The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Two)

Tessa:  I found myself nodding yes Yes YES! as I read your response. The law of unintended consequences always follows any meaningful action — and some of our discussion falls into that category and Henry, I applaud your action and know that your intentions are the absolute best.  Most importantly, we agree on the primary goal of media literacy education:   as you said, media literacy requires a fundamental paradigm shift in ways to teach all subjects.  Media literacy education— whether it is high tech or low tech — primarily concerns itself with teaching and learning the conceptual underpinnings beneath contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge.

 

Learners gain content knowledge through using their media literacy skills — and these skills are applicable to any content anytime, anywhere on a lifelong basis.  Sometimes this process has little or nothing to do with technology, although I will note that access to technology in the U.S. Is widespread:  in our experience at CML, in the poorest communities in the U.S., cellphones and applications like video games proliferate, but these technologies are frequently barred in the classroom.

 

This changed education paradigm is a radical shift in cultural and education systems where formal learning worldwide has traditionally been confined to content silos whose subject matter is warehoused in physical textbooks and dumped into students’ heads. Since these traditions have dominated since Gutenberg’s invention of the press, they are rooted deeply in our culture.  “Mastery” is no longer the goal for education; constant improvement on a continuum of learning is what we are seeking, while recognizing that some will inevitably be more skilled than others in various domains.  As Len Masterman, a professor from the University of Nottingham and a media literacy visionary, said his his Eighteen Basic Principles in 1989, “…you can teach about the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text (this includes media texts created by users and software “texts”).  And that applies every bit as much to the new digitized technologies as it did to the old mass media…The acid test of whether a media course has been successful resides in students’ ability to respond critically to media texts they will encounter (or create) in the future.  Media education is nothing if it is not an education for life.”

 

We at CML like to say that thanks to technology, the content is infinitely variable, plentiful and available, but that the media literacy process skills of “learning how to learn” and to be critically autonomous are the constants that learners need to practice and employ and constantly improve — and because of the lack of understanding and training of both teachers and learners, these skills are scarce.  It is going to take more than a village to institutionalize media literacy education. Policy initiatives, coalitions, professional associations, researchers etc. will all play a vital part in realizing this global imperative.

 

Which brings me to the point that being media literate, undertaking research and development, teaching media literacy, and institutionalizing media literacy are widely divergent roles which require various degrees of media literacy knowledge and skills. Who needs what knowledge when, and for what purpose?  Masterman noted that …”media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded). The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us and what we represent to others through media).”  Researchers who explore the vanguard of media literacy — such as you and many of those who are part of the DML community — may have a different goal for media literacy education than preschool teachers. Yet each is in the business of sharing knowledge about media literacy  and helping youth and adults to understand and to be able to describe and navigate symbolic media systems — whether these systems are technology-based or not. I do not see conflict — I see coalescence.  Common understanding fuels coalition-building — which is highly desirable and needed!

 

To grow media literacy education at the pre-K-12 level, we need to have pedagogy that can be replicated, measured and scaled.  Only then will media literacy be common knowledge rather than privileged information.  Some of the basic components for achieving this goal have already been developed in ways that fit with new curricular approaches — highly encouraging.  And in the meanwhile, it is also encouraging to note that media literacy education has survived through the grassroots for many years, because some early adopters recognized its importance and refused to abandon their first-hand experience with its benefits and promise (anyone who is interested in this evolution may want to check out CML’s Voices of Media Literacy Project, which features 20 media literacy pioneers active prior to 1990).  Yet in spite of these past efforts, we are at the beginning of the beginning, although Marieli Rowe, president of the National Telemedia Council and I have joked for years that “media literacy is just around the corner.”  So far it’s been a very long block to walk!!

 

Henry: There’s no question in my mind that the work we are doing today would not be possible without the work of the kind of media literacy pioneers you have been documenting and it is an enormous service to capture those voices and their memories of the early days of the media literacy movement while it is still possible to do so. There has been a tendency for those people who have jumped into this space in the wake of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatives to forget this history, to see these projects as a new beginning, and as a consequence, we are losing much wisdom, not to mention the opportunity to forge a stronger alliance with those veterans who have much experience in the field of this struggle. This is why I have made a point of remaining connected to NAMLE and serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Media Literacy to make sure those links remain strong.

