All it took was an international pandemic to finally help mainstream media literacy into the education system. If only we had had a better head start years ago.
Those of us who work in education and media literacy research have been talking and writing for some time now about the importance of media and information literacy for all members of society. Indeed, some of the founding works on the subject date back to the middle of the 20and century.
Many media literacy researchers have focused on meeting this need by integrating media literacy programs into the education system at the K-12 level. Others, like me, have also advocated for the inclusion of media education in higher post-secondary education.
To a very limited extent, this has started to happen. Undoubtedly, media has become a more important part of the learning experience at all levels of the education system, driven by the growth of technology in all aspects of life. Stepping into a late 2010s K-12 or college classroom would certainly have included considerably more media integration than one might have imagined a few years earlier.
But despite all the media technologies that have become teaching tools, there is surprisingly little time left for media education. These educational experiences, related to both media production and analysis, are particularly important in higher education. Young adults in their college years are particularly in need of training to help them develop the skill set that will allow them to navigate the adult world with an appropriate understanding of media institutions, impacts, benefits, and risks.
There are several ways to achieve this. More directly, specific media education courses can be offered. In practice, however, these media courses are mostly populated by communications or media majors and are unlikely to be taken by the majority of students. This is a consequence of the fact that most fields of study are increasingly filled with highly regulated course progressions that offer little opportunity for deviation and little time for elective courses. Alternatively, media literacy skills could also be addressed by integrating media-related lessons into existing classrooms. Yet again, this has proven difficult, given that professors fear they lack the time or training to address topics beyond their specific subject-matter expertise.
And then the global COVID-19 pandemic happened.
In an instant, almost everything in the world of education went online. Instructors who rarely used technology suddenly had to learn about video capture, online courses, creating digital resources and adapting printed materials for an online environment. The list of new multimedia applications integrated into the virtual classroom space grew endlessly.
Almost overnight, it also became apparent that many of these students who were described as “digital natives” actually didn’t have many practical digital media skills. Could they create an Instagram post or share a trending video on TikTok? Sure. But could they figure out how to perform even the basic multimedia functions needed for online learning? Unfortunately, the answer has often been no. In short, the pandemic has exposed just how limited everyone’s media skills really are.
Now, educators at all levels, including those in post-secondary institutions, realize that they will likely have no choice but to dedicate time from their busy semesters that are jam-packed with language-specific material. discipline to teach the use of technology in an educational setting. . Suddenly, instructors of all disciplines are realizing that they might need to incorporate media lessons into their lessons. And, moreover, educators of all disciplines realize that they themselves might need to learn more about the media.
Despite the pressure this has put on teachers and students, this awareness is good. As a media educator who has been researching and writing about media literacy since I started working on my PhD, it’s something I’ve been advocating for a long time. This was perhaps the last little nudge we all needed to finally move towards integrated and comprehensive media literacy training throughout the education system.
However, I fear that it is too late. An entire generation of individuals grew up in the age of the Internet and completed their formal educational journey with little or no media literacy training. It was a missed opportunity, and the results are just plain depressing. We have a proliferation of fake and pseudo news sites, the sharing of fake news and disinformation, and the manipulation of media platforms by those in positions of cultural, political and commercial power. All of this is happening in plain sight.
For someone who has been trained to think about the constructed nature of media, it would be easy to recognize how powerful elites manipulate society through its media. But, instead of seeing it for what it is, widespread media illiteracy has contributed to the spread of lies that are destroying our culture, our democracy and, in light of the pandemic, our health and our lives.
Perhaps the pandemic has taught us how important media literacy is. No, we cannot solve problems created in the recent past; we cannot go back and ensure that generations who came of age without comprehensive media literacy develop those skills now. But, we can take steps to move forward. Let us learn from this situation and use the momentum we have gained during a year of online and distance learning to permanently integrate media literacy courses into our curricula across the educational system.
Hans C. Schmidt (PhD, Temple University) is associate professor of communication at Penn State University, Brandywine. Her research focuses on media education and journalism education.