The New Media Literacies: An Introduction

Over the next several weeks, I plan to be showcasing some of the work we are doing through Project New Media Literacies, an initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their Digital Learning and Youth program. Many regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with some of the work which we do. If you have not read the White Paper we wrote several years ago on the educational implications of participatory culture, check it out.

Members of our team of graduate students and researchers have been working on creating new curricular models which reflect many of the implications of this white paper. Some of them are being tested through schools and after school programs as we speak. Many of them are going to be released to the public in the course of this academic year. So, you can expect to hear more about these initiatives on this blog in the weeks and months ahead.

This video was put together by our team to explain in the most general terms what we mean by the New Media Literacies and why we think they are important. It is our collective statement about the principles which govern and motivate our work. The exciting thing about our team is that it brings together those of us who have media production backgrounds, who have expertise in media studies, and who have been trained in educational research. We are all learning from each other as we put these ideas into practice.

One respondent to the YouTube posting of this video questions our use of the term, “literacies.” This is a question that crops up often. A growing body of academic research over the past few decades has increasingly realized that literacy is not simply one thing but rather a range of interconnected skills and practices. We are scarcely the first to talk about “multi-literacies.” These skills are unevenly distributed across the population. Some of them may receive a high degree of prestige while others are often debased and dismissed. There is almost always a struggle over what counts as literacy.

Increasingly, the word, literacy, has moved from reference to the specific practices associated with text to a more generalized capacity to decipher the signs and symbols of our culture. The Media Literacy movement has a long history of extending the concept to refer to our capacity to intreprete and communicate through audio-visual media.

We see these earlier forms of literacy as absolutely foundational for what we are trying to promote. If you can’t read and write, you may not be able to meaningfully participate in this new media landscape. At the same time, participatory culture practices — such as fan fiction — provide strong incentives and support for acquiring traditional literacy skills, for growing as readers and writers, while other sites — such as those around gaming or YouTube — may provide the infrastructure to help people acquire the skills they need to meaningfully participate.

We fear, however, that most schools are locking out what is most valuable about these participatory cultures, often by limiting or banning access to social software, blogging tools, Youtube, and other key tools and platforms. This has been true even for some of the schools we are working with to test our materials, an issue I hope to address in more detail in future installments of this blog. The New Media Literacies (definitely plural rather than singular) refer to skills which will support young people in their future roles as learners, creators, workers, and citizens. Watch the video and you will have a better sense of what we mean, but there’s no substitute for reading the white paper.