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Ten steps for better media literacy skills

Media literacy skills are used for more than just research papers.

As policy makers work to increase the number of U.S. households with broadband access, many are realizing it’s not enough for people to be able to access information online and through various media outlets; they also need the ability to analyze the information they find for accuracy and credibility—a 21st-century skill not every child or adult possesses.

A new white paper, “Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action,” by Renee Hobbs, founder of Temple University’s Media Education Lab, now gives policy makers and education leaders a detailed plan to boost media literacy skills in their communities.

“Existing paradigms in technology education must be shifted towards a focus on critical thinking and communication skills and away from ‘gee-whiz’ gaping over new technology tools,” Hobbs said. “An effective community education movement needs a shared vision. This report offers recommendations that involve many stakeholders, each participating in a way that supports the whole community.”

The need for action arises from other recent reports, such as a 2006 survey by Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which found that 75 percent of internet searchers “do not pay heed to the quality of information they find, and 25 percent reported becoming frustrated, confused, or overwhelmed by what they find.”

Another report, released in 2009 by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, assessed media literacy in communities and created 15 recommendations to better meet communities’ information needs.

After the release of the Knight Commission report, titled “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation partnered to explore ways to implement its recommendations.

The Aspen Institute commissioned a series of white papers to help transform these recommendations into action—and Hobbs’ media literacy report is one such white paper (others include universal broadband, civic engagement, online hubs, and more).

According to Hobbs, knowing how to search for, analyze, and interpret information is a skill that will be used for more than just writing a good research paper: People use media literacy skills for applying for jobs online, getting relevant health information, and sifting through online educational opportunities, for example.

People also need media literacy skills to read or watch the news, write a letter to an editor, comment on an online news story, share ideas online, take an opinion poll, search for information on topics, or take community action.

Perhaps most importantly, media literacy skills are crucial in understanding and maintaining online safety, said Hobbs.

“We must consider the balance between protection and empowerment and respond seriously to the genuine risks associated with media and digital technology,” she explained.

Hobbs’ 10 recommendations for better media literacy skills

Support community-level digital and media literacy initiatives.

1. Map existing community resources and offer small grants to promote community partnerships to integrate digital and media literacy competencies into existing programs.

2. Support a national network of summer learning programs to integrate digital and media literacy education into public and charter schools.

3. Support a Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps to bring digital and media literacy skills to underserved communities and special populations via public libraries, museums, and other community centers.

Develop partnerships to address teacher education.

4. Support interdisciplinary bridge-building in higher education to integrate core principles of digital and media literacy education into teacher preparation programs.

5. Create district-level initiatives that support digital and media literacy across K-12 education via community and media partnerships.

6. Partner with media and technology companies to bring local and national news media more fully into education programs in ways that promote civic engagement.

Target research and assessment.

7. Develop online measures of media and digital literacy skills to assess learning progression, and develop online video documentation of digital and media literacy instructional strategies to build expertise in teacher education.

Increase visibility and stakeholder engagement.

8. Engage the entertainment industry’s creative community in an entertainment-education initiative to raise visibility and create shared social norms regarding ethical behaviors in using online social media.

9. Host a statewide youth-produced public service announcement (PSA) competition to increase visibility for digital and media literacy education.

10. Support an annual conference and educator showcase competition in Washington, D.C., to increase national leadership in digital and media literacy education.

Stakeholders discussed these recommendations as part of a Nov. 10 roundtable discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation at the Aspen Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“We … need to make sure that we’re not just providing mapping [of local media literacy efforts], but concrete and consistent standards for media literacy as well,” said Jessica Goldfin, journalism associate for the Knight Foundation. “Otherwise, these mappings will constantly need to be updated.”

“We should also make a concerted national effort to have online courses on media literacy that are accessible to everyone,” said Michael Copps, commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission. “People need to know this is a national effort and therefore has national support and resources.”

But panelists expressed a concern about creating online resources and ensuring these resources can be accessed.

“Mapping in itself is a media literacy skill. Knowing how to access these resources is also part of this skill,” said Idit Caperton, president and founder of the World Wide Workshop Foundation. “We need to make sure that when we create these resources and programs, … we aren’t automatically excluding a large population.”

Other participants offered their opinions on how media literacy can become a national priority.

“There are multiple entry points for the media literacy agenda in the new National Ed-Tech Plan we just released,” said Kwasi Asare, associate director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. “One of them [is] sponsored challenges and incentives for public and private sectors to promote media literacy in the form of professional development for teachers, or providing access to resources via wireless broadband.”

Robin Bronk, CEO of the Creative Coalition, said the best way to engage communities in backing media literacy education is to let people know that media literacy skills can mean the difference between life and death.

“Media literacy goes beyond online safety; it means knowing how to filter and analyze messages that influence childhood obesity and media programs that can lead to situations like Columbine. Our coalition could be one platform that offers a national PSA on media literacy as a life-saving skill to have,” she said.

“We also need to realize that promoting the term ‘media literacy’ might be too large of a sell,” said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media. “When you say ‘media literacy,’ many people in the community might not know what that means or think it’s worth their time. But if you sell it through online safety for young Facebook users, or the prevention of bullying, it might pick up.”

Legislative efforts

Already, some lawmakers are taking steps to boost media literacy skills and education.

For example, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., has proposed a bill, the 21st-Century Skills Incentive Fund Act (S. 1029), that would provide matching federal funds to states offering students curriculum options that include information literacy and media literacy.

If passed, the bill would appropriate $100 million a year for states that develop a comprehensive plan to implement a statewide 21st-century skills initiative and are able to supply matching funds.

Also, Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., have sponsored the Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R. 4925), which authorizes $40 million to support media literacy programs for children and youth.

Although they are steps forward, these bills—even if passed—will not be enough, said Hobbs.

The 10 recommendations for action “provide specific concrete programs and services to meet the diverse needs of our nation’s citizens, young and old, and build the capacity for digital and media literacy to thrive as a community education movement,” she said.


“Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action.”

Knight Commission

“Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.”

Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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