Why Media Literacy is More Important than Ever

NYDN cover

This semester we’ve witnessed a brutal execution, played out initially on live television to a small audience and then broadcast worldwide via social media channels.  Some are now advocating for stricter gun laws while others suggest that automatic-play videos on social media be outlawed.  Neither one of these solutions are quickly feasible or easily enforced.  There is a larger point here that is being ignored.  The suspect filmed the murders.  He shared the murders.  And we watched the murders.

Although Twitter and Facebook took down the videos, reeling in content on social media is much like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube.  The clips were on YouTube within an hour, and the online debate turned into “to watch or not to watch”.

While society can debate gun laws, mental health and the legality of sharing disturbing videos online, the ever-increasing role of the media in our lives cannot be debated.  Countless studies show that Americans are spending more time than ever in front of screens, both consuming and creating content.  Some of it is banal, some of it is interesting, all of it is educational even if it was not created with that intent.

Since the role of media in our lives is likely to only increase, perhaps it is appropriate to stand back and ask ourselves what it all means.  How many viewers of last week’s crime felt like they were watching a film?  Or a first-person-shooter video game?  Or perhaps more disturbing, how many viewers were desensitized to what was actually happening in the video?

Disturbing video is nothing new.  The public relations experts of ISIS have mastered the art complete with professional production quality and soundtrack music.  We are at once voyeurs and squeamish about the accessibility of all this disturbing content.

Sometimes disturbing content is delivered without context or analysis.  Think of the photos of the refugee crisis in Europe.  We see desperate people huddled in train stations and images of a lone drowned child on a beach.  But how many of us really understand the context and history of why this is happening?  Or do the media just give us compelling images and expect us to research them ourselves?  This is a quandary.  That these images cause affective responses requires special responsibility in sending as well as decoding these images.

So what to do?  The likelihood of disturbing media content somehow dissipating or disappearing is minute.  In fact, it is more likely to increase.  We cannot stop the senders of these messages, the tools are ubiquitous.  We cannot change their message.  We can, however, educate and empower the receivers of these messages with media literacy education.

Media literacy is not media bashing.  It’s not a topic, it’s a skill.  It’s the ability to critically evaluate the thousands of media messages we consume daily.  Media literacy isn’t a panacea for negative media effects, but it can force us to step outside ourselves and ask basic questions.

Who created this particular message, for example?  What is their motive or intent?  What information is being omitted?  What tools are used to get me to pay attention?  How might others interpret this message?

Americans live in a mediated world.  It only seems logical that we should analyze our media consumption and what its effects are.  Yet, although media literacy is mandated in several countries, it faces an uphill battle in the United States.  Teachers are stretched to the limit, and although media literacy can easily be implemented across the curriculum, there’s very little teacher training, time or administrative support to teach this critical subject in schools.

While we may not see another live execution on television, we will definitely see irresponsible behavior being celebrated, fake stories being circulated and news stories exaggerated.  Isn’t it time we give our children a defense mechanism that doesn’t involve censorship or sequestration?  We owe it to our children to teach them how to live in this mediated world.  And it doesn’t have to begin in schools, it can begin at the kitchen table.

Why I Use Social Media in My Classes

Some disclaimers
I teach college.  So every kid has a phone.  Heck, every kid has a nicer phone than I do.  But I digress.
I teach media courses.  So we talk about the media.  Cell phones are media tools, and they are the primary social media access tool for my students.  It’s content-related for my discipline.

That being said, here are my reasons:
1.  The classroom engagement functions provided by phones and apps/websites make it almost irresponsible to NOT use them.  Sites like Mentimeter, PollEverywhere and Kahoot enable the students to partipate in class in a whole new way.  Not to mention class discussions we have on Twitter (without using our voices!) using the class hashtag and fun sites like TweetBeam.  Want to see your introverts come to life in class?  Do a Twitter discussion.  Their tweets will be the most thoughtful and interesting.  Trust me.

2.  It’s selfish on my part.   There’s nothing more fun to say to 75 college students in a huge room than “GET YOUR PHONES OUT!”  I absolutely love saying that.  You know why?  It tells them that I am trying to meet them where they are.  

3.  I don’t want them to think I am some “sage on the stage”, up in front barking out knowledge like they are little sponges just waiting to hear the dulcet tones of my voice.  (Actually, I walk around while I bark/lecture).   Lecture has its place.  But not for 75 minutes.  A quick cell phone activity breaks up the class, re-engages them, and shows them that I am interested in connecting with them through a medium that they love.

4.  It’s a perfect place to demonstrate and model appropriate cell phone use.  If a student is texting someone while I am standing right by them, of course I call them out on it because that is rude.  But prohibiting phones in class is wasting your energy as an instructor.  Students having their phones is the equivalent to them having their arms attached.  And if they’re playing on their phones, I see it as a failure on MY part, not theirs.  If my classes were good enough, they wouldn’t be surfing.

Best thing ever written on one of my course evals?  “Her classes were so great I never played on my phone one single time.”

5.  I am constantly telling my students that they need “internal bullshit detectors” activated at all times.  (If I was K-12 I’d have to think of a different way to say that!)  What better way for them to discern & analyze information in real time?  How are phones different than my students having laptops open all the time?  Same thing.  Same internet.  Same access.  Same critical evaluation skills required.

6.  This reason will be seen as a copout.  Regardless of what any teacher says or plans, students have their phones.  I’ve had colleagues say “They’re not allowed to have their phones in class”…but who are they kidding?  Of course the students have their phones.  My philosophy is to stop fighting the battle.  It’s exhausting and only demonstrates a digital disconnect between an instructor and a student.

7.  My students live on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.  Although I haven’t mastered the Snapchat Story feature (be very afraid for when I do!)  I encourage them to use these sites to share media examples that they find when we are NOT in class, by using our class hashtag.  Doing this demonstrates the fact that learning happens 24/7, not just within the time and walls of the classroom.  

I’m sure I have other reasons and I’m sure everyone has different situations and scenarios.  But the phones and social media work for ME.  

Ways to use the phones in class:
Twitter discussions using TweetBeam or TwitterFall
Real-time polling like Mentimeter & PollEverywhere
Put QR codes in your syllabus instead of links so they can access info right away
Use Remind to send out messages to students or links to Padlets before class even begins
Use video/audio features to do engagement activities within class
Have students double-check facts in lecture or the book
Follow people on Twitter who are experts in the field, see if they’ll respond to questions
Interactive quiz games like Kahoot (even my college kids flip over Kahoot)
Set up a Today’s Meet site for your class