by Sally Reynolds, Media & Learning Association,
Sally is coordinating the Media and Learning Association https://media-and-learning.eu/about/. She is also a member of the new European Commission Expert Group on Tackling Disinformation and Promoting Digital Literacy Through Education and Training and on the Advisory Board of EDMO (link to https://edmo.eu/)
The level of discussion about the damage caused by disinformation to our society has never been so high. Even in the far-off days before we were hit by the pandemic, people were becoming increasingly concerned about the standards and values expressed in our daily online discourse. However, the pandemic has somehow made it all more urgent as we grapple with increasing levels of harmful disinformation in all manner of channels. It’s therefore good to see the attention that is being paid to combatting the tide of disinformation and the launch of initiatives like European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) along with the many national and regional projects are really welcome.
In this context, interest in media literacy and media education has moved from being somewhat marginal to being far more main-stream as we come to realise the importance of helping young people gain the skills and healthy attitudes they need to successful navigate their way through the complex media landscape in which we increasingly find ourselves. Far more attention is now being paid as to how we can introduce effective media literacy initiatives to the school-going population as well as discussing who should be responsible for these initiatives. Media literacy is increasingly seen as a vital component in the skills that all young people need to have. Just like healthy eating habits, young people need healthy media production and consumption habits that go beyond simple knowledge of how to use tools and platforms and take into account notions relating to accountability, accuracy, equity, integrity, ownership, community, civic and political responsibility, free speech and human rights.
But how can we effectively introduce sustainable, effective media literacy schemes into our schools, many of which are already over-stretched trying to cope with the existing demands that are made upon them. In many European countries, the compulsory school system is criticised for not doing enough to prepare students for the increasingly complex demands of our societies. Teachers often cope with limited resources, an increasingly demanding and individualised student population and governments quick to blame schools for the ills of society. So how can we possibly introduce yet another demand on schools’ limited curriculum time and resources by insisting that they add media literacy and media education to the already over-burdened school day? It is true that some schools cope by establishing ties with NGOs and other types of organisation that provide after-school or occasional media literacy workshops or classes. Although these types of initiatives are often welcome and can have an impact, they are simply not enough – certainly when you consider the fact that for most of the European school-going population, only a tiny minority will ever experience just one such workshop or class in their whole school career.
I strongly believe that we need to adopt a far more systemic approach. Media literacy and media education is simply too important to be left to the good-will of the many small and poorly resourced NGOs who try to fill the gap. Even in countries like France where a well-funded and internationally recognised agency exists to support media literacy in schools, the absence of an adequate number of media literate teachers who are also provided with adequate opportunities in the curriculum and the necessary resources means that media literacy remains a side issue. And I am far from alone in thinking like this. In a recent talk given by OECD Director of Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher , where he highlighted key elements in updating teaching for a 21st century digital information world, Andreas presented OECD data showing that fewer than half of 15-year-olds could reliably distinguish fact from opinion. Andreas calls for a ‘transition’ in teaching practices which I fully endorse. Like him, I do not believe that we can place all our hopes on government controlling the supply side of disinformation as technology will always be ahead of us on this – we need to manage the demand side by equipping young people with the skills, competences and attitudes they need to make well-informed judgements when it comes to digital media consumption and production.
So how can we facilitate this ‘transition of teaching practices’ that Andreas refers to? Well, first of all, I don’t believe this can be done effectively by introducing a new subject called media literacy to the curriculum. In many ways this is what was done in the past with digital literacy where schools introduced computer skills as a separate subject with computer classrooms and dedicated teachers. While this may have been an effective strategy, it was of its time so to speak and seems rather quaint nowadays when viewed through our eyes with digital technology integrated in all aspects of our lives. No, for me the answer lies with teachers and with teacher training specifically. We need to engrain media literacy skills and competencies in all teachers regardless of the subject they are teaching and the level at which they teach. All subjects taught involve a mix of knowledge acquisition, competence development and skill and all students need to be able to understand basic concepts and reflect, share and put into practice what they have learned. Verifying data and information, communicating and re-producing knowledge are all aspects that occur in all subject areas. Surely equipping teachers with skills and knowledge so they can support their students online in such aspects is fundamental to their pedagogical competence?
So let’s at least start with pre-service teacher training. Finding ways to share and build on the knowledge that is already out there on enhancing teachers’ skills in media literacy and education would be a good start. Many teacher training colleges in Europe are already collaborating at least on a regional or national level, let’s find ways in which this aspect of teacher training can be addressed and discussed within such networks, leading to the creation of a body of knowledge as to how to implement effective training in this area and all that entails. That at least would be a good start.