Media arts should be at the heart of the Australian curriculum

the Final report of the Australian curriculum review is seriously deficient. Many aspects of the report prompted comment, but not the recommendation that schools must forgo major world-class innovation.

For the first time, the media arts, one of the five strands of the arts curriculum, was to become a compulsory subject for primary school students. This will no longer be the case if the Review’s recommendations are adopted by the government.

The review recommends removing media arts from the mandatory arts streams and “significantly reducing” their content. Rather than being an integral part of the arts curriculum, media arts would become a “stand-alone” subject.

In addition, the exam implicitly assumes that some media arts content will be, or is already, covered in other learning areas “such as English, Health and Physical Education, History and Technology”. .

This is not only wrong: it ignores the essential role media arts play in digital media education.

What are media arts?

In media arts, students create and respond to media works.

Media “creation” involves students learning technical production skills such as how to frame and compose a shot, how to record sound, how to edit images and soundtracks, and how to add visual and sound effects.

These skills are important for developing conceptual knowledge, for recognizing how media works are constructed. They also enable students to use media to communicate and tell stories – and to complete assignments, as many students are increasingly using digital media to do.

Responding involves analyzing media works with the goal of helping students become active and ethical creators, users and consumers of media. Students learn how media works – including, ideally, social media. They learn about key issues and practices such as copyright, creative commons, and the ethics of sharing media works and personal information online.

Digital literacy for our time

It is not enough to suggest, as the Review does, that the relay can be filled in subjects such as English or ICT. Although media studies is part of the English curriculum in some states, it rarely, if ever, involves media production. And while students may learn about media technologies in ICT, there is very little, if any, emphasis on storytelling or communication ethics.

Other areas of learning may teach some aspects of digital media literacy, but unless they are deliberately spread across the curriculum, only media arts will teach them holistically.

The review further justified the marginalization of media arts by highlighting the costs of funding the program and providing the necessary professional development opportunities for teachers, especially at the primary level.

It’s true that teaching media arts can be expensive, but so can many other areas of learning. Education budgets are limited, and schools and education authorities are rightly concerned about rising technology and the cost of access. And the primary program is already loaded.

But the key point is that digital media literacy is as vital as reading, writing and numeracy for children’s future. Ignorance of this fact risks having a detrimental effect on young people’s prospects for prosperity in the digital economy of the 21st century.

The basics of digital media creation can be taught on many types of devices, using free or low-cost technology and software. Schools can use a growing number of online resources and services to facilitate responses or analyzes of media works. Some of these services, like ABC Splash, are free to access and use, and cover a range of learning areas.

Skills for the future

The need for Australian children – indeed all Australians – to develop formal skills and abilities to use and understand digital media has never been greater. Along with nearly ubiquitous use for entertainment, more and more jobs, now and in the future, will require engagement with digital media content and technologies.

Many children are already living fully mediated lives.

They produce, communicate and consume media through smartphones, televisions, tablets or other computers, and an ever-growing range of other devices, both in school and especially outside of school time. Many children informally develop extraordinary abilities with digital media content and devices. But such vernacular digital literacy may not fully equip them to deal with the many challenges and opportunities of contemporary life.

We must beware of falling into the trap of assuming that every child is a ‘digital native’ and therefore does not need formal education about digital technologies, how media works or the ethics and implications sharing and communication via social media.

To me, the term digital native mistakenly implies that children innately understand digital technologies and content, and will naturally develop their ability to use digital media. They will not be. Skills, abilities and understandings must be taught, learned and practiced.

A prominent media educator gave me the analogy of a child entering kindergarten. Although they are able to use language and hold a conversation, they must learn to form sentences. They have to be taught to write. The same goes for their engagements with the media.

Every young person needs to know how to creatively, safely and ethically participate in digital media culture. Only media arts teach students how to interact with and understand media by creating and responding to media. Only media arts teach children and young people how to creatively tell stories and communicate with digital images, sounds and text.

Its benefits are immense, lifelong and vital to the future of Australian children. Rather than being cut back and becoming an optional extra, media arts should be at the very heart of Australia’s 21st century curriculum.

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