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Empowerment and protection: Complementary strategies for digital and media literacy in the United States

30 September 2010 | Renee Hobbs, Media Education Lab, Temple University, School of Communications and Theater, Philadelphia, USA

Summary. Billions of dollars are being spent in the United States to make sure that children and young people have computers, data projectors and access to the Internet in elementary and secondary schools. There is robust experimentation now ongoing as teachers explore how to use technology primarily as a means to accomplish traditional content learning outcomes. Digital and media literacy education offers an alternative model that emphasizes a set of practical competencies or life skills that are necessary for full participation in a highly-mediated society. Digital and media literacy competencies are not only needed to strengthen people’s capacity to use information for personal and social empowerment, but also for addressing potential risks associated with mass media and digital media. Digital and media literacy is defined as the ability to: (1) make responsible choices and access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas, (2) analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose and point of view and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content, (3) create content in a variety of forms for authentic purposes, making use of language, images, sound, and new digital tools and technologies, (4) reflect on one’s own conduct and communication behavior by applying social responsibility and ethical principles, and (5) take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, workplace, and community, and participating as a member of a community. This paper identifies some recent federal initiatives in the U.S. as well as the need for developing assessments to measure learning progression for these competencies.

Keywords: United States, media literacy, digital learning, assessment, technology, education, learning, teaching.

The United States faces significant challenges in educating all its citizens. Nearly 25% of students do not complete high school. One-third of those who do graduate are unprepared for postsecondary education, forcing colleges and universities to devote time and resources to offering remedial courses. We anticipate that four of every ten new jobs will require some advanced education or training and the thirty fastest growing fields will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Only about 40% of American young people earn a two-year or four-year college degree and significant racial inequalities persist (US Department of Education, 2010).  
To address this situation, schools are in the midst of a digital revolution, as more and more educators are beginning to appreciate the need to prepare students for life in the 21st century. In the United States, there has been an intensive focus by mainstream public education on the acquisition of technology tools for use in the classroom. With more than 15,000 school districts, 3 million teachers and 75 million children in primary and secondary schools, more than $16 billion will be spent in 2010 on educational technology in the United States, not including technology costs in higher education (US Department of Education, 2010).
Hundreds of vendors compete to provide computers and hardware, flat screens and display technology, networking equipment, filtering and monitoring software, multimedia content, resources for online learning and assessment tools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, «Technology provides access to a much wider and more flexible set of learning resources than is available in classrooms and connections to a wider and more flexible set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. Engaging and effective learning experiences can be individualized or differentiated for particular learners (either paced or tailored to fit their learning needs) or personalized, which combines paced and tailored learning with flexibility in content or theme to fit the interests and prior experience of each learner» (2010, p. 28).
In general, however, this vision of education focuses on using technology tools to support traditional learning outcomes in English, math, history and science, defined in relation to performance on high-stakes tests. In the field, we find that teachers may or may not be willing to move to more innovative and student-centered approaches to learning. This is true even of young teachers. In a recent survey of preservice teachers’ views on technology use, students said that the best way to learn about the use of technology in education was by observing strategies used by other teachers. When asked, “In your teaching methods courses, which technology tools or techniques are you learning to use?” respondents most often chose the most basic of the 22 answers provided: «using word processing, spreadsheet, or database tools» (Fletcher, 2010). This strongly suggests that a new generation of teachers may not be up for learning innovative strategies that help them incorporate digital and media resources in ways that support digital and media literacy learning.
Another vision of technology integration, one more deeply connected to the humanities, is emerging in the United States. It emphasizes not tool use per se, but a set of competencies or life skills that are necessary for full participation in our highly-mediated society. Digital and media literacy is defined as the ability to: (1) make responsible choices and access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas; (2) analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose and point of view and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content; (3) create content in a variety of forms for authentic purposes, making use of language, images, sound, and new digital tools and technologies;  (4) reflect on one’s own conduct and communication behavior by applying social responsibility and ethical principles; and (5) take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, workplace, and community, and participating as a member of a community (Hobbs, in press).

