Media literacy for “Empowerment and Protection”: questions and answers with Renee Hobbs
The Iluminati, the “fake” moon landing of 1969, reported extraterrestrial sightings: these are generally not topics that appear in the average high school social class or English class.
If so, teachers may feel compelled to fire them and turn to more reputable sources of information in a hurry.
But teaching students about far-fetched claims presented as news or even conspiracy theories can be educational, says Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communications and Media. Hobbs is also director of the Harrington School’s Media Education Lab, a research center and teaching aid for teaching media literacy.
“[W]When teachers and school librarians are making all the decisions for students, students never have a chance to learn how to make good decisions for themselves, ”she wrote in an article published earlier this year in Knowledge Quest, the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. Asking students to rate only loosely substantiated claims teaches source assessment and how to identify bias, she argues.
Hobbs is also a member of the Steering Committee of Media Literacy Now Rhode Island, one of the organizations that campaigned for the recently passed Rhode Island Digital Literacy Education Act. The state is one of several recent laws that require teachers to teach media literacy and prepare students to spot fake news and misinformation on the Internet.
All of these topics will be the focus of Media Literacy Week over the next few days. The third annual series of events, webinars and virtual discussions are designed to highlight the importance of media literacy and its role in K-12 and higher education. The program is organized by the National Association for Media Literacy Education and sponsored by Twitter, Facebook, and other corporate partners.
Hobbs spoke to Education Week by phone about the launch event for Media Literacy Week in New York City, where she was leading a workshop on teaching conspiracy theories and determining validity. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Media literacy is not a new idea in many ways. For years, teachers have demonstrated how media bias and propaganda can be recognized and analyzed. But the internet and social media have overwhelmed today’s youth with information, often from politically polarized perspectives. What skills do students need to navigate this new media landscape, and how should educators change or update their approach to media literacy?
One thing teachers do is bring in the artifacts of the social media landscape as a subject of study. Today I was just talking about conspiracy theories and my article in Knowledge Quest from the Association of School Librarians. Bringing in a conspiracy theory to deconstruct and analyze: this is a pedagogy that teachers use.
Teachers also bring in examples of memes. Disseminate and share memes, are transmitted, and are created in ways that are different from other forms of expression and communication. The core competency is: can you ask critical questions about these artifacts in a way that stimulates intellectual curiosity, deepens analytical skills, and stimulates student creativity?
Media literacy tries to build a bridge between the classroom and the living room. Often times, when students – and not just students, but teachers as well – learn that when they participate in teacher training programs, they learn that there are things that are talked about in school and things that are never talked about in school. There are things that you analyze and then there are things that you just enjoy. Media literacy wants to pose a problem. We want you to analyze the things that you enjoy.
It really builds a learning model where teachers and students learn together. For a middle or high school teacher, it is very likely that she knows Snapchat less than her students as a platform, as a medium of expression and communication. But the teacher does not have to be the expert of the medium. What she has to do is adopt a joint inquiry model in which we as learners try to understand together: What makes a message on Snapchat shareable? What’s a good snap? How are image and language combined in a meaning-changing way in this medium? And how can you spread or share information – and misinformation – on Snapchat?
In your book Create to Learn: Introduction to Digital Literacy, published this year, you promote the development of students into digital authors. How do multimedia texts develop and share skills other than writing an essay with pen and paper or giving a class presentation?
An example gives you a sense of the power here. One of the standard activities we use in high and middle school – and throughout the curriculum, certainly from 3rd grade onwards – is about comparisons and contrasts. It’s a form of analysis that’s pretty standard.
It turns out that some visual media are really changing the way we think about comparisons / contrasts. Teachers often use the classic Venn diagram to teach comparisons / contrasts. However, when the students are asked to create an infographic to make a comparison / contrast, they actually need to rethink the idea of similarities and differences in a way that activates linguistic representations, visual or pictorial information, and spatial information. You find out that the way the words are placed on the screen affects the way the viewer receives them: whether that information is at the bottom, in the middle, or at the top.
Students learn that some visual elements shorten people’s thinking; You’re something of a stereotype. When creating an infographic, students become more aware that information and ideas are always constructed by people with a motive, and that they are always selective and incomplete.
Earlier this year, Rhode Island passed law requiring the state education department to include media literacy in the curriculum. Media Literacy Now Rhode Island, of which you are the steering committee, played a huge role in advocating the law. At this point, are there any updates on what this component of media literacy will look like or how it will be incorporated into the curriculum?
Passing the bill would not have been possible without the mobilization of teachers, librarians, youth media representatives and other activists that took place over the five years of community education, mostly around the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. this is a professional development program for educators that [the Media Education Lab has] has been running since 2013. Every year this event hosts teachers from all over Rhode Island and also from 15 or 20 different states. These teachers began to see themselves as part of a community.
The bill itself is very modest. It states that the Rhode Island Department of Education will consider adding media literacy to its core curriculum. It is very much a first step. The plan is simple to use the best practices [that we’ve been collecting.] Tonight we have our webinar: What’s Already Happening to the State of Media Literacy in Rhode Island, collect these best practices and share them with the Rhode Island Department of Education to say, look, here’s what’s already happening. It certainly doesn’t happen in a way that reaches all the children in the state. But best practices can really inspire other educators and school leaders.
What best practices are used by the districts?
My first book [Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English], written in 2007, was about a school district in Concord, New Hampshire where the entire English department came together and said, “We are preparing our students in college English, but most of them will not be English majors.” in college. Perhaps we should think differently about preparing them for life in a complicated, information-dense media world. ”The school district’s initiative to incorporate media literacy into the curriculum is still pretty exemplary.
There have been so many others since then. [The Journal of Media Literacy Education] just published a really interesting article: A school in Florida, the G-Star School of the Arts, that incorporates media literacy into the curriculum through creative expression.
More generally, we could say that successful programs can build on this dialectic of empowerment and protection. Teachers can be motivated to protect children from the worst aspects of media culture, and they can also be motivated to share the best aspects of what media and technology bring with students. Both approaches can be very successful in schools and are really situational and contextual. In the buckle of the Bible belt in Tulsa, media literacy will look different than in Brookline, Massachusetts. It should be so. It has to be responsive to the community and the culture.
Photo courtesy Renee Hobbs.