Media literacy is undoubtedly a must-have competence in the 21st century as various white paper, policies and research results all over the world attest. In this opinion piece, we do not have to argue for the importance of media literacy and to prove the crucial role it plays in the education system. It may, however, be useful to share our experiences of the development of media education in East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. The following points are based on our research findings and observations.
A rhetoric with limited practical application
In East Asia, media literacy is increasingly popular and widely accepted by governments and policy makers. Considered as a requisite competence for future citizens, media literacy figures in official documents and education policies. There is in fact a great deal of discussion but not much in the way of action. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education issued the first White Paper on Media Literacy Education in 2002 in this region. However, there is still not much practical application in schools or in adult education after more than a decade. It is disappointing that media literacy is acknowledged as a crucial element in citizenship but only few nation-wide implementations can be observed.
Diverse implications of identical terminology
The development of media literacy in both formal and informal educational settings started in European and other English-speaking countries. It was introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to the increasing size and market of the media industry as well as the improved conditions for freedom of speech in East Asia. It is apparent that, in the early stages, the major discourse and practices were borrowed from Western countries where there was a longer history of promoting media literacy. However, since the socio-cultural, political context and media ecology in East Asia differs from Western countries even in the era of globalization, we can observe that media literacy has acquired different meanings and emphases in different parts of the world. In the East Asian region, the introduction of media literacy serves diverse political agendas. For example, China has been actively promoting media literacy since the early 2000s while other political entities with different attitudes to questions of freedom of speech such as South Korea also advocate it. The same term, media literacy, has diverse meanings and implications in these two countries. In South Korea, it relates to the needs of an expanding media industry but in China, it is more to do with online safety. As a result, the definition and application of media literacy vary in these countries while serving different political agendas. The context of individual countries is pivotal to a full understanding of media literacy in East Asia.
Emergent research agendas
Media literacy has become more visible and significant in the past two decades. It is now an area of interest among researchers and the number of funded research and academic publications has burgeoned. Nevertheless, the western model of media literacy, including the one promoted by UNESCO, may not be fully able to transplant to East Asia because of the different socio-cultural contexts and media ecologies. In the early stages of media literacy in East Asia, research on its development in individual countries or from a comparative perspective has highlighted the contrasts of media literacy in different countries. However, with more researchers devoted to this research field there have been some attempts to re-contextualize media literacy in East Asia with the possibility of developing a local/regional theory. For example, in 2013 we proposed an alternative theoretical framework for understanding media literacy in the digital era. In that preliminary framework, we emphasized the progression of media literacy from functional to critical and from consuming to prosuming. Currently, we are moving in the direction of exploring the ethical aspects of media literacy. Media literacy is not only a set of skills/competences but also involves ethical awareness and considerations.
In conclusion, media literacy can be thought of as an evolving discourse in East Asia and perhaps in other parts of the world. Although there are some common themes, a trend towards a diverse development of media literacy can be observed in different part of the world. In East Asia, with emerging discussions of media literacy, there is a prospect of further diversity with more practical applications.