Increasing momentum for empowerment and protection
In October, 2009, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (a project of the Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) released its report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. In it, the Commission made recommendations covering a continuum of information needs, from good journalism to digital and media literacy, from universal broadband and open networks to transparent government and public engagement.
To develop a nationwide commitment to integrating digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels, The Knight Commission has urged the federal government to launch a national initiative to assess the quality of digital and media literacy programs in the nation’s schools. As the Knight Commission indicated, it will take collaboration among federal, state and local education officials to produce the reforms that are needed.  Other community stakeholders have a role to play as well.
Increased momentum is largely developing because of widespread public awareness of the practical value of digital and media literacy competencies for all 300 million citizens in the United States. To be able to apply for jobs online, people need skills of finding relevant information.  To get relevant health information, people need to be able to distinguish between a crackpot marketing ploy for nutritional supplements and solid information based on research evidence. To take advantage of online educational opportunities, people need to have a good understanding of how knowledge is constructed, how it represents reality and articulates a point of view. For people to take social action and truly engage in actual civic activities that improve their communities, they need to feel a sense of empowerment that comes from working collaboratively to solve problems. 
Digital and media literacy competencies are not only needed to strengthen people’s capacity for engaging with information, but also for addressing potential risks associated with mass media and digital media. For example, concerns about identity theft are emerging as the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that 10 million Americans were victimized last year by willingly giving personal information to robbers, often because «they couldn’t distinguish an email from their bank from an email from a predator» (Rothkopf, 2009, p. 5).
In the United States like in many Western European countries, the pendulum swings back and forth over time, through periods of increased (or decreased) concern about the negative aspects of media and technology. Comprehensive research from the European Union identifies three types of risk associated with the digital age:

  • content risks including exposure to illegal, harmful or offensive content, including violent/sexual/racist/hate material;
  • contact risks, including contact with strangers, privacy, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking; and
  • conduct risks involving misinformation, giving out personal information, illegal downloading, gambling, hacking and more (Staksrud, Livingstone, Haddon, and Ólafsson, 2009). 

In the United States, the pendulum-like discourse about risks and opportunities continues to swing back and forth. Recently we have seen anxieties about Internet predators give way to fresh optimism about the possibility that children are developing social learning skills by updating their Facebook pages or playing World of Warcraft (Ito et al, 2008).
Fortunately, most people recognize that protection and empowerment are not in opposition ‒ they are two sides of the same coin. The Internet creates new ways for people to express themselves socially. For example, it enables and extends forms of sexual expression, often in new forms that involve webcams, live chat and pornography. In a country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world, a recent report from the Witherspoon Institute (2010) offers compelling evidence that the prevalence of pornography in the lives of many children and adolescents is far more significant than most adults realize, that pornography is deforming the healthy sexual development of young people, and that it is used to exploit children and adolescents. About 15% of teens aged 12-17 report that they have received sexually explicit images on their cell phones from people they knew personally (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2009). A 2008 Centers for Disease Control report notes that 9% to 35% of young people say they have been victims of electronic aggression.  Sexting and cyberbullying are also examples of how human needs for power, intimacy, trust and respect intersect with the ethical challenges embedded in social participation in a digital environment.
Digital and media literacy will not be a panacea for American social problems, however. And it won’t let media companies and producers off the hook when it comes to their own social responsibility. But as Jenkins et al (2006, p. 19) point out, one key goal of media literacy education is to «encourage young people to become more reflective about the ethical choices they make as participants and communicators and the impact they have on others».

Federal support for digital and media literacy
Typically, education is controlled at the local level in the United States, with each state and school district taking responsibility for developing curriculum frameworks and assessment measures. Limited federal funding for education is available. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has proposed a bill, the 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act, that would provide matching federal funds to states offering students curriculum options that include information literacy and media literacy. According to the bill, «Students need to go beyond just learning today’s academic context to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, communications skills, creativity and innovation skills, collaboration skills, contextual learning skills, and information and media literacy skills» (Open Congress, 2010). If passed, the bill would appropriate $100 million a year for states that have developed a comprehensive plan for implementing a statewide 21st-century skills initiative and are able to supply matching funds.
Another federal agency, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has created a media literacy online game to teach children ages 8- 12 about the variety of types of advertising in their lives. This federal agency has had a long and complicated relationship with advertising targeted at children. In the 1970s, when the FTC first explored regulating advertising of products targeted to young children, their work was stymied by pressure from the business community. Congress then revised the commission’s mandate in ways that limited their ability to regulate advertising to children (Jordan, 2008). But now the FTC is now taking steps to promote advertising literacy in the classroom with Admongo (www.admongo.gov),  an online multimedia edutainment game and curriculum designed in collaboration with Scholastic, an educational media company. The program is designed to teach children ages 8 to 12 basic principles of advertising literacy, including increasing awareness of types of advertising, understanding ad techniques, and examining methods of targeting audiences.

