Caitlin Barry poses an important question about using media and technology in the classroom in her article in the Huffington Post, Defining ‘Media Literacy’ (2/7/12). Her question hinges on the skill-set we seek to offer students through the integration of media and media making in the curriculum.
“Most teachers want to do cool activities with their students, and many schools are getting the funding to deck classrooms out with everything a teacher could need. The problem is not with the teachers, but with the very definition of ‘media literacy’ itself. What is it, really?”
In addition to the practical skills of digital competency, a key component of media literacy is about managing the digital world, making sense of the deluge of information available online. How do educators help students to develop the critical thinking skills needed to negotiate this constant stream of information coming from everywhere and nowhere? What is important and what is trivial? Who should they trust? What should they dismiss?
Thinking about the type of media message can offer a useful starting point for students. Are they viewing factual information, news, personal opinion, a blog post, gossip, advertising or some combination of any of these? Is the distinction clear? Secondly mining the source of the message offers context and frames a “search savvy” mindset. Where/who does it come from and what does that tell us? KQED MindShift offers good advice in 12 Ways to Be More Search Savvy which outlines strategies for examining sources.
For example, “On the site Who.is, searchers can find details about the source: where it’s located, when it was established, and the IP address.” (MindShift, 12/27/11). But then there are open source sites like Wikipedia – can students trust Wikipedia as a reliable source? “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”(Wikipedia’s vision) Information can be accessed and re-written by anyone at any time, and not necessarily checked for accuracy.
The golden rule is not to rely on a single source, but to compare and contrast different sites and sources to determine credibility and the factual basis of information. This is especially important when doing research.
In addition there is value in thinking about the source in terms of intention. All information, including factual information is presented through the lens of interpretation. No thinking person is without bias or purpose in organizing information or framing an argument. How are the so called “facts” colored by the bias of the author? Training students to identify sources, personal agendas and differing perspectives is important. Edutopia’s News Literacy: How to Teach Students to Search Smart offers useful tips for evaluating news, although many of the strategies listed apply to navigating the online world more broadly.
Media literacy builds this questioning skill-set, challenging us to go beyond the simple search, the string of factoids and hyperlinks, to critically engage with information at a deeper level. As Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University explains: We are not only what we read,” …“We are how we read.”