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Published November 24, 2015 | Multidisciplinary

Media Literacy: Challenges and Issues for 21st Century Schools

On October 23, 2015, I attended a Web-based colloquium entitled Éduquer aux médias: une priorité collective (Media Literacy: A Collective Priority). Presented by the TELUQ and the Conseil de presse du Québec, it had been 10 years since the last event on media literacy took place in Montreal. This initiative was praised by speakers and attendees alike, who enthusiastically lobbied for another edition to follow this year’s event.

The following text is an account of the issues, reflections and debates that were, in my opinion, the highlights of the colloquium.

What is Media Literacy?

The colloquium website describes media literacy as follows (translation):

Media Literacy consists of activities whose aim is to acquire:

  • The ability to fully use media technology
  • The ability to fully express oneself using these technologies
  • Critical judgement when consuming media
  • The ability to reflect, as both a producer and consumer of media
  • Moral and ethical behavior within media environments

Media literacy is an ambitious goal, as it covers both the content of traditional media and the representation of image as well as the appropriate use of new technologies. Inevitably, it raises questions on where the responsibility lies (with parents and/or schools) to educate students on media. If teachers are required to teach media literacy, they must feel adequately prepared. Various stakeholders in the field such as journalists, public figures, researchers, teachers, and executives weighed in on media literacy during the colloquium.

This diverse range of voices was equally represented within the video testimonies presented at the beginning of each session. In these videos, teenagers, parents or teachers spoke about various topics related to the media.

Éduquer aux médias : une priorité collective

Information and transformation of media

The first session presented a timeline of the transformations in the principal media tools used to disseminate information throughout history. The shift from printed to digital media, along with the requisite adaptations and changes it has entailed, represent a major historical turning point. That said, its importance is surprisingly overlooked. Perhaps this could be explained by the recency of the changes.

In 2015, media literacy is a must for all stakeholders. Without it, one cannot act as a responsible citizen. The information media changes, adapts or becomes extinct in the digital movement. As such, the bearings that used to help us establish the credibility and validity of sources have been profoundly altered.

Whereas we are struggling to distinguish truth from fabrication, the proliferation of information on the Internet makes the development of a critical mind and of information-related competencies that much more crucial.

Buying “Likes”

Social media is not exempt from the need for media awareness. Astroturfing is the deceptive practice of paying individuals in exchange for fake online reviews to manipulate user opinions, and is particularly prolific on social media. There was even a public institution that was recently condemned for engaging in this type of questionable behaviour. The anonymous and citizen-based nature of some online platforms encourages a feeling of security and community among users. That being said, it is important to remain aware of some potential traps inherent in such media.

The colloquium stakeholders stated that it is vital that media literacy include a component on ethics in journalism so that Internet users are more aware of what they see on the Web, both as the readers and authors of media content.

Private life and netiquette

The second session focused on the relational aspects of media literacy, including cyberbullying, hyper-sexualization and sexist representations within media.

It is tempting to believe that bullying is a phenomenon that is typical to teenagers. Yet teenagers are not the only ones guilty of inappropriate behavior on the Internet. In some cases their parents do not behave either. It becomes clear that parents should also be educated on media literacy. After all, they are their children’s first (and most important) role models.

Does all inappropriate online behavior fall within the cyberbullying category? It appears that frequency is the determining factor. This form of violence tends to be more common between teenage girls, but cyberbullying seems even more prevalent than what actually happens inside school walls.

Several stakeholders stressed that learning positive social habits such as civility and appropriate online behavior needs to take place over a period of many years. Media literacy, if handled by the education system, would benefit from a long-term approach much like other school subjects (such as English or Mathematics). In the quest for media literacy, promoting good behaviour seems more beneficial than doling out punishments. The participants offered a few recommendations:

  • To present case studies or moral dilemmas in which students would have the opportunity to discuss and reflect on the consequences of their behaviour when using social media.
  • To teach students how to write positive comments when using social media.
  • To be a positive role model online to set a good example.

The Omniscient Internet

Protecting privacy online is a major issue in Web 2.0 platforms. Not so long ago, we used to say that God was everywhere. Nowadays, we might say the same about the Internet. As soon as we go online, our actions are recorded and traceable, which makes it essential to help students become aware of their use of technologies and of their digital footprint. The concept of extimité (the exteriorisation of intimacy), is particularly insightful and was immediately employed by several stakeholders.

Learning these concepts is all the more crucial since the omnipresence of technology encourages a norming for certain types of behaviour:

For instance, those who are uneasy about the proliferation of the means of surveillance are met with the following response: “Why? Do you have something to hide?” Surveillance has become the norm.

In a context in which technologies that promote security over freedom are preferred, any hesitation or questioning becomes suspicious. In addition, some seemingly harmless mobile applications are meant to simplify their users’ lives, but they are increasingly invasive with regards to the information they gather about our lifestyle and consumer habits. Will applications designed to keep track of good driving behaviour in order to reduce the price of auto insurance, or medical/pharmaceutical tracking devices become commonplace in the near future?

This process of norming must be questioned in order to protect free choice. The colloquium attendees believe that media literacy is essential to understanding the impact of these technologies on our private life and, accordingly, to make the right choices for ourselves.

Media Literacy: Who’s responsibility, and how?

The third session was an opportunity for secondary school teachers to share their experiences with integrating media literacy into their curriculum.

Secondary 1 students were introduced to the manipulation of media images in an activity which, at first, consisted of creating a commercial video for their French class. Understanding marketing strategies and special effects using simple software changed the students’ perspective on the images they see in the media and sharpened their critical judgement.

Through this example, one can see that initiatives in media and technology literacy (both at the secondary and college level) are usually conducted on a voluntary basis by teachers. Whereas the acquisition of media literacy is absolutely essential in the 21st century, teachers do not necessarily feel prepared to rise to the occasion. The success of teaching media literacy is largely dependent on the teacher’s desire to be trained on this topic. However, in the current state of things, teaching media literacy is just one more thing being added to an already overcrowded schedule. What’s more, it is also important to determine whether the schools or the parents should be responsible for teaching media literacy to the children. Attendees at the colloquium pointed out the parallels between this issue and that of sex education in the school system. In both cases the topics are considered very important, but there is only so much teachers can do, and choices must be made.

Generally speaking, school is expected to teach students to improve their judgement and to develop their critical thinking. Because school must prepare students to be active members of society, it seems inevitable that, sooner or later, media literacy will become part of the curriculum with parents being called upon to participate. Both parties have a vested interest in developing the student’s media literacy.

All of the stakeholders agreed that media literacy is an essential competency in the 21st century. This is why we need to help our youth to develop discernment, and to become digital citizens with a critical eye and ethical conscience.

Do you have any Media Literacy resources that you would like to share with the network? Please use the comments feature below to post a link to your favourite resources.

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