Digital media literacy is everybody’s business


November 4, 2021 Matthew Johnson, Special to the ATA News


Has there ever been a time when we had so much information and yet knew so little? Teachers have always helped students learn not just the content of their subjects but how to think, understand and interpret what they see and read. Many of us, though, don’t feel any more capable than our students are of navigating the world of online information. The past year and a half, meanwhile, has shown that being able to find and evaluate good information can literally be a matter of life and death.

Digital media literacy – the ability to critically, effectively and responsibly access, use, understand and engage with media of all kinds – has been part of the curriculum across Canada for almost 20 years. But those 20 years have seen a huge change in media and technology, perhaps the most significant change since the printing press was invented. We can’t assume that just because students have grown up with digital technology, they know how to use it effectively; nor can we assume that just because media literacy is in the curriculum, students are learning all the skills they need to make sense of today’s information environment. 

Rather than having students do a close reading of every source they encounter, for example, we need to teach them quick ways to find out whether a source or claim is worth their attention. The issue is not that students are not skeptical enough, but that they are too cynical: they’ve learned not to trust anything online, but not to identify which sources can be trusted. 

Teaching students to evaluate the validity and authority of sources so that they don’t waste their time on those that are dishonest or unreliable has been shown both to improve skepticism and reduce cynicism. These methods have to be quick and easy enough that we can do them any time we’re going to share or act on any information we’ve seen online. 

Once they’ve determined that a source is worth their attention, students can apply more traditional media literacy methods. This might involve, for instance, reading a news article with the understanding that the biggest bias in news is not political but what is seen as newsworthy, and that this man-bites-dog ethos can make rare things – shark attacks, plane crashes or vaccine protestors – seem more common and more significant than they really are.

Digital media is different in other ways that require us to change our approach. Maybe the most important is the role that algorithms play in sorting, selecting and recommending content to us.

nlike with traditional media, where we could imagine how a newspaper or TV network had chosen what to publish, the decisions that algorithms make generally aren’t transparent. To critically engage with today’s media, students have to understand how a search engine sorts the results to a query or how a video site decides what videos to show them next, and not assume that these are markers of legitimacy or reliability. 

Updating media literacy and making sure it’s being taught in every classroom are essential, but they aren’t enough. We need to teach it earlier, starting in kindergarten at the latest. MediaSmarts’ Break the Fake program is built around an update of the classic house hippo public service announcement and has resources that start with teaching kindergarten and primary students the basics of media literacy and then show students at different grades how to verify what’s real online. 

Teachers generally recognize the importance of teaching students about these issues, but often don’t feel confident in addressing them, don’t know where they fit in curriculum, or are concerned about the risks of bringing technology or pop culture into the classroom. For teachers who are just getting started with digital and media literacy, MediaSmarts’ Media Literacy 101 and Digital Literacy 101 programs are essential. Our Digital Media Literacy Curriculum Framework provides teachers with a comprehensive series of lessons ranging from kindergarten to Grade 12, and our charts of Digital and Media Literacy Curriculum Outcomes help to show how digital media literacy can be integrated across the curriculum.

Digital media literacy is everyone’s business, and we all have a role to play, not just by teaching these skills, but in modeling critical thinking and intellectual humility. By admitting to our students that we all can be fooled or misled by media, we can help them walk the line between credulity and cynicism and become effective, responsible and engaged digital citizens. ❚

Matthew Johnson is the director of education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy.

Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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