According to Jacobs (2012), teachers are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. While the “rock” signifies state curricula emphasizing traditional literacy skills, the “hard place” refers to the “twenty-first century” media skills espoused by educators, researchers, and employers. Why this disconnect? Ironically, as our world becomes increasingly dependent on communications technologies, increasingly inflexible state-mandated curricula ignore what everyone says is precisely what we need: media literacy.
One result of this disconnect is inequality. Learners with access to technology develop essential skills while those without do not. The digital divide looms larger than ever before because media literacy skills are not publicly accessible. While many young people use technology, few are “redesigning” digital content in a way that creates “new meaning” (Jacobs, 2012, p. 100). For learners to become full members in the new “participatory culture” (Jenkins et al., 2009), they need direct, overt instruction and support to socialize them into the community and stimulate their capacity to build and produce content, express themselves socially and artistically, and engage society in meaningful ways (Jacobs, 2012). However, as Schmidt (2013) observes, most learners (even digital natives) lack basic media literacy, using digital media in simple, consumptive ways. They are unable to produce significant digital content, and thus are unable to contribute their voices to the digital “conversation”.
Why do state, provincial, and national curricula seem to oppose these trends? Perhaps policymakers (and their constituents) fear the new digital world, and thus proscribe a centralized curriculum emphasizing a narrow range of literacy objectives (e.g. decoding, encoding, comprehension) to marginalize media literacy. In this context, teachers struggle to meet curricular requirements while responding to the everyday literacy needs of their students “on the ground”. The more time they devote to media literacy skills, the less time they have to teach to the test. As teacher evaluation is often based on student test scores, teachers have an incentive to focus on one set of skills at the expense of the other. But literacy instruction need not be a zero sum game. As Jacobs (2012) notes, traditional literacy skills are important and often prerequisite for media and cultural literacy, but they should not preclude instruction in media literacy. Media literacy skills can help learners make the leap from media consumption to production.
These issues are particularly salient for online facilitators, as our entire course design and teaching/learning environment depends on digital media. Online learners are forced to adapt to digital media faster than their peer in traditional classrooms. Thus, we must familiarize ourselves with media literacy approaches to help learners thrive in this unique format, regardless of our subject matter expertise. As the online learning movement is committed to equity, accessibility, and participation for all, we should keep in mind that many online learners have not had the opportunity to develop key IT and media skills. We can help develop these skills through direct instruction and developing an online community that creates supportive informal mentorships among peers, “whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to the novices” (Jenkins et al., 2009; cited in Jacobs, 2012, p. 99). This is online learning’s purpose and potential.
Jacobs, G. E. (2012). The proverbial rock and hard place: The realities and risks of teaching in a world of multiliteracies, participatory culture, and mandates. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56(2), 98-102.
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robinson, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schmidt, H. C. (2013). Media literacy education from kindergarten to college: A comparison of how media literacy is addressed across the educational system. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 5(1), 295-309.