Issues to Consider When Implementing Digital and Media Literacy Programs
Issues to Consider When Implementing Digital and Media Literacy Programs
In developing a plan of action, there are five challenges that educators and community leaders must consider in implementing programs in digital and media literacy: (1) moving beyond a tool-oriented focus that conflates having access to 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, and (5) bringing news and current events into K–12 education.
Moving Beyond a Tool-Oriented Focus that Conflates Having Access to Media and Technology with the Skillful Use of It. Generally, neither children nor adults acquire critical thinking skills about mass media, popular culture or digital media just by using technology tools themselves. Educators frequently complain about a generation of children who cannot distinguish between standard English grammar and spelling and the discourse of text messaging. Many teens lack the ability to identify appropriate keywords for an online search activity, and many young adults cannot identify the author of a web page. These same children and young people often are convinced they are expert researchers because they can find information “on Google.” However, some of these same youth produce and upload their own dance videos for their favorite songs, collaborate to solve problems in videogames, use mobile phones to show up for impromptu local events, and make their own fictional newspapers about their favorite fantasy-novel characters.
The larger concern is whether people will be able to transfer their self-developed digital skills beyond their affinity groups, fan communities or local social cliques. Although young people are using digital media, we should not assume they are digitally literate in the sense that we are discussing it here (Vaidhyanathan, 2008). People who play Farmville on Facebook may (or may not) have the skills they need to search for information about jobs, education and health care. For young people today, it is vital that formal education begin to offer a bridge from the often insular and entertainment-focused digital culture of the home to a wider, broader range of cultural and civic experiences that support their intellectual, cultural, social and emotional development.
In many schools, despite significant investment in technology, teachers are not making effective use of the engaging instructional practices of digital and media literacy. The reasons for this vary. Some teachers do not know how to use technology tools. Some mistake the mere transfer of classroom materials from paper to a computer screen as effective use. Others do not have the time to spare on media production projects because they are busy preparing children for high-stakes testing.
One thing is certain: simply buying computers for schools does not necessarily lead to digital and media literacy education. Schools have a long way to go on this front. Access to broadband is a substantial issue as diffusion is uneven across American cities and towns (Levin, 2010). Mandatory Internet filtering in schools means that many important types of social media are not available to teachers or students. And though there are computers with Internet access in most classrooms, fewer than half of American teachers can display a website because they do not have a data projector available to them. When computers are used, most American students use them to prepare written documents, drill-and-practice on basic skills, or to make Powerpoint presentations (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
Sadly, some people equate the amount of money that school districts spend on technology or the numbers of students enrolled in online learning programs as a proxy for digital and media literacy education. Some of the hype surrounding “digital natives” and the transformative potential of technology in education is promoted uncritically by fans of social media or subsidized by those who stand to benefit from selling data systems, interactive white boards, games or cell phones.
Many American parents mistakenly believe that simply providing children and young people with access to digital technology will automatically enhance learning. These days, across a wide range of socioeconomic strata, the “soccer mom” has been replaced by the “technology mom” who purchases a Leapfrog electronic toy for her baby, lap-surfs with her toddler, buys a Wii, an xBox and a Playstation for the kids and their friends, puts the spare TV set in the child’s bedroom, sets her child down for hours at a time to use social media like Webkinz and Club Penguin, and buys a laptop for her pre-teen so she will not have to share her own computer with the child.
In many American homes, the computer is primarily an entertainment device, extending the legacy of the television, which is still viewed for more than 3 hours per day by children aged 8 to 18, who spend 10 to 12 hours every day with some form of media (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010). The computer is used for downloading music, watching videos, playing games and interacting on social networks.
While some may assume that the computer is used as a research tool for exploring the world, keeping up with current events and learning new things, research has shown that many people lack the knowledge and skills to use the computer for these purposes (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008). Parents’ behavior and attitudes towards technology are a critical factor in predicting a child’s experience and approaches towards media (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2009). Research shows that students who have at least one parent with a graduate degree are significantly more likely to create content, either online or offline, than others. “While it may be that digital media are leveling the playing field when it comes to exposure to content, engaging in creative pursuits remains unequally distributed by social background” (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008, p. 256).
For these reasons, educators must not just teach with digital technologies, tools or games. To develop digital and media literacy competencies it is necessary to teach about media and technology, making active use of the practices of dialogue and Socratic questioning to promote critical thinking about the choices people make when consuming, creating and sharing messages. As Buckingham (2007, p. 113) explains, “Rather than seeing the web as a neutral source of ‘information,’ students need to be asking questions about the sources of that information, the interests of its producers and how it represents the world.”