 

Once we wrote the white paper and turned our attention to developing our own curricular resources, our first major project, which became the book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, sought to bridge between the literary practices of the 19th century (those which gave rise to Moby-Dick), the traditions of the media literacy movement, and today’s remix practices, whether those associated with hip hop or digital media; we wanted to help teachers to understand the differences between plagiarism, fair use, and remix, and we wanted students to think not only critically but also creatively about the many different kinds of texts they encountered in their everyday lives as readers and writers within contemporary culture. Our goal was not about promoting new media per se; we wrote that we hoped to raise a generation which had a mouse in one hand and a book in another. And the approach we took was comparative to its core, seeking to identify connections across media as well as differences.

You are right to say that technologies are becoming more widely available (and thus, one case for teaching media literacy is that we need to help young people think critically about tools and practices that are very much part of their everyday environments.) We certainly still are finding cases where young people lack access to these technologies — or meaningful access — outside the classroom, so that having twenty minutes of restricted access in a public library does not equal the unlimited, anywhere-anytime access enjoyed by other youth. But, we are also finding other inequalities in access to skills and knowledge, mentorship, networks, etc. which result in gross inequalities of opportunity between different youth — this is what we called in the original report, the Participation Gap, and this also is why it is so vital to incorporate media literacy experiences, including experiences working with new media technologies, into every institution that touches young people’s lives, but especially through schools.  MacArthur’s original focus was on spaces of informal learning, which was an important first step, but increasingly, the DML folks are focused on “connected learning,” which emphasizes  building a more fluid set of relations between home, out of school, and in school practices. All of this is why I have shifted from talking about “a participatory culture” to “a more participatory culture” to stress the work which still needs to be done in insuring equity of opportunity.

 

Yes, schools often block access to the technologies which young people use outside of school: for some, this is not a problem, since they see value in a low tech learning environment. But, for me, the bigger issue is that they are blocking ways of knowing and processes of meaning-making which young people are using outside the classroom. In many cases, we’ve wired the classroom and hobbled the computers, cutting them off from any and all forms of participatory culture and learning practices, blocking social media, dismissing Wikipedia, stigmatizing games, and rejecting YouTube and other video sites. All of this means that we are not addressing the consequences of those tools through our teaching and thus losing out on opportunities to help young people develop more meaningful and ethical relations to these platforms and practices.

 

The one phrase here which gave me some pause was your term, “Critically autonomous.” On the one hand, yes, of course — the goal is to get youth to think for themselves, to critically analyze the messages which they receive, to question authority, to be skeptical of motives from other communicators, and to ask probing questions. This goes to the heart of what we both mean by media literacy. But, at the same time, I have called for a recognition that media literacy is a “social skill” having to do with the ways we interface with each other, how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. I fear that our schools place too much emphasis on the autonomous learner and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. This is perhaps a key way in which the new media literacies differ — we are focusing on notions of collectivity and connectivity more. Our emphasis on participation begs the question, participation in what? I’ve made this a key concern in some of my own recent writings, but the answer necessarily involves something larger than the individual, or it is by nature not participation.

 

Tessa: Hmmmm…you raise a lot of compelling points. I appreciate your exploring the question of “participation in what?” Maybe there are no set answers to this question — maybe our role in media literacy education is to help increase the capacity of participants to participate effectively in whatever they choose to engage with?

 

I certainly agree with you that media literacy is a social skill in regards to how we relate to each other and how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. Relationships are — and have always been — central to media literacy and media literacy education. First and foremost, through media literacy we explore our relationship with media itself. We engage with media and given its pervasiveness in our lives, divorce is not an option!

 

In understanding our media relationship, we come to see that there are relationships between the text, the audience and the producers/participants, and as technology has offered increased capacity for interaction and world-wide connectivity, that relationship becomes more and more dynamic and expansive. At the same time, our media relationship affects our very identities as individuals and as affiliative groups — we have private selves (what goes on inside), public/representational selves (how we extend and represent ourselves to others alone or as a group/entity) and what I call “commercialized” selves (that allow marketing and/or ideological elements, such as branding or big data, define who we are or whom we affiliate with and whom we are seen to affiliate with). These notions apply to individuals as well as organizations or groups.

