What is Media Literacy?

Notes based on talk at EC event:

Media literacy is to the 21st century what literacy was to the 20th. To be media literate is a precondition for participating fully in the network society. However, the notion that access and technical skills automatically lead to full participation should be questioned. The media literate citizen today needs not only a connection and technical skills, but s/he also must have the skills to read and write various media forms as well as the social and ethical skills to navigate competently within the digital media environment.

What is media literacy? The first skills that come to mind for many people when we talk about media literacy are the purely functional skills. We think of a tool; a medium that one needs to command. It is the technical skills needed to use the tool and the medium that are emphasized. And not the social and ethical skills needed to navigate in a digital space. And these images of media literacy are still haunting the schools systems around the world.

But of course – we all know better…

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to think that access and technical skills automatically lead to all the skills that are necessary to live and interact in a digital environment. The Negroponte initiative ”One laptop pr. child” somewhat reflects this perception. Not to say that it is not a fine initiative with a great political signal value – access and functional/technical skills are truly preconditions for participating in the network society. However, it’s not the only precondition. To have a computer does not result automatically in the skills needed to take advantage of the full potential of digital media and to be able to interact in a digital environment responsibly. This goes for countries where the penetration of internet access is not very high and it goes for countries where it is high.

One very good example that exemplifies this notion is the ethnographic studies of internet users made by Professor Don Slater from The London School of Economics in Ghana some years ago. Ghana was one of the first African countries to access the internetin 1994. And since then there has been an explosion of internet cafes in the country. However, although the internet is accessible in Ghana, the internet users were here not using the internet as a source of information. The internet was used to chat with foreigners. Only one internet user had by coincidence accessed ccn.com and she was not completely sure about what it was.  Predominant societal power structures were here reflected in the Ghanesians use of the internet.

So what is media literacy if it’s not access and technical skills only? Media literacy is no less than ”literacy” was perceived in the 1970’s and 1980’swhere campaigns were focusing on the importance of being able to read and write texts in order participate in the wider society.  And what is literacy? Literacy is: “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.[i] 

If we recognize the role of ICT in the wider society as the World Summit of Information Society is doing in its declaration of principles[ii],we can also argue that media literacy is in today’s society a right.  And to strive towards eradicating media illiteracy worldwide should therefore be a priority.

Access to ICT is increasing worldwide. But as argued, access does not result in media literacy. The public library did not automatically result in literate populations.  The first to create a somewhat “public” library were of course the Romans.  However, the power structures in the wider Roman society were only transferred into the library.  Only the ones who could afford an education could and would use the library. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_library)  

That said…when it comes to the definition of Media Literacy there is presently an ongoing debate that media literacy should not be distinguished from literacy in general. This argument is based on the recognition of the role of ICT in the wider society. However, as I, and many others, see it, it is also important that media literacy is understood on its own terms; that we conceptually distinguish it from previous forms of literacy. A general misconception in the educational systems today is that media literacy should be approached as traditional literacy skills have been approached. But we need to focus on the ”newness” of the skills needed in the network society – we need to distinguish these skills from skills needed in earlier societal stages. ICT has brought something new and different into our lives – something that we cannot compare with other moments in the history of mankind. The skills needed here are not just the skills to use a new form of medium per se, as eg. the skills to read a book were. The skills needed to use ICT are the skills needed to participate in a digital space that extends our everyday life and space.   So what one needs today in order to participate fully in society is something new and different from before digital media became integrated into our everyday life and societal processes.

So what kind of definition of media literacy do we want? We want one thatrecognizes the role of ICT in the general society and thus build on a general definition of what skills are needed: ”to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society”. And we need to define what is new and different from the skills needed in the ”pre- network society”.

So, what is media literacy? To be media literate is to have the skills to[iii]:

–          read and write many forms of “languages”/ systems of signification (to be able to read and write text, image, sound, structure etc.)

–          to use the technical tools of digital media ( the computer, mobile etc.)

–          to relate the “systems of signification” to broader social and cultural contexts (And what is specific about these contexts when we talk about the new media environment is that these contexts are fluid, constantly changing. So not only do you need to know different languages (your own and English), but you also need to be able to interpret different ”texts” from different types of ”authors”. You need to know the social and cultural norms of the communities you move between etc.)

But ”media literacy” is even more than just the interpretation of the language of new media and the ability to interpret the social and cultural contexts of the sign systems. Perhaps we should even move away from using the term media literacy. To be able to achieve your goals, to develop knowledge to participate fully in society, you today also need a specific approach to life; the capacityto behave and navigate within an environment that per default is digital,tobe creative, intuitive and practical, to be critical, to be open-minded and individually responsible. These are skills that are to a certain extent very different from the skills that traditionally were and in many cases still are prioritized– that is to say:  the ability to focus, to listen, to respect the authority on a subject etc. (see the post below on teacher’s traditional media culture Vs children’s digital media culture)

So these are the skills that are necessary to participate fully in the wider society today:

  1. Characteristic of digital culture: The blending of the private and the public…

Skills: The ability to keep private in a public place

  1. Characteristic of digital culture: The access to numerous pieces of information here and now…

Skills:The ability to prioritize, categorize and choose between much available information

  1. Characteristic of digital culture: The immediacy and reach…

Skills: Ethical and moral competences when distributing information and interacting with other people

  1. Characteristic of digital culture: The combination of many forms of communication…

Skills: The ability to read and interpret images, form and structure as well as text and words

[i] (UNESCO Education Sector, The Plurality of Literacy and its implications for Policies and Programs: Position Paper. Paris: United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2004, p. 13, citing a international expert meeting in June 2003 at UNESCO. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001362/136246e.pdf)

[ii] “We recognize that education, knowledge, information and communication are at the core of human progress, endeavour and well-being. Further, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have an immense impact on virtually all aspects of our lives.The rapid progress of these technologies opens completely new opportunities to attain higher levels of development. The capacity of these technologies to reduce many traditional obstacles, especially those of time and distance, for the first time in history makes it possible to use the potential of these technologies for the benefit of millions of people in all corners of the world.” (World Summit on the Information Society – from Declaration of principles, Geneva, 2003)

[iii] Definition based on a definition in “Current trends and approaches to media literacy in Europe“, a study carried out for the EC by the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, 2007


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