One example of a program that works to develop these competencies in children and teens is Kids Voting USA, which provides civic education and preparation for voting with news reading and media analysis activities. Students are also encouraged to analyze political advertisements, news stories, and candidate debates (McDevitt & Chaffee, 2000). Similarly, research conducted in Maine as part of the middle-school laptop initiative shows that when science teachers use engaging digital and media literacy projects as part of a science lesson, students retain information longer, and when digital and media literacy instructional practices are used in teaching middle-school students, their ability to analyze the content and quality of informational websites improves (Berry & Wintle, 2009; Pinkham, Wintle & Silvernail, 2008).
The inherently engaging and immersive environment of games may make it difficult for young people to recognize the constructed nature of the digital environment and how it shapes personal and social action. But when children and young people become game-makers, they develop important skills while building an understanding of games as an interactive message system. The World Wide Workshop Foundation’s Globaloria project is an example of a program that uses game design to develop important digital and media literacy skills through its emphasis on participation and critical thinking. By becoming authors, game programmers and designers, students deepen their awareness of the choices involved in the structure and function of technology tools themselves.
Learners need opportunities to interact with audiences beyond their family and like-minded friends. The competencies promoted by digital and media literacy are fundamentally tied to true participation in a community, where engaging with people different from ourselves helps us clarify our own ideas, look at the world for different viewpoints, and in the process, deepen our own learning and develop a sense of connectedness to the people around us.
Using game design in education: Globaloria
Produced and launched by the World Wide Workshop Foundation in 2006, Globaloria is an innovative social learning network for designing and programming web-games that uses social media technology and computational tools for project-based learning.
Participants create educational games for their own personal and professional development, and for the social and economic benefit of their communities. The Program, while aimed at youth ages 12 and up, is suitable for students at all levels and does not require any prior web design or programming experience.
Instead of separate silos for vocational and technical education, academic subjects, and college preparation, Globaloria combines them all into a year-long project of approximately 150 hours, similar to computer gaming and software industry workplace practices. The scalable learning network includes programmable wikis and blogs, game programming tutorials, game content resources and a customizable self-paced curriculum with model implementations and alignments to a state’s curriculum standards.
The largest Globaloria pilot is in West Virginia, where educators in 41 middle schools, high schools, community colleges and universities work with students, individually and collectively, to develop games and create original content. Globaloria West Virginia is used as a vehicle for teaching core subjects such as biology, English, and civics, where educators customize and align the curriculum with the West Virginia Department of Education’s Content Standards and Objectives and 21st-Century Skills (Global21).
East Austin College Prep Academy (EACPA) in Austin, Texas is the first charter school to integrate Globaloria curriculum school-wide. During the 2010-11 school year, 6th and 7th grade students at EACPA are taking a daily, 90 minute Globaloria class, where they develop original math and science games in addition to tracking social issues affecting the community they live in. The program reaches out to students’ families as well to extend learning into the home. The Globaloria EACPA curriculum is aligned with the Texas Content Standards for Mathematics (TEKs), ELA and Technology Learning. Support for Globaloria at EACPA is provided by AMD, Southwest Key, the Caperton Fund and the World Wide Workshop Foundation.
What makes Globaloria successful, according to Dr. Idit Harel Caperton, President & Founder of the World Wide Workshop Foundation, are three things. First, the participatory structure at the center of the program’s design. Students and teachers learn by doing. Second, the strong partnerships the program has forged with government officials, education departments, private and public foundations, local business, industry and institutes of higher education. And third, the culture of transparency and collaboration that Globaloria brings into schools.
Addressing Risks Associated with Media and Digital Technology. Digital and media literacy competencies are not only needed to strengthen people’s capacity for engaging with information but also for addressing potential risks associated with mass media and digital media. For example, concerns about identity theft are emerging as the Federal Trade Commission reports that 10 million Americans were victimized last year by willingly giving personal information to robbers, often because “they couldn’t distinguish an email from their bank from an email from a predator” (Rothkopf, 2009, p. 5). This example is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. While many people actively support pro-social goals by contributing to a social network, there are others who exploit digital technology for harmful ends.
