Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action
The time to bring digital and media literacy into the mainstream of American communities is now. People need the ability to access, analyze and engage in critical thinking about the array of messages they receive and send in order to make informed decisions about the everyday issues they face regarding health, work, politics and leisure. Most American families live in “constantly connected” homes with 500+ TV channels, broadband Internet access, and mobile phones offering on-screen, interactive activities at the touch of a fingertip. In an age of information overload, people need to allocate the scarce resource of human attention to quality, high-value messages that have relevance to their lives.
Today full participation in contemporary culture requires not just consuming messages, but also creating and sharing them. To fulfill the promise of digital citizenship, Americans must acquire multimedia communication skills that include the ability to compose messages using language, graphic design, images, and sound, and know how to use these skills to engage in the civic life of their communities. These competencies must be developed in formal educational settings, especially in K–12 and higher education, as well as informal settings. The inclusion of digital and media literacy in formal education can be a bridge across digital divides and cultural enclaves, a way to energize learners and make connections across subject areas, and a means for providing more equal opportunities in digital environments.
This report offers a plan of action for how to bring digital and media literacy education into formal and informal settings through a community education movement. This work will depend on the active support of many stakeholders: educational leaders at the local, state and federal levels; trustees of public libraries; leaders of community-based organizations; state and federal officials; members of the business community; leaders in media and technology industries, and the foundation community. It will take the energy and imagination of people who recognize that the time is now to support the development of digital and media literacy education for all our nation’s citizens, young and old.
In this report, we define digital and media literacy as a constellation of life skills that are necessary for full participation in our media-saturated, information-rich society. These include the ability to do the following:
- Make responsible choices and access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas
- Analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose and point of view, and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content
- Create content in a variety of forms, making use of language, images, sound, and new digital tools and technologies
- Reflect on one’s own conduct and communication behavior by applying social responsibility and ethical principles
- Take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, workplace and community, and by participating as a member of a community
These digital and media literacy competencies, which constitute core competencies of citizenship in the digital age, have enormous practical value. To be able to apply for jobs online, people need skills to find relevant information. To get relevant health information, people need to be able to distinguish between a marketing ploy for nutritional supplements and solid information based on research evidence. To take advantage of online educational opportunities, people need to have a good understanding of how knowledge is constructed and how it represents reality and articulates a point of view. For people to take social action and truly engage in actual civic activities that improve their communities, they need to feel a sense of empowerment that comes from working collaboratively to solve problems.
There is growing momentum to support the integration of digital and media literacy into education. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 technology plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” notes, “Whether the domain is English language arts, mathematics, sciences, social studies, history, art, or music, 21st-century competencies and expertise such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas. These competencies are necessary to become expert learners, which we all must be if we are to adapt to our rapidly changing world over the course of our lives, and that involves developing deep understanding within specific content areas and making the connections between them” (p. vi).
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has proposed a bill, the 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act, that would provide matching federal funds to states offering students curriculum options that include information literacy and media literacy. According to the bill, “Students need to go beyond just learning today’s academic context to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, communications skills, creativity and innovation skills, collaboration skills, contextual learning skills, and information and media literacy skills” (S. 1029, 2009). If passed, the bill would appropriate $100 million a year for states that develop a comprehensive plan to implement a statewide 21st-century skills initiative and are able to supply matching funds. Similarly, members of Congress Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) have sponsored the Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R.4925) which authorizes $40 million to support media literacy programs for children and youth. But these efforts, as substantial as they are, even if they are passed, will not be enough.
At the heart of this momentum is the recognition that we must work to promote people’s capacity to simultaneously empower and protect themselves and their families as everyday lives become more saturated and enmeshed with information. As philosopher John Dewey made clear, true education arises from thoughtful exploration of the genuine problems we encounter in daily life. Information needs are both personal and civic (Knight Commission, 2009). We look to digital and media literacy to help us more deeply engage with ideas and information to make decisions and participate in cultural life.
Rather than viewing empowerment and protection as an either-or proposition, they must be seen as two sides of the same coin. Because mass media, popular culture and digital technologies contribute to shaping people’s attitudes, behaviors and values, not only in childhood but across a lifetime, there is a public interest in addressing potential harms. For healthy development, children and youth need privacy, physical and psychological safety, and freedom from exposure to objectionable, disturbing or inappropriate material. At the same time, media and technology can empower individuals and groups. People gain many personal, social and cultural benefits from making wise choices about information and entertainment, using digital tools for self-expression and communication, and participating in online communities with people around the neighborhood and around the world who share their interests and concerns.
