Media literacy

We’ve all been there: sitting in a theater or auditorium with dozens of other teachers, learning about how to create dynamic, exciting lessons and curriculum for our students, viewing one horribly designed PowerPoint slide after another.

It ranks up there with another frustration of mine: when presenters use outdated, inappropriate pedagogy to deliver a talk about innovative pedagogy.

Why is it that intelligent, professional educator who are charged with teaching students how to design presentations, websites, and discussions have such a difficult time modeling that same behaviour? Why do people who teach design often fail at utilizing these same principles?

I think about what George Lucas said about visual and film literacy in an interview with Edutopia, and I’m struck by a number of thoughts:

  • Lucas is absolutely correct when he says “Today we work with the written or spoken word as the primary form of communication. But we also need to understand the importance of graphics, music, and cinema, which are just as powerful and in some ways more deeply intertwined with young people’s culture.”
  • For the past 50 years, schools have stressed linguistic and mathematical literacies, but most teachers have had little practice in artistic or aesthetic literacy. We’re not great at it.
  • It is a bit ironic that Lucas is criticizing teachers for our struggle to practice the types of innovative practices and pedagogies for which we often advocate. Lucas has had similar struggles (and failures) himself with practicing what he preaches. Case in point: his comment in From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Jedi’ that “A Special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.

By and large, it seems that media literacy has two broad components:

  1. Learning how to design and create aesthetically beautiful images, presentations, movies, music, and other media
  2. Learning to interrogate media in the same way that literary critics interrogate texts: to examine the assumptions, biases, agendas, and implications of all types of media.

The first of these areas seems like a fertile area for interdisciplinary studies. After all, understanding how visual art, music, theater, dance, and design affect people and emotions is an integral part of those subjects. It also crosses over into literature, history, psychology, science, and sociology.

As for the interrogation of media, it’s interesting to me how comedy and satire are actually leading the way with this global discourse.  Take, for example, how The Daily Show with Jon Stewart regularly lampoons the absurdities of the 24 hour news cycle and Fox News. Or look at South Park’s responses to the Danish cartoon controversy, or their critique of how photoshopping images can have devastating impacts on the self-images of girls.

Various writers have characterized young people today as cynical and disillusioned. I would argue that at least part of this characterization comes from an increasing sophistication to the types of psychological manipulations coming from commercials, newscasts, etc.  Many kids have a finely tuned bullshit radar, and all too often their suspicions about hidden agendas and ulterior motives are born out.

On the other hand, sometimes these sorts of satirical critiques backfire when kids have not yet gained the necessary level of media sophistication. Back in 2005 I was working as a dorm supervisor at Woodstock school in India. I was in charge of 27 ninth grade boys, and one weekend while I was off-duty my mother, who was covering for me, walked in on one of my boys watching the Sasha Baron Cohen film Borat. My mom had no idea what the film was about but suspected that it might be some sort of gay porn, so she confiscated the DVD and told them that I would deal with it when I got back.

When I returned I was faced with a conundrum. I was a personal fan of the Borat film because I thought it did an amazing job of exposing the cultural ignorance and prejudices of Americans, but I wasn’t sure that my Indian boys saw it the same way. I told the kids that I would give them back their movie if they could explain to me why it was funny. One of them answered (not making this up) that it was funny because Borat was making fun of Jewish people.  I was a bit horrified, and told them that Sasha Baron Cohen would not want them to be watching the film. Their response: “Who is Sasha Baron Cohen?”

SAMR and Stager

I met Dr. Gary Stager last spring at the ASB Unplugged event in Mumbai, and had a great time at the Maker Space workshop with his partner, Dr. Sylvia Martinez.  Afterwards, I bought their book, Invent to Learn, and found many of their ideas fascinating. I was a big fan of John Dewey when I was studying education, and I loved the way those ideas were brought into the 21st century by Seymour Papert. Here is the video of Stager’s TEDx talk at ASB Unplugged. Not the best slideshow (as Stager himself said), but it was good to learn more about Papert.

Fast forward to last week, when I had the opportunity to see Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the founder of SAMR, discuss his tech-integration model in a Preconference at 21st Century Learning. Here is an example of one of his explanations of SAMR:

I wrote about my own thoughts on the SAMR model, posted it on Twitter, and was pleasantly surprised to see a few dozen people found it helpful. Then Stephen Hasketh  tweeted my post to Dr. Stager. It turns out that Dr. Stager is not a fan of SAMR. You can read the Twitter conversation below for yourself. Today has definitely been one of the strangest Twitter days of my life. How did I end up in an argument with Dr. Stager?

Final Project: Digital Footprint Detectives

For the final project for COETAIL Course 2, I worked with Jeff Wrensen and Mairin Raisdana on a Digital Footprint scavenger hunt / detective work. The plan is to help students see how “Everyone can mold their image online and should be aware of the message that it sends to the digital community.” To do that, the students will pick 3-4 people from this list and then try to research (some might say cyberstalk?) different facts about those people’s lives.

Some of the key questions that this activity will (hopefully) address include:

  • Does a person’s online footprint represent them?
  • How can we be aware of our online representation?
  • What things do we do that help to mold our digital footprints?
  • How might other people interpret our own digital footprints?

As students look at the people here and create characterizations of them, we will look at the implications for their own digital footprints.  I contributed an activity for older kids as well: Do the same activity but on another classmate selected at random.  Then see if you can identify which footprint is connected with which student in the class (teacher would act as a mediator to ensure that no inappropriate information came out).

Here is the full lesson plan that we developed:

Overall, I think it is a solid lesson plan and I’m going to look for ways to work it into our school’s digital citizenship curriculum. One aspect of it that I’m not totally satisfied with is that it does not give students very much room for choice in terms of who they want to research. To a certain extent, it also predetermines the conclusions that we want our students to come to, rather than having a more open scope that would allow them to truly draw their own conclusions. However, those considerations need to be weighed against possible risks if students were directed to choose their own target of research. What if a student picked another classmate, and then brought to the class’s attention embarrassing posts of that student? These are these sorts of problems that this activity seeks to minimize, yet if not directed properly it could actually aggravate those problems. For those reasons, I think that having this particular activity’s focus set more by the teacher is appropriate.