In the United States and many Western countries, the risk-benefit pendulum swings back and forth over time, through periods of increased (or decreased) concern about the negative aspects of media and technology. Comprehensive research from the European Union (Staksrud, Livingstone, Haddon, & Ólafsson, 2009) identifies three types of risk associated with the use of mass media, popular culture and digital media:
- Content risks – This includes exposure to potentially offensive or harmful content, including violent, sexual, sexist, racist, or hate material.
- Contact risks – This includes practices where people engage in harassment, cyber bullying and cyber stalking; talk with strangers; or violate privacy.
- Conduct risks – This includes lying or intentionally misinforming people, giving out personal information, illegal downloading, gambling, hacking and more.
Some people are determined to flatly ignore, dismiss or trivialize any risks associated with digital media, mass media and popular culture. In the United States, the discourse about risks and opportunities continues to swing back and forth between fear, anxiety and optimism, reflecting ideas about the need to both protect and empower children and youth in relation to media and technology. In recent years, we have seen fear-inducing headlines about suicides brought on by online harassment give way to anxieties about Internet predators, then give way again to optimism about social networking, including the possibility that children are developing social learning skills by updating their Facebook pages or playing World of Warcraft (Ito et al, 2008).
But most people recognize that the stances of protection and empowerment are not examples of “either-or” thinking, since these two positions are not in opposition—they are two sides of the same coin. Both empowerment and protection are needed to address the transformative social potential of the Internet in the context of child and adolescent development.
For example, when it comes to sexuality, both empowerment and protection are essential for children, young people and their families. Young people can use the Internet and mobile phone texting services to ask difficult questions about sexuality, get accurate information about sexual heath and participate in online communities. The Internet also enables and extends forms of sexual expression and experimentation, often in new forms, including webcams and live chat. Pornography is a multibillion dollar industry in the United States. In a country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate of all Western industrialized countries in the world, a recent report from the Witherspoon Institute (2010) offers compelling evidence that the prevalence of pornography in the lives of many children and adolescents is far more significant than most adults realize, that pornography may be deforming the healthy sexual development of young people, and that it can be used to exploit children and adolescents. Teens have many reasons to keep secret their exposure to pornography, and many are unlikely to tell researchers about their activities. But about 15 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 do report that they have received sexually explicit images on their cell phones from people they knew personally (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2009).
A 2008 Centers for Disease Control report notes that 9 percent to 35 percent of children and young people also say they have been victims of electronic aggression (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008). Sexting and cyber bullying are examples of how human needs for power, intimacy, trust and respect intersect with the ethical challenges embedded in social participation in a digital environment. That is why empowerment and protection are so deeply linked.
Digital and media literacy will not be a panacea for American social problems. And it will not let media companies and producers off the hook when it comes to their own social responsibility. As Jenkins et al (2006, p. 19) point out, one key goal of media literacy education is to “encourage young people to become more reflective about the ethical choices they make as participants and communicators and the impact they have on others.”
Expanding the Concept of Literacy. Make no mistake about it: digital and media literacy does not replace or supplant print literacy. At a time when the word “text” now means any form of symbolic expression in any format that conveys meaning, the concept of literacy is simply expanding. Literacy is beginning to be understood as the ability to share meaning through symbol systems in order to fully participate in society. Print is now one of an interrelated set of symbol systems for sharing meaning. Because it takes years of practice to master print literacy, effective instruction in reading and writing is becoming more important than ever before. To read well, people need to acquire decoding and comprehension skills plus a base of knowledge from which they can interpret new ideas. To write, it is important to understand how words come together to form ideas, claims and arguments and how to design messages to accomplish the goals of informing, entertaining or persuading.
Some literacy educators recognize the value of digital media simply for its ability to get kids engaged in learning, to help them pay attention in school. Although educators know that motivation and engagement are enhanced when mass media, popular culture and digital media and technology are incorporated into learning, this is not (and should not be) the sole rationale for implementing digital and media literacy into the curriculum. When used well, news media, mass media and digital media texts can support the acquisition of literacy competencies including comprehension, inference-making, analysis and prediction. Concepts like audience, purpose and point of view must be applied to messages from digital media and popular culture as well as printed texts. Participating in digital and media literacy activities also promotes writing, public speaking and advocacy, empowering children and young people by offering opportunities to express themselves using language, images, sound and interactivity (Alvermann, 2004; Hobbs, 2008; Gainer and Lapp, 2010).
Reading online is now a fundamental dimension of digital and media literacy that requires many interrelated practices, including using a search engine, reading search engine results, and quickly reading a web page to locate the best link to the information that is required. Many people lack these skills (Coiro, 2007). When using a search engine, it is not uncommon to see inefficient practices like clicking down the list of links in a “click and look” strategy without looking for clues to determine the relevance of the websites to the purpose and goal.
