Changing Current Paradigms of Media Education

Access and Inclusion April 26, 2018

Media literacy is now called upon to cope with the insidious and sometimes disturbing media phenomena: fake news, hidden algorithms, conspiracy theories, cyberbullying, problematic uses of social media and video games, digital divides, privacy protection, etc. This list is not exhaustive but highlights some issues that many initiatives set out to tackle in the spheres of media, politics and education. 

Media literacy is often considered as the principal and the most effective solution to the problems arising from the increasing media use. The focus, however, may be too narrow. We have to consider that these media phenomena are themselves symptoms of broader problems related to media literacy competences. Political and educational discourses place an emphasis on the individual user’s responsibilities and competences. Yet media literacy alone is not enough to respond to these media phenomena. Media actors, laws and regulations (and co-regulation) all have an important part to play. But what is usually most evident is the broader and fundamental chronic deficit of media literacy competences of contemporary citizens.
Media literacy is primarily presented as concerning teaching and learning skills for critical thinking and responsible use of the media. In addition to this, it enables everyone to develop in a constantly changing media environment and to be active and creative with the media in a highly-connected world. While the need for media education has achieved broad consensus, it remains difficult to identify its integration in formal and non-formal education systems. 
Building around a diversity of practices, models and competence frameworks, media literacy has emerged as a specialized and specific educational field. However, it is still mistakenly taken as a subtopic of digital competences and even reduced to the purely functional level of fact-checking skills or critical thinking. Worse still, many think that media literacy skills are only concerned with techniques and are of only complementary and secondary importance in contemporary citizenship.  
In the European framework for the Digital Competence of Educators (DigiCompEdu), for example, media and information literacy is presented as a specific component of learners’ digital competences alongside communication, content creation, responsible use and problem-solving. This narrow perspective is a misunderstood appropriation of the core media and information literacy competences field. A change to the present paradigm is urgent. Media literacy should be understood as a global educational framework around three major dimensions of informational, technical (digital) and social (or relational) competences. 
  • The informational competence of media users lies in their capacity to associate the perceptual signals they receive in terms of content, constituent signs (languages and representations) and form of the media, with the information, ideas, objects, emotions and feelings the media refer to, evoke or suggest. 
  • The technical dimension refers to the technology that supports the production, transfer and reception of every medium. Media objects are therefore the outcomes of technological processes. 
  • As to the social dimension, this has to do with the idea that every type of communication (including digital), transmitted through the media or not, takes place within a relational context which it helps to build. Communication can allow people to interact and to connect with one another. The media, in the form of documents or media devices, are social objects because they weave social relationships among members of society.
From that perspective, developing critical thinking is fundamental but technical skills also need to be further integrated into media education. In a society connected by social media, digital citizenship requires a balanced and integrated set of interconnected skills. Members of the digital generation need to be capable of expressing themselves and communicating with each other in an efficient way in democratic societies. The social media network is also increasingly affecting their information intake and their understanding of various issues like economical models of the media landscape. 
When fake news circulates we are constantly reminded of the urgency of developing and promoting media literacy competences and of the dangers of having a too restrictive framework and understanding of media education. An educational approach to contemporary media uses certainly makes it important to consider media literacy not only as an indispensable pre-requisite or co-requisite of digital competences, but as the key framework for integrated competences. 
We need to go beyond the utilitarianism that underlies educational and political discourses about digital skills and address teachers’ and educators’ competences. There is an urgent need for new educational actors who will require a more specialized set of integrated skills and didactics. Only this integrated approach is likely to be an effective solution to the problems and challenges facing the participatory culture of the digital and media landscape.