any, books that offer parents advice on how to make these choices or provide information about the media landscape. Few education programs help parents to acquire skills and self-confidence to help their children master the new media literacies, and few sites provide up-to date and ongoing discussions of some of the issues surrounding the place of media in children’s lives.
Adults often are led by fears and anxieties about new forms of media that were not a part of their own childhood and which they do not fully understand. There are few, if any, books that offer parents advice on how to make these choices or provide information about the media landscape.