Digital and media literacy education requires and supports the practices of reading comprehension and writing. Large-scale empirical research evidence shows that student participation in media literacy education programs in high school can strengthen reading comprehension, writing, and print-media analysis skills (Hobbs, 2007). That is because digital and media literacy educational practices cultivate an active approach to the process of meaning making in ways that help knowledge and skills to transfer from school to home and back.
To promote reading and writing skills, adolescent literacy experts have long urged teachers to make literacy experiences more relevant to students’ interests, everyday life, and important current events, recommending, “Look for opportunities to bridge the activities outside and inside the classroom. Tune into the lives of students to find out what they think is relevant and why, and then use this information to design instruction and learning opportunities that will be more relevant” (U.S. Department of Education, 2008, p. 28).
But although people do develop many skills informally through their use of digital media with peers in online communities and social groups, without routine practice in making connections between print literacy and digital and media literacy competencies, those skills are unlikely to transfer to new contexts (Salomon & Perkins, 1989). Digital and media literacy education can provide a bridge to transfer print literacy skills from informal to formal, familiar to new, and narrow to broad contexts.
Strengthening People’s Capacity to Access Message Credibility and Quality. Librarians and researchers tell us that, when looking for information online, many people give up before they find what they need. People use a small number of search strategies in a repetitive way even when they do not get the information they are seeking. They do not take the time to digest and evaluate what they encounter. In many cases, “students typically use information that finds them, rather than deciding what information they need” (Cheney, 2010, p. 1).
In addition, many people also use very superficial criteria for assessing the quality of a message. Likeability, attractiveness, trustworthiness and expertise all affect our decisions about the credibility of people, information and ideas. We can easily understand that younger children may be more susceptible to digital misinformation and less able to discern credible sources. But actually, few people verify the information they find online—both adults and children tend to uncritically trust information they find, from whatever source. “Digital media allow for the uncoupling of credibility and authority in a way never before possible,” notes Miriam Metzger, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition, family, co-workers and friends have always influenced our decisions about what to trust. Today, judgments about what is credible can be shaped by participation in online communities. Our ideas about credibility and reliability are also shifting in relation to networked environments and services like collectively created encyclopedias, reviews and ratings services (Metzger, 2009).
So how do we expand our capacity to use reasoning in deciding who and what to believe? With so many sources of information available, assessing credibility is difficult, even for adults. Many people simply use cues like graphic design to evaluate the credibility of a source. According to this view, if it “looks right,” it is credible. The Internet blurs the lines between amateur and professional, between entertainment and marketing, between information and persuasion. We experience a “context deficit,” where information about authorship is often unavailable, masked or entirely missing. For example, websites that aggregate information may display materials from multiple sources on one web page, which may itself be inaccurately perceived as the source. Hyperlinking may make it even more difficult for users to follow and evaluate multiple sources (Harris, 2008; Metzger, 2007).
At a broader level, the immediacy and immersive social characteristics of digital media may also discourage reflective, analytic thinking about sources, content and credibility. It is just so simple, point, click and wow, you’re on to something new.
To judge the credibility of information, it is important to begin by answering these three basic questions: Who’s the author? What’s the purpose of this message? How was this message constructed? These simple but powerful questions enable people to assess the relative credibility of a media message.
In fact, for the savvy user, skillful use of digital information can enhance the process of fact checking and source comparison.
People who pay attention to the quality of media messages also need to be self-aware, possessing a general understanding of human perceptual and cognitive processes. Among these include our natural tendencies to value sources as credible only when they reinforce our existing beliefs and attitudes. It is part of human nature: people tend to trust the sources that match our existing opinions and distrust information that challenges our beliefs. Awareness of this tendency, which is emphasized by those who teach news media literacy, can help people become more open and receptive to diverse sources and points of view. These insights can be useful in addressing the problem of political polarization, where extreme and often simplistic positions come to dominate and overpower more moderate, nuanced points of view.
People also need increased awareness of the practice of “source stripping,” where almost immediately as we process information, we detach the content from the source, forgetting where we learned it (Eysenbach & Kohler, 2002). Digital and media literacy education can offer people an increased knowledge of human information processing, self-awareness and self-reflexivity, which can help counteract these tendencies. Research and assessment tools are needed to better understand which instructional “best practices” support the development of people’s ability to evaluate the quality of information they receive from print, television, movies, advertising and digital media sources.
