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The Intersection of Media Literacy and Public Media 2.0

Katie Donnelly

Media literacy – the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms – can often overlap with the production of public media 2.0. With school terms starting around the country, we decided to step away from showcasing a particular project and to take a broader look at how educators are introducing students to social media tools.

Many media literacy educators encourage students to use new technologies to collaborate on grassroots solutions to shared issues, although there are varying perspectives on striking an appropriate balance between learning new media tools and applying media literacy concepts. I recently met with Sherri Hope Culver, President of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE, formerly known as the Alliance for a Media Literate America), and NAMLE Board Member Kelly Mendoza, who shared some of their thoughts on current developments in the media literacy field, including some of their current projects at Temple University's Media Education Lab.

According to Culver and Mendoza, media literacy educators are generally very excited to integrate social media tools into their classrooms, but research about how educationally effective these tools really are is currently inconclusive. As with all teaching tools, there are a variety of factors to consider, including the skill and comfort levels of the educators, the available resources, and the existing school climate. There is no doubt that some students are using new tools to create their own truly powerful media messages. However, says Mendoza, educators can sometimes be "swept away by sexy tools syndrome." Learning the production skills that accompany specific technologies takes time, and some media literacy educators worry that emphasizing this type of learning could eclipse the development of critical thinking skills. According to Culver, "Sometimes, there can be a tension between learning how to use the tools and actually using them to facilitate discussion about media literacy concepts."

One factor in this equation is the fact that tech and telecom companies have financed so much of the available equipment in schools, a longstanding debate in the media literacy field. While many people feel that corporations have a responsibility to offer their tools to struggling schools, critics argue that these types of partnerships can take advantage of students and teachers by "influenc[ing] the education of future workers and establish[ing] brand loyalty with consumers at an early age."

Both Mendoza and Culver referred the keynote address given by Sonia Livingstone, the author of Children and the Internet: Great Expectations, Challenging Realities, at last month's NAMLE annual conference in Detroit. In her talk, Livingstone expressed concern that critical thinking skills could be "pushed aside by a determination of governments that [students] need instrumental skills for the 21st century workplace."


Livingstone's argument is that more research is needed, not that students don't need instrumental skills or that educators should shy away from using social media as an educational tool. Culver agrees, saying that it is necessary for media literacy educators to understand and employ social media in order to know where students are coming from: "Media literacy has to engage students and reflect their own media use."

And there are plenty of new tools that can be successfully employed to teach media literacy. For example, Mendoza pointed to VoiceThread as a useful platform for classes to engage in conversations around production and analysis. According to the VoiceThread site:

A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate pages and leave comments in 5 ways - using voice (with a mic or telephone), text, audio file, or video (via a webcam). Share a VoiceThread with friends, students, and colleagues for them to record comments too. Users can doodle while commenting, use multiple identities, and pick which comments are shown through moderation. VoiceThreads can even be embedded to show and receive comments on other websites and exported to MP3 players or DVDs to play as archival movies.

Culver and Mendoza also described some of the projects they are currently working on. With Media Education Lab Founder Renee Hobbs, they both worked on the development of My Pop Studio, a website that teaches tween girls media literacy concepts by inviting them to explore media messages by taking on the role of producers. In the last six months, the site has added several new activities, including a blog, a comic-making tool, and Dear Diary, a Mad Libs-like multiple choice activity that invites users to reflect upon their own media usage.

And with its strong emphasis on both education and journalism, public broadcasting is a player in the media literacy arena. Temple's Media Education Lab is also collaborating with Frontline on their Digital Nation Project, by creating an informal learning environment surrounding the Digital Nation documentary, which will air in winter 2010. Digital Nation is an open source project that "explores what it means to be human in an entirely new world -- a digital world." The documentary's producers are gathering user input by posting footage online. The informal learning environment will be a separate site for parents and educators to more deeply explore the themes in the film. (Media literacy alert: Verizon is a major sponsor of this initiative.)

Will these efforts result in more media-literate users? It will take media literacy evaluation skills in order to determine which social media tools will ultimately be the most useful. Those properly schooled in media literacy should be able to answer the following key questions:

  • 1. Who created this message and what is the purpose?
  • 2. What creative techniques are used to attract and hold attention?
  • 3. How might different people understand this message differently?
  • 4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in this message?
  • 5.What is omitted from the message?

And those schooled in public media 2.0 should be quick to respond with messages of their own.

Want to learn more about public media 2.0? Read our white paper: Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics. Want to learn more about media literacy? Read hundreds of media literacy articles at the Center for Media Literacy's Reading Room.