Two parallel but separate paths: building a bridge between media literacy and citizen education
Media literacy education and citizenship are essential in the digital age, but Gianfranco Polizzi, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and Marina Cino Pagliarello, Associate Lecturer at UCL, argue that in the UK this is like two parallel but separate paths, and it It is imperative that urgent action be taken to bridge the two as part of a broader framework.
Democracy cannot function without a well-informed citizenry that takes an active part in civic life, which is understood as both communal and political life. The use of digital technologies has made it easier to share public affairs, participate in the political process and organize actions. However, it has also enabled populist agendas to capitalize on citizens’ emotions in a way that relies on the internet’s potential for misinformation, polarization, and political profiling aimed at manipulating voters (think, for example, of the illegal polling of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit referendum). These are problems exacerbated by the way Internet companies use algorithms and track user data that undermine our ability to use digital technologies both safely and to participate in society. This means that while policymakers and internet corporations have a responsibility to reshape and better regulate the digital environment, users, and especially the younger generations (who are often at the forefront of digital technology), have the lifelong skills and knowledge necessary for development and acting as citizens.
To do this, media literacy and citizenship education are essential in the digital age, but in the UK these are like two parallel but separate paths. What is the current state of the two and what can be done to bridge the two?
Mediation of media skills
Whether for entertainment, socializing, learning or sharing public life – children and young people need digital literacy – a variant of media literacy that deals with digital technologies. This includes both functional and critical digital skills and knowledge: the practical use of various digital devices, the evaluation of online content and a critical understanding of the digital environment. However, while children in the UK are increasingly using smartphones at a young age, many with diverse practical digital skills lack the critical digital literacy necessary to assess the trustworthiness of online information or manage their privacy settings across platforms.
Policy makers are committed to making the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”. As stated in its response to the White Paper on Online Harms, the UK government has decided to regulate internet companies better and promote a national media and digital literacy strategy – the details of which are not yet known. The paradox, however, is that while such a strategy cannot exist without increasing the promotion of media literacy through the curriculum, the UK government is reluctant to revise the latter, arguing that digital literacy “is already taught in the national curriculum “. “.
But is this the case? On the one hand, elements of digital competence are taught in various subjects. For example, English, history, and maths empower students to think critically, while Computing, Citizenship, and PSHE encourage them to develop functional digital skills and knowledge, develop an understanding of media bias in the context of democracy, and use digital technologies safely and responsibly. On the other hand, these subjects not only place little emphasis on understanding the broader digital environment, but a subject such as media studies, which encourages students to such an understanding and to use digital technologies critically and creatively, is only an elective at GCSE and A. -Level attended by less than 8% of students.
The establishment of citizen education in the UK goes back to the 1998 Crick report. The report was designed in line with the Third Way political agenda, which aimed to balance social justice with individual responsibility in the face of falling civic engagement and low voter turnout, recommending that civics be taught as a separate legal subject. Since then, civic education has revolved around three strands: social and moral responsibility, social engagement and, above all, civic education. Accordingly, since 2002 it has been part of the school curriculum for children aged 11 to 16 and an interdisciplinary subject for students aged 4 to 11. However, its implementation has remained fragmented (due to limited guidance to teachers and the fact that not all schools in England are required to follow the national curriculum), leading the UK Parliament’s Civic Engagement Committee to change its current status as “poor”.
According to a recent report, political education in particular still plays a subordinate role in the school curriculum. While currently taught as an expertise of the broader sociopolitical system, it should arguably be understood more broadly as the knowledge, skills, and values that citizens need to participate both actively and responsibly in their communities’ political system and society.
In the hope of strengthening civic education, a bipartisan parliamentary group (APPG) on political literacy was founded in 2021 to discuss the current offering and to examine how students can be better equipped with political literacy. The APPG, which includes parliamentarians from across the political spectrum in addition to academics and civil society practitioners, could serve as a stepping stone to promoting a broader approach to civic education. But how should this be taught in the digital age?
Integration of media literacy education into citizenship education
Given the implications for democracy and participation associated with the opportunities and risks of the Internet, it may be useful to suggest that further efforts are needed to achieve convergence between media literacy and citizenship education. Here are some recommendations on how to do this:
- Media literacy education should be integrated into citizenship education in a more systematic way by policy makers, schools and educators, which in turn should also be promoted more coherently.
- Digital competence should be imparted parallel to political competence. In addition to developing functional digital skills, students not only need to learn online content (e.g. the potentials and limits that the internet offers for civic engagement.
- However, political education should not only be conveyed as factual knowledge about the socio-political system, but in a way that gives children the epistemic tools that are essential for developing and acting as citizens with political autonomy and understanding of the digital environment.
- While multiple subjects (e.g. computer science, PSHE) should play a role in how different aspects of digital literacy are fostered throughout the school curriculum, lesson plans and resources developed for media studies could be adapted to the citizenship curriculum. At the same time, new resources and teacher training should be developed, building on the work of the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT), which has started to incorporate some aspects of media literacy.
If we are to equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to develop as citizens in the digital age, then the task of integrating media literacy education into citizenship education is an urgent task that requires a more coordinated effort.
This article represents the views of the authors and not the position of the Media @ LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Featured image: Photo from CDC on Unsplash