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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Media Literacy is Not Just for Kids

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Credit: iStock

Your students may be able to update their Facebook status in a heartbeat, but can they also write a thoughtful letter to the editor, voice their opinion on a call-in radio show, or access local media to advocate for community action?

How well would parents or teachers in your community do at those tasks? In Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, media literacy expert Renee Hobbs makes a strong case for deepening digital literacy -- not only for youth but for Americans of all ages.

Improving our digital and media literacy will require nothing less than a national community education effort, Hobbs argues in a position paper recently published by the Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation. Sorting through the flood of information most of us encounter daily requires new knowledge and critical-thinking skills, she says.

And that's just half the challenge. To participate fully as citizens, we need to be able to not just consume media messages but also create and share them. "To fulfill the promise of digital citizenship, Americans must acquire multimedia communication skills and know how to use these skills to engage in the civic life of their communities," she writes.

The solutions Hobbs outlines are worth considering at the local level, as well. Is your school ready to think critically about the learning potential of social networks, games, and other popular media that many students use only outside of school? What is your community doing to close the digital divide for underserved groups such as juvenile offenders, recent immigrants, or the elderly? Are you making effective use of local technology resources -- or do you even know where to find them?

Hobbs, a communications professor who founded the Media Education Lab at Temple University, cautions that providing access to digital tools is not enough to ensure literacy. "Neither children nor adults acquire critical thinking skills about mass media, popular culture, or digital media just by using technology tools themselves," she writes. Instead, Hobbs calls for lifelong learning opportunities, from preschool through old age, so that everyone can "use evolving tools and resources to accomplish personal, social, cultural, and civic activities."

To reach diverse learners, Hobbs advocates for a nationwide community education movement focusing on digital and media literacy. What might this look like? She suggests a mix of formal and informal learning opportunities in settings including homes, schools, libraries, museums, local cable access centers, colleges, and nonprofit organizations. To jump-start this effort, she suggests mapping existing resources so that communities are better aware of the technology assets available to them.

Media Literacy in the Classroom

In the K-12 classroom, a variety of practices can help to build digital and media literacy. Socratic questioning, for example, promotes critical thinking about the choices people make when consuming, creating, and sharing messages. In particular, Hobbs encourages teachers to help students assess the credibility of information. She offers three "simple but powerful" questions to encourage deeper thinking: Who's the author? What's the purpose of this message? How was this message constructed?

Teaching media literacy is different than merely teaching with digital tools, Hobbs points out. Using gaming in the classroom, for example, requires doing more than simply playing popular games. Hobbs suggests having students design their own games instead of being immersed in games as consumers. "By becoming authors, game programmers, and designers, students deepen their awareness of the choices involved in the structure and function of technology tools themselves," she says. She highlights a program called Globaloria as one example of using game design for learning.

When popular media are used as a springboard for learning, she adds, formal education becomes a bridge for youth "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."

Plan for Action

The paper concludes with a 10-point plan to improve media literacy competencies for all Americans. The ideas are wide-ranging, from improving teacher education and creating new assessment tools to developing a Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps to bring digital and media literacy to underserved communities and special populations. Although finding funding for new programs is likely to be challenging, partnerships between schools and the entertainment industry or technology companies could offer a way to leverage available resources, Hobbs suggests.

Even without new funding or a national media literacy education campaign, many of these ideas could gain a foothold locally. Her suggestion to map local technology resources, for example, seems like an ideal project for engaging students in a community research project and using digital tools for authentic purposes.

Range of Programs

Media literacy education does not require a particular toolkit of technologies. Nor is there one program that fits all communities. Digital and Media Literacy concludes with a listing of promising programs, from local to international in scope. Here are just a few that show the range of possibilities:

  • News Literacy Project, in which seasoned journalists help students sort fact from fiction in the media
  • Powerful Voices for Kids, a university-school partnership program including professional development for teachers and a summer institute for youth
  • DigMe, a high school program that combines project-based learning about digital literacy and internships in new media studios and technology businesses
  • Common Sense Media, providing families with tools and resources to help them make decisions about media use at home

The long-term benefits of media literacy education can be profound. "When people have digital and media literacy competencies," Hobbs concludes, "they recognize personal, corporate and political agendas and are empowered to speak out on behalf of the missing voices and omitted perspectives in our communities. By identifying and attempting to solve problems, people use their powerful voices and their rights under the law to improve the world around them."

What is your school or community doing to promote digital and media literacy for all citizens? What resources do you have available locally to support your efforts? Please share your stories and strategies.

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