Digital Media Literacy Fundamentals
Media are all around us. From the TV we watch and the advertisements we see to the social media sites we use and the news we read. Our digitally connected world is constantly changing how we play, learn and interact with each other.
Digital media literacy is the ability to critically, effectively and responsibly access, use, understand and engage with media of all kinds.
Digital citizenship is the ability to navigate our digital environments in a way that's safe and responsible and to actively and respectfully engage in these spaces.
Today's definition of literacy is more than reading and writing. In order to be functionally literate in our media-saturated world, children and young people—in fact, all of us—have to be able to read the messages that daily inform us, entertain us and sell to us. Media literacy education, therefore, must begin long before children become print literate to prepare them to critically engage with the media they consume.
Media education is the process through which individuals become media literate – able to critically understand the nature, techniques and impacts of media messages and productions. In the words of digital media literacy scholar Sonia Livingstone, “the more that the media mediate everything in society – work, education, information, civic participation, social relationships and more – the more vital it is that people are informed about and critically able to judge what’s useful or misleading, how they are regulated, when media can be trusted, and what commercial or political interests are at stake. In short, media literacy is needed not only to engage with the media but to engage with society through the media.”
Media educators base their teaching on key concepts for digital media literacy, which provide an effective foundation for examining mass media and popular culture. As media education pioneer Len Masterman put it, “You can teach the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text.”
Traditional definitions of literacy have focused on skills relating to reading, writing, numeracy, listening, speaking, and critical thinking, with the end goal being developing active thinkers and learners who are able to engage in society in effective and meaningful ways. These skills – what students need to be able to do – are needed for full participation in digital society as well, but they are only part of a larger set of skills and competencies that are required.
Young Canadians need to be able to make good choices about privacy, ethics, safety and verifying information when they’re using digital media, and they need to be prepared to be active and engaged digital citizens. Based on our ground-breaking research on digital literacy education in Canada – and linked to existing curriculum outcomes for each province and territory – MediaSmarts’ model curriculum that provides a framework for integrating digital literacy in Canadian schools. The framework draws on our research to identify nine essential skill topics that students need to know and provides resources in each category and at every grade level.
If the key concepts are what students must understand, the core competencies are what they have to be able to do, and the framework topics are what they need to know, then digital citizenship may be imagined as the ideal outcome of media education. Digital citizenship is, therefore, realized when people have developed the ability to access, use, understand and engage with media, including online communities; apply critical thinking to media and networked tools; and possess the content knowledge needed to do all these things ethically and effectively.
There have been four main approaches to integrating digital media literacy into the curriculum. The first, infusion, makes digital media literacy an integrated part of the inquiry process. The second, integration, makes digital and/or media into its own, separate subject, or gives it a prominent place within an existing subject: media literacy was first brought into the Ontario curriculum in Ontario following this approach in 1989 as one of the four strands of English Language Arts, on a par (at least in theory) with Reading, Writing and Listening. The third, cross-curricular competencies, identifies digital media literacy competencies as “not something to be added to the literacy curriculum, but a lens for learning that it is an integral part of all classroom practice”; and the last, dispersion, locates them within various grades and subjects without any overall design.
The question of whether media education, or digital media literacy, “works” is a bit misplaced. There is no doubt that it works in the same sense that other areas of study “work,” in that students who’ve received media education know more about digital media literacy than those that haven’t – just as students who take history courses know more about history than those that don’t.
If we can generally conclude that digital media literacy does work, it’s worth asking the opposite question: can media literacy backfire?
There are several challenges in identifying evidence-based best practices in media education: first, because most evaluations compare media literacy interventions either to a control group or to another intervention not based on media literacy; second because, as noted above, there is often a mismatch between what a program is teaching and the results it is measuring. As a result, “empirical evidence of best pedagogical practice, as opposed to self-testimony or retrospective reporting, is scarce”; in other words, while we can say generally that media literacy works, it is difficult to say precisely which elements of media literacy programs work better than others.