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Media literacy in a post-pandemic world

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It only took an international pandemic to finally bring media literacy into the education system. If only we had had a better lead years ago.

We in the world of media literacy education and research have been speaking and writing for some time about the importance of media and information literacy for everyone in society. In fact, some of the basic works on this subject date from the mid-20th century.

Many media literacy researchers have focused on meeting this need by incorporating media literacy curricula into the K-12 level education system. Others, like myself, have also advocated the inclusion of media education in post-secondary higher education.

This has started on a very limited scale. Undoubtedly, as a function of technological advances in all areas of life, media has become a larger part of the learning experience at all levels of the educational system. Entering an elementary school, high school, or college classroom in the late 2010s would certainly have included dramatically more media integration than could have been imagined just a few years ago.

But despite all the media technologies that are now being used as tools in education, there is surprisingly little time left for actual media lessons. Such educational experiences – both in terms of media production and media analysis – are particularly important in higher education. Young adults especially need training during their college years to help them develop the skills that will enable them to navigate the adult world with a proper understanding of media institutions, implications, benefits and risks.

There are several ways to achieve this. Specific media literacy courses can be offered most directly. In practice, however, such media courses are mainly occupied by communication or media courses and are probably not taken by the majority of the student body. This is a consequence of the fact that most fields of study are increasingly filled with highly regulated courses that offer little opportunity for deviation and little time for electives. Alternatively, media literacy skills could also be addressed by integrating media-related lessons into existing classes. Again, however, this has proven difficult as there is widespread concern among teachers that they lack the time or training to cover topics beyond their specific disciplinary expertise.

And then the global COVID-19 pandemic happened.

In the blink of an eye, almost everything in the education world was relocated online. Instructors who rarely used technology suddenly had to learn about video recording, online teaching, creating digital resources, and adapting print materials for an online environment. The list of new media applications being integrated into the virtual classroom went on and on.

Almost overnight it also became clear that many of the students referred to as “digital natives” do not even have a lot of practical digital media skills. Could they make an Instagram post or share a trending video on TikTok? For sure. But were they able to figure out how to even perform basic media functions that are required for online learning? Unfortunately, the answer was often no. In short, the pandemic has shown how limited everyone’s media literacy really was.

Now educators at all levels – including those in post-secondary institutions – are realizing that they will likely have no choice but to use the time of their busy semester, filled with subject-specific materials, to teach the use of technology in an educational setting. Suddenly, teachers in all disciplines realize that they may need to incorporate media teaching into their teaching. In addition, educators in all disciplines recognize that they may need to learn about media themselves.

Despite the burdens on professors and students, this finding is good. As a media educator who has been researching and writing on the subject of media literacy since my doctorate, I have been committed to this for a long time. Perhaps this was the last little push we all needed to finally move in the direction of integrated, comprehensive media literacy training throughout the education system.

I fear, however, that it may have come too late. A whole generation of people grew up in the Internet age and completed their formal educational journey with no – or with very little – media literacy training. This was a missed opportunity and the results are just depressing. We have a multitude of fake and pseudo news sites, the exchange of misinformation and disinformation, and the manipulation of media platforms by those in positions of cultural, political and commercial power. All of this is happening in sight.

It is easy for someone trained to ponder the constructed nature of media to see how powerful elites manipulate society through their media. But instead of seeing it for what it is, the widespread illiteracy in the media has contributed to the spread of falsehoods that are destroying our culture, our democracy and – in the face of the pandemic – our health and our lives.

Perhaps the pandemic taught us the importance of media education. No, we cannot fix the problems that have arisen in the recent past; We cannot fall back and ensure that the generations who grew up without extensive media literacy training develop these skills now. But we can take steps forward. Let us learn from this situation and use the impulses we have gathered in a year of online and distance learning to permanently integrate media literacy lessons into our curricula throughout the education system.

Hans C. Schmidt (PhD, Temple University) is Associate Professor of Communication at Penn State University, Brandywine. His main research interests are media literacy and journalistic education.

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