To strengthen digital citizenship and make digital and media literacy part of mainstream education in the United States, a series of key steps, both large and small, will be necessary. In this report, a plan of action includes 10 recommendations for local, regional, state and national initiatives aligned with the themes of community action, teacher education, research and assessment, parent outreach, national visibility and stakeholder engagement. These action steps do more than bring digital and media literacy into the public eye. Each step provides specific concrete programs and services to meet the diverse needs of our nation’s citizens, young and old, and build the capacity for digital and media literacy to thrive as a community education movement.
Support Community-Level Digital and Media Literacy Initiatives
1. Map existing community resources and offer small grants to promote community partnerships to integrate digital and media literacy competencies into existing programs.
2. Support a national network of summer learning programs to integrate digital and media literacy into public charter schools.
3. Support a Digital and Media Literacy (DML) Youth Corps to bring digital and media literacy to underserved communities and special populations via public libraries, museums and other community centers.
Develop Partnerships for Teacher Education
4. Support interdisciplinary bridge building in higher education to integrate core principles of digital and media literacy education into teacher preparation programs.
5. Create district-level initiatives that support digital and media literacy across K–12 via community and media partnerships.
6. Partner with media and technology companies to bring local and national news media more fully into education programs in ways that promote civic engagement.
Research and Assessment
7. Develop online measures of media and digital literacy to assess learning progression and develop online video documentation of digital and media literacy instructional strategies to build expertise in teacher education.
Parent Outreach, National Visibility, and Stakeholder Engagement
8. Engage the entertainment industry’s creative community in an entertainment-education initiative to raise visibility and create shared social norms regarding ethical behaviors in using online social media.
9. Host a statewide youth-produced Public Service Announcement (PSA) competition to increase visibility for digital and media literacy education.
10. Support an annual conference and educator showcase competition in Washington, D.C. to increase national leadership in digital and media literacy education.
Today, people struggle with the challenges of too much information. For example, millions of people search for health information online every day. One survey found that 75 percent of these searchers do not pay heed to the quality of the information they find, and 25 percent reported becoming frustrated, confused or overwhelmed by what they find (Fox, 2006). The impulse to address the problem of information overload leads us to digital and media literacy, which can help people develop the capacity to manage and evaluate the flood of data threatening to overtake them. It is vital for citizens of a pluralistic democracy who are committed to freedom and diversity to develop these competencies:
- Reading or watching the news
- Writing a letter to the editor
- Talking with family, co-workers and friends about current events
- Commenting on an online news story
- Contributing to an online community network
- Calling a local radio talk show host to express an opinion
- Taking an opinion poll
- Searching for information on topics and issues of special interest
- Evaluating the quality of information they find
- Sharing ideas and deliberating
- Taking action in the community
But people cannot be forced to engage with the public life of the community—they have to experience for themselves the benefits that come from such engagement. That’s why this plan of action focuses on helping people of all ages not simply to use digital tools but also to discover both the pleasures and the power of being well-informed, engaged and responsible consumers and producers.
Digital and media literacy education offers the potential to maximize what we value most about the empowering characteristics of media and technology, while minimizing its negative dimensions. As the Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, explains, informed and engaged communities need citizens who appreciate the values of transparency, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of the public interest.
But this report also identifies some challenges that a plan of action must address to be effective. Educators, curriculum developers and policymakers must consider five challenges when implementing programs in digital and media literacy:
1. Moving beyond a tool-oriented focus that conflates having access to media and technology with the skillful use of it
2. Addressing risks associated with media and digital technology
3. Expanding the concept of literacy
4. Strengthening people’s capacity to assess message credibility and quality
5. Using news and journalism in the context of K–12 education
Existing paradigms in technology education must be shifted towards a focus on critical thinking and communication skills and away from “gee-whiz” gaping over new technology tools. We must consider the balance between protection and empowerment and respond seriously to the genuine risks associated with media and digital technology. We must better understand how digital and media literacy competencies are linked to print literacy skills and develop robust new approaches to measure learning progression. We must help people of all ages to learn skills that help them discriminate between high-quality information, marketing hype, and silly or harmful junk. We must raise the visibility and status of news and current events as powerful, engaging resources for both K–12 and lifelong learning while we acknowledge the challenges faced by journalism today and in the future.
An effective community education movement needs a shared vision. This report offers recommendations that involve many stakeholders, each participating in a way that supports the whole community.