Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

Many of our earliest understandings of media literacy took place around the particular properties of broadcast media, especially television, but in some cases, before that with radio. How did those assumptions inform prevailing models of media literacy? How are those ideas being rethought as we deal with the very different properties and processes associated with networked computing?

Paul – I think media literacy has long been concerned with the the skills and dispositions needed to effectively engage with information in daily life. The outcomes around access, evaluation, comprehension and production–in essence critical thinking and critical expression–have long been applied across traditional platforms and integrated into new digital spaces. Back when film, radio and television first emerged as mass mediums, media education typically treated their pedagogy as teaching about the way that these mediums work more than deconstructing the content that they delivered. As the mediums grew more diverse and complex, there was a need for media literacy to become more critical. This coincides I think with the increasing centrality of commercial culture in media and the need to actively respond with educational initiatives.

Media literacy is still largely emerging from the “mass media” era, and I think the traditional protectionist model of media literacy is prevalent in some of the work being done, particularly in the health and advertising spaces.

The emergence of connective technologies and networked computing has led to a re-imagination of how we understand media literacy in terms of identity, community, engagement, and agency. While we still need to have foundations in media literacy education around critical analysis of media texts, it’s become equally if not more vital to apply new competencies around curation, appropriation, remix, collaboration, spreadability and production that the web now affords. Media literacy needs to leverage the connective capacity of the web for civic value, and I think that’s at the core of where media literacy is headed. Not abandoning the past, but simply using our foundations for more applied and responsive participation.

Why do you think there has been such resistance in the American educational system to fully incorporating media literacy skills into the curriculum when there has been much more widespread take up in other parts of the world? What can/should we be done to shape public policies so that they reflect the needs of students and the realities of educators in a world where more and more of our core practices are conducted through networked communications?

Belinha: At the policy level, they don’t know us. We don’t have a large body of research to support our ideas. Policymakers tend to like the research and the numbers. Yet, if we actually talk to them about what we say is the value in media literacy education, they most definitely get it. Part of what drove this book was that idea that there are a number of us who talk about it at different levels–academic, schools, libraries, advocacy organizations, non-profits, etc; each group speaking of the value of media literacy, but not necessarily with each other. Moreover, there are a number of organizations who work with policymakers who continue to promote media literacy education throughout their work such as the Aspen Institute, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and the Cable Impacts Foundation. In particular, every year for the last five years I have attended the FOSI conference which is a two day event in Washington DC where many people who work in government appear and listen to the conversations on digital safety. Each year, I hear people discuss or bring up media literacy and the need for media literacy education and then the conversation appears to end. There are meetings by invitation only to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA), but I don’t know how many people are represented there who focus on media literacy education other than perhaps the Cable Impacts Foundation.

Media literacy education as a dialogue comes very close to policymakers, but then stops before entering the door. The conversation at the government level has deemed to fall into digital literacy which is more about digital technologies and the need for schools to be equipped with more of it. Yet, the discussion of literacy as a critical approach to teaching about digital technology, not heard much. In the book, I addressed the opening that the Common Core State Standards provided schools with its not clearly defined look at media literacy. I offered it up for discussion as an opportunity versus a problem because I believe when we break something down too much we limit the capacity for instruction. That being said, media literacy education still needs to be discussed in the policy documents, but where is it?

Internationally, I think there has been a better acceptance of it at the policy level because it was introduced with the concerns with television and such. For years, I would have said that the Europeans, and the Canadians were ahead of us with media literacy education, and then the Internet hit us all simultaneously and that generated another conversation regarding media literacy education which was inclusive of all these new technologies. Yet, here again there is the worry as expressed best by David Buckingham in the UK that the rhetoric of today may actually be problematic for media literacy education. That it has become so saturated with the discussion of digital technology, digital footprints, and digital infrastructure that the capacity for understanding and learning has been set adrift by good intentions. However, at least in the UK and in the EU, policymakers talk about it and welcome the idea of growing this type of literacy. And, they demonstrate this further positive appeal by providing government resources to develop curriculum and ideas.

Several of your contributors make the case that media literacy means teaching about media and not simply teaching through media and that the goal should be to incorporate “critical production” rather than simply a focus on production practices. I agree, but the distinctions being made here between doing and thinking may not be fully adequate to a culture of participation, where many are arguing that “making” or “tinkering” or visualization or simulation or games each represent distinctive modes of thought and not simply tools and practices. Would you agree? If so, has there been a shift in what it might mean to teach about and through media?

Belinha: I think I allude to what you are suggesting here earlier. Sometimes ‘critical production’ is very individualized. I do believe that when students are “tinkering” and “making” that they are processing and making some key decisions as to what is useful to them and what is not. Does that mean that they have gone far enough? This is where there tends to be some push back. Watching someone craft together a presentation at any grade level there is a certain amount of thought going into that product. Is this the right picture? Does this mean what I want it to say? Depending on the level of the learner and the maturity of the producer, you can see a growth in thinking when they disengage with themselves and consider the audience. Many times that isn’t a step that is complete at for example the middle school years, but that is a step that can be seen later. Not for all, but for some. When I see this type of work happening in schools, I am mostly surprised by the people who are either overly surprised and pleased by very simplistic pieces of work by students or stumped that their students aren’t as media-savvy as they expected them to be.

When I work with future teachers, I always remind them that just because students are engaged in their technology doesn’t meant that they are critically thinking. Or for that matter, that they even know how to produce or create? There is an overall assumption because this generation has the most technology that they are in fact technology literate. Neither is true. Many students know what they know, but not much else. For example, they know how to play an online game or participate in social networks, but that doesn’t mean that they can work within some basic platform tools such as word documents or presentation tools. Yet, they can move quickly through various programs once they have been taught and they can create given the time. They just don’t tend to have many opportunities to do so at school because of the regimented curriculums. Outside of school, they may have more opportunity, but once again they tend to stick to what they know and are most comfortable.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.