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10 Steps to Strengthen Digital and Media Literacy

A leading authority on media literacy education says education leaders should take these steps to improve digital and media literacy.

More jobs these days require high level skills such as accessing information, solving problems and working collaboratively.

These skills — along with communicating effectively and analyzing data and evidence — are highly relevant in the workplace and in the community, said Renee Hobbs, founder of the Media Education Lab at Temple University and professor in the School of Communications and Theater.

"Today, the ability to be a knowledge worker is fundamental to the U.S. economy," she said.

But today's students need training if they're going to become tomorrow's knowledge workers. In the white paper Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, Hobbs outlines 10 steps to strengthen digital and media literacy. The Aspen Institute commissioned the paper to move the digital and media literacy recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy from a plan into action.

These steps need the active support of education leaders, public library trustees, leaders of community-based organizations, state and federal officials; business community members, leaders in media and technology industries and the foundation community, Hobbs says in the paper.

Many school administrators have taken steps to support digital and media literacy, and a big part of the white paper's goal was to help people recognize the connection between various initiatives, Hobbs said. Having a shared vision will help faculty and staff understand how digital and media literacy competencies relate to what they do every day.

“School leaders can really support this by helping promote a shared vision of how digital and media literacy are part of the basic competencies that we’re developing in the context of K-12 education.”


Support community-level digital and media literacy initiatives

Step 1: Map existing community resources and offer small grants

These grants will promote community partnerships that integrate digital and media literacy competencies into existing programs.

Step 2: Support a national network of summer learning programs

These programs will integrate digital and media literacy into public charter schools. Universities can play an important role in supporting summer literacy programs, she said.

Step 3: Create a Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps

This youth corps will bring digital and media literacy to underserved communities and special populations through public libraries, museums and other community centers.

Develop partnerships for teacher education

Step 4: Build interdisciplinary bridges in higher education

This bridge building will integrate core principles of digital and media literacy education into teacher preparation programs. Educators now have the opportunity to take down some of the disciplinary silos that interfere with effective collaboration between schools of communication and information, library media science, and education, Hobbs said.

Interdisciplinary partnerships between those schools can support the development of pre-service teachers.

“A lot of times pre-service teachers tell me that they didn’t see their own faculty use media and technology very much in their pre-service years," Hobbs said. "And of course that’s a challenge, because these young teachers are coming out with lots of experience with Facebook, and lots of experience uploading their photos to Flickr, and lots of experience with e-mail, but not very much experience seeing how those tools are used for teaching and learning.”

Step 5: Create district level initiatives

These initiatives would support digital and media literacy across K-12 education through community and media partnerships.

Step 6: Partner with media and technology companies

These partnerships would bring local and national news media into education programs in ways that promote civic engagement.

Research and assess

Step 7: Develop online measures of media and digital literacy

These measures would assess learning progression and develop online video documentation of digital and media literacy instructional strategies. That in turn will build expertise in teacher education.

We typically have contracted out to professional test services like ETS and College Board to develop tests, she said. That's one answer to this step. And another answer is to develop a collaborative that allows K-12 and university leaders, as well as test experts who would work together.

Engage parents, stakeholders

Step 8: Start an entertainment education initiative

Tap into the creativity of the entertainment industry to raise visibility and create shared social norms of ethical behavior in social media.

Step 9: Host a statewide, youth-produced public service announcement competition

The competition would increase visibility for digital and media literacy education.

Step 10: Support an annual conference and educator showcase competition

In Washington, D.C., the conference would increase national leadership in digital and media literacy education.


Technology tools

Inexpensive tools such as flip cams and social media are terrific for improving digital and media literacy, she said.

In science class, students can document science projects. In English class, students can develop personal essays. In history class, students can make documentaries of the French Revolution or the Civil War.

And they can share what they make through social media.

5 challenges to overcome

Though the steps outlined in the white paper ultimately would provide proper training to tomorrow's knowledge workers, there are barriers to overcome — namely, these five:

  1. Moving beyond a tool-oriented focus that conflates having access to media and technology with the skillful use of it
  2. Addressing risks associated with media and digital technology
  3. Expanding the concept of literacy
  4. Strengthening people's capacity to assess message credibility and quality
  5. Using news and journalism in the context of K-12 education
A lot of school districts block social media tools, and many teachers don't feel they can communicate with their IT specialists when they want to use the blocked tools. And in general, people are suspicious that when kids are online, they're doing things they shouldn't.

A tension exists between people who are afraid of kids using technology and people who see the potential of the tools to empower students. Right now, the fear-based models are winning, Hobbs said.

To overcome that second challenge, administrators need to step in and open a dialogue in the district, especially one that includes the kids.

The most important challenge, however, is the first one, she said. Simply buying technology cannot be equated with using it well. It's what we do with the technology that matters, not the number of whiteboards in a school building.

In the National Education Technology plan, she sees a real emphasis on technology for online learning, personalizing learning and connecting kids with rich content. But in her paper, she shows that technology is a tool for communicative practice and for giving kids the opportunity to use their voices to strengthen their literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“For that to happen, school leaders need to value student voice and appreciate it," she said, "and recognize that part of our obligation is to prepare students to be self advocates and to participate in the business of democracy.”


Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action