Media Literacy

YouTubeHaving started in video and digital graphics when it was an obscure field, with few available courses, it has been an interesting life experience to see video and digital image-making go mainstream, and grow to the extent that the average person may discuss the latest special effects in a film with knowledge or use an Adobe product for a school project or a business presentation. While many in the field express concern over everyone thinking they know all about digital media, I have found the democratic nature of media-making today exciting. Now just about anyone can find and use tools to create a message with pictures, video and sound. Just a decade ago the average graduate student couldn’t imagine a research paper requiring images, or a language and literacy class that focused on the analysis of images and their use, but now those are exactly the assignments being given at the university level.

While some like to emphasize that what we think of as traditional literacy is still more important (and it is), I like to emphasize the expansion of the concept of literacy. 21st century digital tools have brought another dimension into the mix, no less important than the century when every book no longer needed to be hand-written and could be churned out for a mass market, with as much impact as the first day a citizen could pick up a newspaper. Technology has made the participation potential of every citizen possible and as chaotic as it seems, there is something to be said for watching a Twitter feed during a presidential candidate’s speech or downloading a video from a cellphone being held in someone’s hand on a street in Iran or Syria. There is something to posting a video on an important topic on YouTube, and then queuing up videos from people with similar interests and being able to provide feedback in the form of comments, the day of the post, or a month later.

A real turning point for me, after many years of digital media creation was reading “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture:Media Education for the 21st Century” by Henry Jenkins, then out of the comparative media studies program at MIT and now at the University of Southern California. Jenkins makes a strong case for media skills as a new literacy in the 21st century. For Jenkins, media skills allow participation in culture and empowers individuals to interact, create, and communicate. The challenge, says Jenkins, is for educational institutions to teach the relevant skills for participation, rather than discounting these skills. For Jenkins these skills are not just technology or computing skills, but entail a broader view of media literacy. His view involves a cluster of skills including play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, trans-media navigation, networking and negotiation.

For large parts of the world media literacy may still seem like a sideline to basic reading, writing and math skills. Something to do after those things have been mastered. Still there is a powerful case to be made for integrating media skills in with traditional skills, as not just a means to learn new media skills, but to enhance and promote the basic learning itself.

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