Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Expanding Media Literacy

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

In the media education world, there are two schools of thought about "teaching the media." One suggests that there should be a separate course of study in media and media literacy. Certain localities, states and even foreign countries have established distinct media literacy courses - and sometimes make them requirements for graduation.

The other view is that media literacy - like text literacy - is a part and parcel of every subject in every department and in every course. Just as reading is required in science, math, and social studies as well as in English courses, proponents of this second view contend that media literacy is (or can be) a part of every subject in every grade. It's a wider, more inclusive view of the various kinds of media that saturate our daily lives, and frankly, it seems to make the most sense.

The good news is that many educators are already doing what we now call "media literacy," whether or not they actually call it such. It has always been a part of good or creative teaching.

Any time an elementary teacher shows a film or an art teacher introduces a new medium into class or the kids bring in "current events," there's media education going on.

Students intuitively know that there are some things that can better be learned by seeing them than by reading about them. There is a difference between a play on a stage and a play printed in a book, between a popular film and the novel upon which it's based. Sometimes a photograph is indeed worth a thousand words, and there are great opportunities for learning in film, video, computers, TV and newspapers. Sometimes students give an oral presentation in class; sometimes they write a paper; and sometimes they draw a picture.

To the extent the differences among these various media are discussed or explored in class, there's already media literacy going on.

Just because most effective teachers deal with these issues naturally doesn't mean that better teacher training and media literacy courses for educators aren't needed. There's a difference between doing something naturally, "just because it feels right" and doing it purposefully - with skill and purpose and planning. All of us teachers need to trade ideas and get new ones, learn new approaches and techniques, get help with forming a solid background for what we're doing instead of just doing it by intuition.

And if media literacy is indeed a part of every class in every subject, it's a topic which every teacher needs to address - not just English teachers or drama instructors or art educators - not just teachers in junior high or high school - but teachers in the elementary grades and preschool as well. Because we all consume media so much - whether it's an adult reading a newspaper of a little kid watching Barney, people in every grade and at every stage of life need to become more attuned to how various media communicate.

But all of that has to do with receiving media messages - the rough equivalent of being able to read the printed word. It's important, to be sure - but it's only half of the picture.

Just as schools have always taught our students how to write as well as how to read, we need to expand media literacy into the realm of producing media messages as well as receiving them. Students need to learn how to draw a picture as well as appreciate one; how to design a web page as well as find one on the Internet; how to videotape and edit themselves as well as how to intelligently watch a film or video. There are two important reasons for this:

One is that it's crucial for everyone - normal everyday people - to learn the techniques of modern communication. If real democracy means anything to us, if active participation in the dialogues of daily life is really important to our society and country, then we need to learn how to use each new communication tool that's introduced. To fail to do so, of course, surrenders two-way communication to a scenario where we are only the receivers of what others want us to see, hear, or read.

The other important reason is the obvious fact that you learn how to appreciate something better once you've mastered it yourself. No one who has ever tried to write a news story ever looks at a newspaper the same way again; producing a video yourself guarantees that you'll watch every other video you're subjected to with new eyes and a new appreciation for what went into its production. Learning effective techniques to persuade others can be a kind of insulation against being unduly persuaded by advertising yourself.

Media literacy is not so much a new course of study as it is a new way of looking at the ways we communicate in the 21st century. It's paying attention to the "how" of communicating as well as to the "what" that's the topic of the communication.

And although we've always taught some aspects of media literacy in our schools, we need to continue (and expand) our efforts to help our students be better able to both receive and send messages using the media that already fill our daily lives.