Approaches to outcomes measurement
There are so many dimensions of media and digital literacy that it will take many years to develop truly comprehensive measures that support the needs of students, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders.  Unfortunately, although «technological literacy» will be part of the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this framework will not include digital and media literacy competencies (Cavanaugh, 2009). Instead the focus is on engineering and systems thinking, with the goal to evaluate students’ understanding of «interconnections among technologies».
Measures of digital and media literacy are desperately needed to measure learning progression. Scholars have identified theoretical and conceptual frameworks for measuring media analysis competencies and developed and validated performance-based and questionnaire items for use with adolescents (Hobbs, 2007; Primack et al., 2006). Benchmarks for assessment, targeted to children and young people ages 9, 14 and 19, are needed to both establish the need for new programs and to measure program effectiveness. A simple online test requiring no more than 30 minutes to complete could measure the ability to identify the author, purpose and point of view of messages in print and digital formats, including making judgments of the credibility of information sources and simple media composition activities.
Careful video documentation of instructional practices is essential to generate a base of research evidence to determine which approaches to digital and media literacy education are most likely to empower students to participate fully as citizens of a digital age. An online database of video excerpts of classroom learning can be a resource for teacher education programs nationally and around the world. It can be used as the basis upon which to develop a meaningful test for new teachers to measure their ability to implement digital and media literacy instructional practices into the curriculum. At the present, few states require new teachers to demonstrate competence in digital and media literacy education. The State of Texas does include measures of digital and media literacy education competencies as 15% of the test for new English teachers in Grades 8-12 (Texas Education Agency, 2006), but its methodology of brief written vignettes with multiple choice options limits its effectiveness. The development of an online video documentation database could be developed as an international collaborative venture. Members could be able to upload clips of their own teaching practices and download clips for use in teacher education. Such a database would dramatically improve our knowledge base in teacher education for digital and media literacy education. 

Conclusion
At the heart of the momentum right now for digital and media literacy education is the widely-recognized sense among members of the public that we must work to simultaneously empower and protect people whose everyday lives become more and more saturated and enmeshed with media and digital content. As philosopher John Dewey has made clear, true education arises from thoughtful exploration of the genuine problems we encounter in daily life. In thinking of digital and media literacy as the new humanities, these practices help us engage with ideas and information to make decisions and participate in cultural life.
Rather than view empowerment and protection as opposing points of view, we must see them as two sides of the same coin. Because mass media, popular culture and digital media and technology do contribute to shaping people’s attitudes, behaviors and values, not only in childhood but across a lifetime, there is a public interest in limiting the potential harmful aspects of it. Privacy, physical and psychological safety, and freedom from exposure to objectionable, disturbing or inappropriate material are needed for the healthy development of children and youth. At the same time, empowerment is important because people gain so many personal, social and cultural benefits from making wise choices about information and entertainment, using digital tools for self-expression and communication and participating in online communities with people, around the neighborhood and around the world, who share their interests and concerns. Because it addresses the themes of both protection and empowerment, digital and media literacy offers an approach to technology integration that is more authentic and meaningful than a simple «gee whiz!» gaping over technology tools. Only time will tell if it continues its ascendency as an innovative approach to renew K-12 education in order to prepare students for life in a media-saturated society.   

Renee Hobbs is one of the leading authorities on media literacy education in the United States. She is a Professor at the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University in Philadelphia and holds a joint appointment at the College of Education. She founded the Media Education Lab in the Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Mass Media. Over her career, she has raised over $2.5 million to support media literacy education in the United States. She has written dozens of scholarly articles, created multimedia curriculum resources and offered professional development programs on four continents to advance the quality of media literacy education in the United States and around the world.

References
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