Digital Media Literacy Across the Curriculum

There have been four main approaches to integrating digital media literacy into the curriculum.[1] 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.[2] 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”[3]; and the last, dispersion, locates them within various grades and subjects without any overall design.[4]

All of these models have strengths and weaknesses. A risk of making digital media literacy its own subject is that “given the amount of content teachers are required to teach in a school year, it is difficult to imagine media literacy as an additional subject getting equal treatment.”[5] While there are obvious benefits to having teachers who specialize in digital media literacy, it is also true that critical thinking skills are often domain-specific: those learned in English Language Arts will not necessarily transfer to Science or Social Studies perfectly, if at all.[6]

Other approaches, however, require the teacher “to rely on his/her [sic] own competence in terms of outlining what areas should be covered as well as how the subject should be taught.”[7] As well, there is the risk that, “if teaching them falls to more than one educator, it could unintentionally slip through the cracks.”[8] These concerns are supported by research on media education in the infusion model in British Columbia,[9] which found that “media literacy is… hit or miss and depends on teachers’ interests and time made available to address topics that fall outside of the conventional English and Social Studies curriculum. Experienced teachers manage to find their own ways and means for media education practice, but for other teachers, immense challenges and obstacles prevent even a recognition of the importance of media education and literacy.”[10]

The best solution, therefore, is likely to do both: to create a space reserved specifically for media education (and, consequently, develop expert specialist teachers) while at the same time integrating digital media literacy wherever possible within the rest of the curriculum, tailoring it where necessary to the specific demands of the subject.[11] Space also needs to be carved out for topics that do not fit easily in the traditional core curriculum, such as data privacy, understanding algorithms and recognizing and responding to hate online.

Many teachers already agree that the different approaches are complementary[12] and that digital media literacy education “should be every teacher’s responsibility.”[13] You can see our Curriculum Charts to get specific information on how each of our lessons and resources meets the curriculum of different courses in your province or territory, but you can also start integrating digital media literacy into almost any subject you teach. For example, students in a Canadian history class might consider the role of the press in the October Crisis, and consider how today’s media (including social media) might cover it differently; in a health and physical education class, digital media key concepts are used to expand an existing lesson on bullying to include cyberbullying.

However, it is important to incorporate digital and media literacy competencies in a meaningful way. For instance, a Social Studies assignment to create a social network profile for a historical figure can teach more complex digital media literacy skills by asking students to create profiles on two different networks; students can then be assessed on their analysis of the affordances, defaults and uses of the networks and their thoughts about how the figure would use them differently. Similarly, rather than just having Geography students use the online game Geoguessr to test their knowledge, have them practice their finding and verifying skills by using search engines, travel websites and other online resources to deduce what location they’re being shown. As a general rule, in a lesson with a media education element students should either be performing some sort of critical analysis, learning about or practicing a digital media literacy skill they’re not already expert at, or using digital or traditional media to engage with the world outside the classroom.    

Here are some ideas just to get you started:

English Language Arts: This subject is where media literacy expectations have most often been found, and those apply to digital media as well. Some of the most important implications of our key concepts – like the idea that anyone can publish online – make traditional media literacy skills more important than ever, but also require more up-to-date ways of recognizing advertising, for example, and the ways that we’re susceptible to bias.

Digital tech also provides enormous opportunities for creative media production. We need to take advantage of those opportunities, while also making sure that our students understand the ethical issues involved in it – as well as their own rights as media creators.

Social Science: In History classes, students can look at how their views of history and historical events have been shaped by media. Studying films, newspapers and even their own textbooks can help students see how the nature of each medium shapes how history is told. In Geography and World Issues classes, students can analyze how news coverage influences how we view different parts of the world – and the people who live there. Even maps can be studied as media!

Finding and verifying information is at the heart of social science. Teachers can explore the use of the internet for research, including access to uncensored information and alternative news sources. As with English, students can also learn to distinguish bias, misinformation and propaganda in online content. In more advanced classes like anthropology and psychology, students can learn how the values of their online communities are shaped and how the features of online environments shape our behaviour.

Digital platforms are the new arena for both online and offline civic participation, and digital technology also offers students a chance to participate as full citizens in a way that they can’t offline. Teaching them to be an active part of their online communities – as well as to use digital tools to be involved offline – is essential to prepare them to be fully engaged citizens when they’re older.

Science: How are students’ views of science, and what scientists do, shaped by media? Where does the idea of a “mad scientist” come from, and where do we see this trope today? How do the commercial demands of newspapers and TV news influence reporting of science stories? How are our ideas about everything from which animals are dangerous to whether you can shoot a lock off a door influenced by what we’ve seen in media?

With networked media, science news comes to us from lots of sources. Some are reliable and some aren’t; even generally reliable sources often don’t have specialist science reporters. Students need to learn how to critically read a science story, understand the process of how scientific consensus changes and be able to quickly find out what the consensus on a scientific topic is (if there is one) and judge how firm that consensus is.

Family Studies: How are families depicted in different media? How has this changed with time? Do media portrayals of family follow trends in society, or do they influence them (or both)? What do various media works popular with youth say about gender roles, and how do youth interpret these messages?

