All it took was an international pandemic to help finally get media literacy into the educational system. If only we had gotten a better head start years ago.
Those of us in the world of media literacy education and research have been talking and writing for some time now about the importance of media and information literacy for everyone in society. Indeed, some of the foundational works on the topic date back to the mid-20th century.
Many media literacy researchers have focused on addressing this need by integrating media literacy curricula into the educational system at the K-12 level. Others, like myself, have also advocated for the inclusion of media training in post-secondary higher education as well.
To a very limited extent, this has started to happen. Unquestionably, media have become a bigger part of the learning experience at all levels of the educational system, as a function of the growth of technology in all aspects of life. If one walked into an elementary, high school, or college classroom of the late 2010s, it would certainly have included dramatically more media integration than could have been imagined just a few years prior.
But, for all the media technologies that have come to be used as tools in education, there has continued to be surprisingly little time devoted to actually teaching about media. Such educational experiences—related to both media production and analysis—are particularly important in higher education. Young adults during their college years are especially in need of training to help them develop the set of competencies that will allow them to navigate the adult world with an appropriate understanding of media institutions, impacts, benefits, and risks.
There are multiple ways to accomplish this. Most directly, specific media literacy courses can be offered. In practice, though, such media courses are populated mostly by communication or media majors and are unlikely to be taken by the majority of the student body. This is a consequence of the fact that most fields of study have become increasingly packed with highly regimented course progressions that offer little opportunity for deviation and little time for electives. Alternatively, media literacy competencies could also be addressed by integrating media-related lessons into existing classes. Yet, again, doing so has proven challenging, given widespread faculty concern that they lack the time or training to address topics beyond their specific disciplinary expertise.
And then the COVID-19 global pandemic happened.
In an instant, almost everything in the educational world shifted online. Instructors who rarely used technology suddenly had to learn about video capture, online lecturing, creating digital resources, and adapting print materials for an online setting. The list of new media applications being integrated into the virtual classroom space went on endlessly.
Almost overnight, it also became that clear that many of those students who have been described as “digital natives” did not, in fact, have many practical digital media skills at all. Could they create an Instagram post, or share a trending video on TikTok? Sure. But could they figure out how to perform even basic media functions needed for online learning? Sadly, the answer has often been no. In short, the pandemic exposed just how limited everyone’s media competencies really were.
Now, educators at all levels—including those at post-secondary institutions—are realizing that they will likely have no choice but to devote time from their busy semesters that are chocked full of discipline-specific material to teach about using technology in an educational setting. Suddenly, instructors across all disciplines are realizing that they might need to integrate media lessons into their classes. And, further, educators from all disciplinary backgrounds are realizing that they might need to learn about media themselves as well.
Despite the strain this has put on professors and students, this realization is good. As a media educator who has been researching and writing about media literacy since I started working on my PhD, this is something I have been advocating for a long time. Maybe this was the last little push we all needed to finally move in the direction of integrated, comprehensive media literacy training across the educational system.
Yet, I fear it may have come too late. An entire generation of individuals has grown up in the internet age and completed their formal educational journey without any—or with very little—media literacy training. This was a missed opportunity, and the results are nothing short of depressing. We have a proliferation of fake and pseudo news sites, the sharing of misinformation 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.
To someone who has been trained to think about the constructed nature of media, it would be easy to recognize the way in which powerful elites are manipulating society through its media. But, instead of seeing it for what it is, widespread media illiteracy has contributed to the spread of falsehoods that are destroying our culture, our democracy, and—in light of the pandemic—our health and our lives.
Perhaps the pandemic has taught us just how important media education is. No, we cannot fix the problems created in the recent past; we cannot double back and ensure that the generations who came of age without comprehensive media literacy education develop these skills now. But, we can take steps moving forward. Let’s learn from this situation, and use the momentum we’ve gathered during a year of online and remote learning to permanently integrate media literacy lessons into our curricula across the educational system.
Hans C. Schmidt (PhD, Temple University) is an associate professor of communications at Penn State University, Brandywine. His research focuses on media literacy and journalism education.