What is Media Education?

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.”[1]

Media education acknowledges and builds on the positive, creative and pleasurable dimensions of popular culture, while also teaching young people how to manage the risks and impacts of digital and traditional media. It incorporates production of media texts and critical thinking about media to help us navigate through an increasingly complex media landscape. That landscape includes not only traditional and digital media, but also popular culture such as toys, fads, fashion, shopping malls and theme parks.

Because media issues are complex and often contradictory, the educator’s role isn’t to teach the right answers, but to help students ask the right questions.

For example:

  • Who is the audience of a media work and why? From whose perspective is a story being told?
  • How do the unique elements of a specific genre affect what we see, hear or read?
  • How might different audiences interpret the same media work?
  • How do the affordances and defaults of a digital tool influence how we use it? What might be the social and political implications of that influence?

Media education can involve considering a media work as a text or an artifact. Analyzing a work as a text means focusing on its content and the ways in which its authors direct our attention and communicate meaning, while treating it as an artifact means thinking about its context: who created it and why, its relation to similar works, how different audiences might interpret it differently, and so on.

Both approaches are important and reinforce one another: even if your interest as a teacher is mainly in analyzing media as artifacts, students need to do some analysis of them as texts to meaningfully discuss their broader context. Some context around why media works are made is also essential to understanding how they are made. In this way, digital media literacy helps students become “expert readers” of both traditional and digital media:[2] “Children can be taught about visual codes and semiotic conventions, and they may also be taught about the institutions that produce these texts and the wider circuit of culture in which they become meaningful.”[3]

Media education addresses both the cognitive and affective aspects of digital media literacy – how media make us think and how they make us feel. Whether we’re managing online conflicts or learning to recognize our own confirmation bias, learning to identify and question our assumptions, emotions and beliefs – and understanding why we should do so – is an essential part of media education as well. As Erica Rosenthal put it, “knowledge and skills provide the raw materials, but motivation provides the fuel.”[4]  

MediaSmarts’ digital media literacy model is made up of three parts: key concepts, core competencies, and framework topics. How these relate to curriculum can be described in terms of Tomlinson and Imbeau’s “Know, Understand, Do” framework:[5] key concepts are what students need to understand about digital media literacy, the “insight, truth or ‘a-ha’ that students should gain”;[6] core competencies are the skills they need to be able to do; and framework topics are the content that they need to know. The following sections look at each of these in more detail.


[1] Livingstone, S. (2018) “Media literacy – everyone’s favourite solution to the problems of regulation.” Media @ LSE. Retrieved from <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/medialse/2018/05/08/media-literacy-everyones-favourite-solution-to-the-problems-of-regulation/>

[2] Goldman, S. R., Britt, M. A., Brown, W., Cribb, G., George, M., Greenleaf, C., ... & Shanahan, C. (2016) A conceptual framework for disciplinary literacy. Educational Psychologist.

[3] Livingstone, S. (2014). Developing social media literacy: How children learn to interpret risky opportunities on social network sites. Communications, 39(3), 283-303.

[4] Rosenthal, E. L. (2012). Overcoming cognitive and motivational barriers to media literacy: A dual-process approach. The Claremont Graduate University.

[5] Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Ascd.

[6] Hockett, J.A. (2018) Differentiation Strategies and Examples: Grades 6-12. Tennessee Department of Education.