 

I agree with you, that schools emphasize individual autonomy and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. (And I believe that higher education is the tail that wags the Pre-K-12 dog in this regard — SAT scores and college admissions departments reward individuals). But sharing is not a new idea — sharing has been part of enlightened media literacy pedagogies for many years. I quote Masterman’s 18 Basic Principles again because — well, he is my master (and I am continually wowed to see how his words resonate through the years): “Media Education is essentially active and participatory, fostering the development of more open and democratic pedagogies. It encourages students to take more responsibility for and control over their own learning…”

 

As technology has enabled the classroom walls to break down through more connectivity, good media literacy pedagogy becomes more and more feasible — and desirable — in both formal and informal settings. “Underlying Media Education is a distinctive epistemology” Masterman wrote. “Existing knowledge is not simply transmitted by teachers or ‘discovered’ by students. It is not an end but a beginning. It is the subject of critical investigations and dialogue out of which new knowledge is actively created by student and teachers.” This dialogue arises in many contexts, not just the formal classroom. And as you said (and it can’t be said enough!), we have a moral and economic challenge in our society to insure that these opportunities are widely and equitably available.

 

Because of the lack of education system imperatives to teach media literacy and to encourage critical autonomy alone and through groups — rather than to meet fill-in-the-bubble testing deadlines — it is difficult at best to deliver media education in a credible and evidence-based way.  Often, media researchers have no clue about what pedagogy is or how school systems work — and it is for this reason that we often say that media literacy is more about education than about media.  The education imperative is paramount:  the promise of the technology in putting power into the hands of the people is squandered if people don’t have the critical thinking skills and complementary new media skills to use technology wisely and to amplify benefits from its use.

 

But then the questions become, what skills are necessary and how do we help people gain media literacy skills?   Your 2006 white paper outlined new media skills that are needed — play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation.  These are sophisticated skills that are highly suited to the technology and the digital world that enables their use. They rest on the basic foundations of media literacy skills that are usually  missing for students, or that are taken for granted by media researchers who may already have a conceptual understanding of media representations, deconstruction and construction. However — and yes I repeat myself — this basic foundation is absent in American education systems.  Quite simply, teachers cannot teach what they do not know and what the system has not valued.

 

And so we — as educators and as citizens —  have skipped teaching and learning an enormous media literacy underpinning for new media  as well as for non-digital media like the logos on shirts, the billboards, the theater plays, the food packaging, the school posters.  And this lack of understanding of basic media literacy concepts translates from the playground to the Twitter feed.   And as you said, Henry, it also robs researchers of a rich base of knowledge that should inform their work  Yet it’s important to have unity as a field so that we can gain traction and scale our work in a significant way amongst the general population — to translate the Research & Development (R&D) into awareness and actions of use to citizens nationally and globally.

 

This translation goal has been the Center for Media Literacy’s (CML’s) mission since its founding by Elizabeth Thoman in Los Angeles in 1989 (and with CML’s predecessor organization the Center for Media&Values springing from Thoman’s work beginning as a USC Annenburg graduate student in the late 1970’s).  I applaud your work and that of others, to operationalize and to “package” these powerful media literacy ideas and practices into pedagogy and curricula available for all of our citizens and youth — so needed! We must always keep in mind that we are trying to reach and inspire millions of people and so our task is enormous — but other movements, such as the environmental movement, provide us with inspiration and hope for fulfilling our mission.

 

In the meanwhile, we have a foundation to lay, with an expanded repertoire of media literacy skills that are needed in the 21st century (thanks to your groundbreaking work). What are the media literacy fundamentals that have been so neglected these past decades?

 

Earlier I noted that Mastermanfocused on priorities for media literacy education by saying: ”Media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded)… The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us, and what we represent to others through media).”

 

He went on to say, “Without this principle, no media education is possible. From it, all else flows.”  This idea is as relevant to today’s media as it was to the media of Masterman’s time.