Bringing News and Current Events into K–12 Education. American adults can probably remember the practice of cutting out a newspaper article about a “current event” and bringing it into social studies class. But civics-oriented education, with its use of everyday journalistic resources, has been declining as a component of the American educational curriculum for over 50 years. In 1947, more than half of American high schools offered a course in Problems in Democracy that emphasized reading of news magazines (Hobbs, 1998). Times have changed.
Today, young people tell us that the news is a significant source of stress, because it reminds them of the peril the world is in and makes them feel unsafe and threatened. Although teens read the news only incidentally, when they do, they prefer news about music, entertainment, celebrities, and sports (Vahlberg, Peer & Nesbit, 2008). Some child development professionals believe it is not good for children or young people to read or watch the news (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2002). Research has shown that violent news content actually induces more fear reactions than violent fiction, creating persistent worrisome thoughts in some children and young people (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). Almost 4 in 10 parents report that their children have been frightened or upset by something they have seen in the news and have concern that it can happen to them or their family (Cantor & Nathanson, 1996).
Using news and current events in the classroom can also be controversial. When President Obama’s televised back-to-school speech to the nation’s schoolchildren was blasted by conservative critics who accused the President of trying to spread propaganda, it illustrated perhaps the biggest challenge teachers face in bringing news and current events into the classroom. In addition, in an era of competition for and fragmentation within the news audience, no simplistic assumptions can be made about the nature of what information sources count as trustworthy and authoritative. Many teachers are reluctant to use news and current events in an increasingly polarized political climate (Hobbs, et al 2010; Hobbs, 2001). But as Mihailidis has observed, “Making the connections between media literacy, freedom of expression, and civic engagement can reposition media literacy as the core of new civic education” (Mihailidis, 2009, p. 9).
While in the United Kingdom and Western Europe news and information programming for children and teens is provided as a public service initiative, in the United States, it is almost purely a commercial enterprise. At the secondary level, Channel One provides television news and advertising to six million teens. Research has shown that teens gain current events knowledge from viewing this program only when teachers support students’ learning by asking questions and promoting reflective dialogue (Johnston, Brzezinski & Anderman, 1994). At the elementary level, Time for Kids and Scholastic both offer magazines and online content specifically for children; however, these programs generally have a limited focus on news and current events, often favor articles of topical or seasonal interest and are less likely to reach students in low-income schools.
Newspaper industry programs like Newspapers in Education (NIE) provide newspapers to schools through advertising sponsorship and other donation programs. However, NIE programs have faced substantial cutbacks as newspaper revenues continue to decline. With NIE staff assuming responsibility for fundraising, sales and marketing, there is less time to focus on curriculum and instruction (Arnold, 2010). Access to quality journalism has been an additional expense for school districts in communities that are often strapped to manage even basic expenses. In both the United States and the U.K. “It has proved difficult to support, develop and sustain teaching about broadcast news because of the ephemerality of the subject matter and the effort involved in bringing current TV, radio or Internet news into the classroom” (Bazalgette, Harland & James, 2008, p. 81).
Whether we like it or not, the use of news media in the K–12 classroom is not sufficiently on the radar screen in American public education. Still, there are efforts underway to explore the development of curriculum and resources to engage students as active participants in the process of creating journalism. While these efforts are more developed at the university level, programs are springing up at the high school level and even younger. One example is Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, California, where the media program is the fastest growing program in the school. The program’s director has reported that more than 500 students out of a student body of 1,900 have elected to take journalism on one platform or another (Wojcicki, 2010).
We have good evidence from studies of high school journalism, which show that participating student journalists enhance their own civic engagement skills by exercising a public voice (Levine, 2008). But much less is known about how regular reading, viewing and discussion of news and current events affects the development of students’ knowledge and skills. Regular engagement with news and current events may support the development of learners’ background knowledge. It may help build connections between the classroom and the culture. It may help learners see how news and current events are constructed by those with economic, political and cultural interests at stake. It may help them appreciate how audiences understand and interpret messages differently based on their life experiences, prior knowledge and attitudes.
Careful video documentation of instructional practices in digital and media literacy education, especially in relation to the use of news and current events in the context of formal and informal education, is needed. This will help build a base of research evidence to help scholars and educators determine which approaches to using news and current events in the classroom are most likely to empower students in a way that supports their development as citizens.
A Look Inside One Program: