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Media literacy in a Finnish, Nordic, and European perspective

30 September 2010 | Sol-Britt Arnolds-Granlund, PhD, Åbo Akademi University, Finlandia

Summary: During the last century and especially the last decade issues of media and especially the question of media literacy have been of interest among authorities, scholars, and other parties with a responsibility of upbringing. Over time an abundance of concepts have been taken in use unfortunately mostly without any definition. This article deals with media literacy, how it can be defined and the meaning of the concepts used in a Finnish context. Further the relationships between the concepts media literacy and digital literacy is discussed and the place of media literacy in the school curricula in Finland. The article also deals with questions on how media literacy could be assessed according to policies of authorities and finally some future expectations on issues of media literacy. As the text is about societal discourses on media literacy, it therefore comprises both policy initiatives, research findings, and educational practices of the field.

Keywords: media, literacy, digital, definitions.

As long as existed media has, both its form and content, been of interest for and even been thrown suspicion on by authorities, researchers, and parents. This is not surprising, because when combining a world, which in a short time has experienced an explosion of media, with the natural instinct of man to protect his offspring, it is not more than natural that new phenomenon are met by suspicion and cautiousness (Drotner et al., 1996, p. 61). Consequently, because of their mission of responsibility these parties naturally are the most interested and involved in formulating an agenda for understanding, use, and evaluating media. The phenomenon of media literacy is such an agenda.

Media literacy – some definitions
We have many names for the things we love. Anyhow, the plurality of concepts on media competencies available indicates an interest and involvement in the issue. On the other hand, it also expresses a difficulty in capturing the significance of what such competencies could be about and thus stressing a need of a discussion and investigations on possible meanings of the concepts in use.
As a professional of media education, belonging to the Swedish speaking population of the officially bilingual Finland, I have faced multiple uses and meanings of concepts in the field, not at least depending on the different languages. At the outset this article therefore takes a local perspective in its discussion of the media-pedagogical concepts currently in use; it mainly presents the situation within a Finnish-Swedish context. Yet, the content and the discussion about different concepts in use, is a global phenomenon, even if they are not exactly the same in different parts of the world. Nevertheless, a discussion about the use of concepts needs to proceed along with progressions in this new field of research. Being an article about media literacy I will consequently start by elaborating the meanings of the concepts media and literacy.
«Media» is a collective noun that exists as both an independent word and as the first element in composite words or concepts. In research, the media concept has traditionally been used referring to technology, its function, or to its societal meaning, i.e. culturally, economically, politically etc. Consequently, concepts as «ICT» or «digital» can be regarded as subordinated to «media».
By the literacy concept is in the first place understood an individual’s ability to read and write. Thus literacy is, by the use of what is read and written, closely linked to the individual’s survival in society. Despite the ability to read and write, the literacy concept is also connected to the meaning being literate, i.e. being educated and cultivated. Which then could the meanings of the media literacy concept be?
In Swedish the concept media literacy can be translated by two concepts, «medieläskunnighet» which on one hand refers to the ability to understand media messages [reading ability] and on the other hand «medieläsfärdighet» which connotes a practical skill, an ability to practically use media messages [using ability]. The corresponding concept in Finnish is «medialukutaito» [media reading ability]. The concept connoting user activity, «mediataito»(Fi) [media skill], embodies neither just a reading ability but yet more than technical ability (Tella et al., 2001, p. 30). Besides reading and using ability «mediataito» is suggested to involve verbal, cultural, communicative, social, educational, ethical, and aesthetic capabilities as well.
In order to come further from media literacy as merely reading and using abilities or skills, the Finnish researchers Varis (1998, pp. 375-391) and Kotilainen suggest a use of the competence concept. They regard that «competence» is more all-encompassing than the aforementioned reading and using abilities, and hints at a proficiency that the individual secures for e.g. professional duties. According to Varis (1998, pp. 375-391) media competence, takes places in social situations whereby the individual realizes the social significance of media, understands that media interpretation differs from person to person, and furthermore that the messages of media always are biased from economic, political, as well as cultural perspectives. Kotilainen (1999, pp. 17; 22-25) regards media competence as a way for the individual to survive in the media society. Media competence according to her consists of knowledge about media, critical attitude, technical skills, and interactive competencies.
According to Kupiainen and Sintonen (2010, p. 63) media literacy could be regarded as a focal practice, requiring things, physical or mental, around which individuals gather and by discussion and meaning exchange create social contexts. Besides focal practice, media literacy also requires technology, knowledge, and skill.
Regarding the competence concept Erstad (2005, pp. 120-152) makes a distinction between «having qualifications» and «being competent». Digital competence is in first hand not to have but to be; it signifies a readiness to act and an ability to form judgments and is therefore needed for survival in the learning society. Its meaning is close to aforementioned literacy concept and being literate, «bildning» (Sw).
In this paragraph the meanings of «media literacy as reading and using ability», «media skill», «media competence», and «media literacy as being literate» have been examined. To this end the analysis has shown that instead of building separate categories, the concepts often overlap and enter into one another. What distinguishes the concepts from each other is the fact that they have been formulated within different scientific contexts and applies to somewhat different situations. «Media skill» is suggested as an ability to communicate and learn in virtual learning environments while the media competence and being media literate concepts describe media-cultural abilities, abilities for the media society. But together these concepts seem to build a visible progression so long as they are used in unity with their original meanings.
Inspired by Potter (2005, p. 22), saying media literacy is not a category but a continuum, the concepts are placed as follows (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 Dimensions in a continuum (Arnolds-Granlund, 2010, p. 51).

In the definition of these five concepts different semantic dimensions can be distinguished. A simple categorization of the five dimensions results in three aspects: understanding, acting, and evaluating, bearing in mind that they occur both individually and socially (Figure 2).

Fig. 2     The understanding, acting, and evaluating aspects of media literacy (Arnolds-Granlund, 2010, p. 52).

These aspects can be viewed as a progression from understanding to action and finally to evaluation, not unlike Aristotle’s distinction of knowledge.
Proceeding from Aristotle’s distinction of knowledge, being literate «bildning» means being scientifically knowledgeable, «episteme» [to know that], practically knowledgeable, «techne» [to know how], and practically wise, «fronesis» [to know why] (Gustavsson, 1996, p. 51). Following this, being media literate (educated, cultivated) could mean «knowing something about media, being able to use media, and doing the right/good things with the help of media» (Arnolds-Granlund, 2004, pp. 3-5; 2010, p. 52).

«Media» literacy or «digital»
As was mentioned in the previous paragraph the «digital literacy» is by researchers used in almost equal meaning as «media literacy». For instance Erstad’s definition on digital literacy consists of nearly the same aspects as has the summarising Figure 2 (Arnolds-Granlund, 2010, pp.51-52).
Within many of the European initiatives on education and research both concepts media literacy and digital literacy are used. A brief review of EU sites show that two programmes of the EU Commission, Media programme and Information Society, use each of them either of these concepts. It seems as if a distinction made on the basis of technology, i.e. between so called new and old media. Anyhow, the skills and qualifications that are mentioned in the articles are about understanding, acting, and evaluating.
According to the articles, digital literacy is described as understanding information, performing tasks in digital environments and thus accessing knowledge, and using digital tools and facilities (Gilster, 1997, p. 1; Aviram and Eshet-Alkalai, 2006, p. 1; Martin, 2005, pp. 135-136; Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan, 2006, p. 9). Still it seems as if «critical thinking rather than technical competence» would be «the core skill of digital literacy» (Martin and Grudziecki, 2006, p. 254). Yet, the aspect of being literate is not mentioned within these articles. On the basis of this, it seems as the use of either «media literacy» or «digital literacy» should not be a matter of meaning but merely as a choice of perspective or representation in different academic discourses.

Media literacy in the finnish national school curriculum
Issues on media literacy are widely discussed within the Finnish society. Despite this, it has not until now been a subject within Finnish basic education. Anyhow, in the present National core curriculum there are seven cross-curricular themes of which two are media related and which are all supposed «to permeate all education» in school. Both concepts«media literacy as a reading ability» and «media literacy as a using ability», as well as the concept«media knowledge», emerge in the curriculum for basic education of the Swedish speaking population. The goal that the pupils should practice media knowledge«both as a user and a producer» is also determined in this document (National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2004 p. 37).