Health and Physical Education: What influence does media consumption have on what we eat? How does it affect our decisions about smoking, drinking, and drug use? What kinds of relationships do we see modeled in media works popular with youth, and what messages do youth take from them? How do digital media such as Smartphones and the internet affect our relationships with others, and how can we maintain healthy relationships using these media?

Because digital tech is so central to young people’s lives, no subject may need to integrate digital literacy more than health. Traditional health topics like body image and sexual health education need to incorporate digital literacy key concepts, as well as digital health issues such as “fear of missing out” that are caused by persistence, shareability and asynchronous communication. Youth also use digital tools to find information about health topics, so it’s important to steer them towards good-quality resources and teach them how to tell whether or not a resource is reliable.

Young people’s self-image is influenced by the photos of their peers – and themselves – that they select, and often edit or carefully manipulate. As well, the line separating them from the celebrities they admire – whose images are very definitely digitally altered – is largely gone, as they all participate in the same platforms like Instagram. Beyond just body image, young people need to be able to ask questions about the ideals of masculinity and femininity that they feel pressured to fit into on social media.

Young people’s health can also be affected by some of the features of digital media like persistence and shareability, which can make it very hard to log off and give the haunting feeling of “fear of missing out” – the idea that your friends are having a good time online without you.

Finally, students need to understand some of the effects we’ve discussed that digital media can have on relationships, as well as how to deal with them, and to understand how ideas like respect and consent apply in the online context.

Mathematics: What role do algorithms play in how we use, consume and engage with media? How are our personal data used by governments and businesses to make decisions about us? Students can also learn how things like probability are represented in media, and how that affects our understanding of them or how to understand an analyze statistics in a news article or social network post.

Music: How do the commercial pressures of the music industry affect the creation of music? How are things like gender, class, relationships, or alcohol and drug use depicted in music (and music videos), and how do youth interpret these messages? How do different musical genres and styles (pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, etc.) influence the content of music and music videos? How are musicians portrayed in media, and how does that influence how youth see them?

Law: How do media works popular with youth portray crime and the criminal justice system? How are these portrayals influenced by the values or assumptions of the media creators, by commercial considerations, or by the influence of different genres (cop shows, action games, etc.)? How are digital media affecting our views on issues such as intellectual property, hate speech, harassment and defamation of character?

Fine Arts and Creative Media Arts: How do artists use, appropriate and deconstruct media works to create new art? What rights and responsibilities do artists have towards the original media creators or owners? How do visual elements such as colours and logos affect us?

As more and more artistic production is created or distributed through digital media, arts courses also need to reflect the impacts of digital technology, such as how platform architecture influences aesthetics and self-presentation, and the effects of networked technology on arts industries and communities. The internet has definitely been a mixed blessing for most arts industries, but students need to understand those changes – and be able to see what changes are coming – if they’re considering careers in the arts. Young people also frequently post photos on social media, so they need to understand how they are composed, edited and (frequently) altered digitally.

Technology and ICT: Technology courses themselves need to adopt a wider view of digital literacy and go beyond a focus on technical skills – which are likely to be obsolete within a few years after students graduate – to a more critical understanding of digital technology. Technology courses should also expand from a focus on using technology to include understanding and creating as well.


[1] Hoechsmann, M., & DeWaard, H. (2015). Mapping digital literacy policy and practice in the Canadian education landscape. MediaSmarts.

[2] Rennie, J. J. (2015). Making a scene: Producing media literacy narratives in Canada. University of Toronto (Canada).

[3] National Literacy Trust. (2018). Fake news and critical literacy: The final report of the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools.

[4] Hoechsmann, M., & DeWaard, H. (2015). Mapping digital literacy policy and practice in the Canadian education landscape. MediaSmarts.

[5] Worth, P. L., & Roberts, D. F. (2004). Evaluating the effectiveness of school-based media literacy curricula.

[6] Greene, J. A., & Yu, S. B. (2016). Educating critical thinkers: The role of epistemic cognition. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 45-53.

[7] Manalili, R., & Rehnberg, J. (2009). “Is the Language Arts Curriculum of Ontario, Canada a Model Curriculum for Media Education Studies?” Newsletter on Children, Youth and Media in the World.

[8] Huguet, A., Kavanagh, J., Baker, G., & Blumenthal, M. S. (2019). Exploring media literacy education as a tool for mitigating truth decay. RAND Corporation.

[9] Rennie, J. J. (2015). Making a scene: Producing media literacy narratives in Canada. University of Toronto (Canada).

[10] Namita, Y. (2010). Teachers' perceptions of media education in BC secondary schools: challenges and possibilities (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia).

[11] Horn, S., & Veermans, K. (2019). Critical thinking efficacy and transfer skills defend against ‘fake news’ at an international school in Finland. Journal of Research in International Education, 18(1), 23-41.

[12] Zielke, N. (2017). Dynamic Elementary Education: Teaching Digital and Media Literacy.

[13] Maqsood, S., & Chiasson, S. (2021, May). “They think it’s totally fine to talk to somebody on the internet they don’t know”: Teachers’ perceptions and mitigation strategies of tweens’ online risks. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-17).