Media literacy assessment
Because media literacy education is not a subject within the National curriculum and consequently no objectives has been established, there are no classroom assessments made either. Neither have there been any assessments made by the national school authorities. Anyhow, a study on assessment criteria for media literacy levels in Europe was carried out in 2009 in 27 European countries for the Commission, including Finland. The aim of the study was to analyse the most appropriate criteria for the assessment of media literacy levels and provide the Commission with a set of such criteria (Celot, 2009, pp. 4; 20; see also Tornero’s paper on Media Education in Europe in this issue, NdR). The study indentified two factors of media literacy, Individual and Environmental.
Individual factors consisted of such personal and social competences as individual’s technical skill of utilization, critical understanding, and communicative competences to establish social relations through the media. The Environmental Factors included such contextual factors which are regarded to have impact on media literacy of individuals. These are availability of information, media policies of the society, education, and the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders of the media community (Celot, 2009, p. 55). The 27 European countries placed themselves on different levels within this assessment. The Nordic countries, especially Finland and Sweden were in the forefront (Celot, 2009, pp.75).

Future expectations and priorities of media literacy development
In March 2010 the European Commission launched the Europe 2020 Strategy to prepare the EU economy for all possible challenges of next decade. The Digital Agenda for Europe is one of the seven initiatives of the «Europe 2020 Strategy», set out to define the key role that the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) will have to play. The Digital Agenda of Europe aims at successful digital economy by the year 2020 and to maximize the potential of ICTs and outlines seven priority areas for action of which «enhancing digital literacy, skills and inclusion» is one (Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee of the Regions, A Digital Agenda for Europe, 2010, p. 24).
On a national level, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture is preparing two initiatives of importance for media literacy. These are a proposal for the distribution of lesson hours and the general national objectives for the new Basic Education Act and The new legislation on visual programs; proposal of the expert group which have prepared the total reform.
Similar to the previous National curriculum for the basic education this proposal, Basic education 2020 ‒ The national general objectives and distribution of lesson hours (2010), does not suggest media literacy education as a subject of its own. Rather it is proposed to be integrated within existing curricular subjects.Unfortunately, as two other school subjects have been proposed, consequently the importance of media literacy education has decreased.
The proposition of a new legislation suggests a Centre for media education and visual programs which is supposed to take over the duties of protection which belonged to the previous Finnish Board of Film Classification. According to the proposed legislation the Centre is supposed to promote media educational activities together with other authorities and societies within the field (Den nya lagstiftningen om bildprogram; Förslag från arbetsgruppen som berett totalreformen, 2010, pp. 56-58) [The new legislation on visual programs; proposal of the expert group which have prepared the total reform],). According to this proposal media education can be regarded as an activity fixed by law.  Unfortunately the proposed law text does not specify the meaning of the media education concept, which leaves the proposal at this respect somewhat inefficient.
Hitherto the discussion on media literacy mostly has dealt with conditions in Western countries and focused on the individual’s competencies regarding content and technology. However, the future use of media is and will in an even higher degree turn to be participatory. Therefore, understanding otherness and recognizing the contribution of each others, are key competencies of media literacy (Kupiainen, 2010). A global awareness and an identifying of possible digital divides, local and global, will be fundamental in future media literacy research (Kotilainen, 2010b; See also Kotilainen, 2010a, pp. 65-73). We might not yet have experienced the consequences, cultural, economical, or political, of a world divided into two, those who have had the possibilities to develop media literacy and those who have not. Neither, have we fully understood the importance of a world characterized by mutual understanding and collaboration.

Sol-Britt Arnolds-Granlund is a lecturer in media education at the Faculty of Education, Åbo Akademi University, Vasa, Finland. She has a share in the development of media literacy education during the last decade, national and Nordic. At present she is a member of several management teams, development groups, and research projects on media literacy. Her main research interests are conceptual investigations in media literacy, media literacy instruction, and children’s and young people’s meeting with and learning from and by the means of media.

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