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Building knowledge societies: Media and information literacy as the sine qua non of teacher training


While educational content has been presented through multimedia for some years, several factors are precipitating a need for critical and coherent study of media and information literacy as part of the school curriculum. Those factors include:

  • the proliferation of global telecommunications and media organizations

  • a consequent exponential increase in media texts and messages (of varying authority, purpose, currency and accuracy)

  • the controls (overt and/or subtle) exerted on access to, and availability of, those texts and messages to citizens

  • the impact of media and information on society as a whole and on youth in particular

It is critical to recognize that library and mass media traditions are converging as their digital context increasingly overlap. This fact has major implications for the delivery and content of initial teacher training and for continuing professional development.
The technological developments underlying increased availability of information have simultaneously resulted in an increase in opportunities for interaction within communities and beyond cultural boundaries via the media. For example, where media tools were once location bound, they are now made portable by high levels of connectivity and decreases in over all dimensions of equipment. Cost factors have also contributed to the shift from scarcity of technology towards abundance. As a result, the increasing availability of mass media tools is creating a new environment that is changing the cognitive and affective setting for intellectual and cultural growth of young people. It is modifying the context they choose for socialization in ways not previously envisioned.
Mass media tools influence young people’s work, leisure and personal relationships. Further, existing social and political imperatives for improving education and basic literacy are being amplified by the demands and opportunities of the new media. For example, these media are having an impact on freedom of speech. Where that right cannot be taken for granted there may be an inability to make sound predictions on the effects of free media and youth may have little understanding of their own or the ethical responsibilities of others. Thus mass media are providing new opportunities and challenges for teachers.
The phrase “media and information literacy” refers to a teaching and learning process and application of critical thinking to receiving and producing mass communication media. This implies knowledge of personal and social values, responsibilities relating to the ethical use of information, as well as participation in cultural dialogue and the maintenance of autonomy in a context where influences eroding that autonomy may be particularly subtle. Media and information literacy may be summed up as being centred on five core competencies, referred to as the “5Cs”: Comprehension, Critical thinking, Creativity, Cross-cultural awareness and Citizenship.
The Expert Group agreed that education for media and information literacy (MIL) offers trainee teachers exceptional insights concerning factors influencing levels and modes of community participation and citizenship. As a subject for study, MIL has areas of unique and continually evolving content, while the pedagogical processes most appropriate to the subject offer opportunities for integrating knowledge, problem solving and skill development across a variety of well-established curriculum topics. In other words, a focus on media and information literacy processes provides an opportunity to look at teaching and learning in terms of making meaning and constructing knowledge in the context of receiving, analysing and producing media.
However, it was also agreed that while the expected social benefits of MIL have been outlined during this meeting, educational benefits, i.e. evidence of observable effects on student learning outcomes, are at this time more elusive. The Expert Group agreed that one factor contributing to this is that MIL is as yet not sufficiently delimited as a separate subject. It can however be addressed through the development of curriculum enrichment material that can be integrated into and enhance existing teacher training programmes.
A further challenge was identified in that the distinction between ‘media literacy’ and ‘information literacy’ is unclear. The aim is to capitalize on the synergies between ‘media literacy’ and ‘information literacy’ to enhance teaching and learning across the curriculum. Those synergies are apparent in definitions of the two concepts.
The nature of information literacy was clarified in José Manuel Tornerno’s presentation through reference to the Alexandria Proclamation (UNESCO, 2005):

“Information Literacy

  • comprises the competencies to recognize information needs and to locate, evaluate, apply and create information within cultural and social contexts;

  • is crucial to the competitive advantage of individuals, enterprises (especially small and medium enterprises), regions and nations;

  • provides the key to effective access, use and creation of content to support economic development, education, health and human services, and all other aspects of contemporary societies, and thereby provides the vital foundation for fulfilling the goals of the Millennium Declaration and the World Summit on the Information Society; and

  • extends beyond current technologies to encompass learning, critical thinking and interpretative skills across professional boundaries and empowers individuals and communities.”

Further, teaching from within an information literacy framework has been empirically demonstrated to influence students’ self esteem, motivation for learning, deepen content mastery, and increase understanding of inquiry processes. That is, this assists students in learning how to learn. Also, teaching for development of the higher order thinking central to information literacy (critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, orchestration and synthesis of skills and content together with metacognition) has been shown to improve academic performance. Together, these focus attention on learners’ capacities as critical receivers and producers of information in all media.
In line with the tenor of the discussion, although they were not made explicit in this form during the meeting, it is appropriate to quote widely accepted definitions of media literacy and its key concepts.

"Media literacy is generally defined as the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents and to create communications in a variety of contexts. This definition has been validated by a large majority of the respondents to the public consultation and by the members of the Media Literacy Expert Group”. (European Network on Information Literacy website)

And
“Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.” (Centre for Media Literacy website)
Media literacy focuses more tightly than information literacy on the process of exploring, analysing and understanding the nature of mass media thus increasing knowledge of:

  • the techniques used in them,

  • how they construct realities,

  • how they are organized, and

  • the impact of mass media on social, political, economic, health and educational environments


In the current context, the goal of education for media literacy, in accord with that for information literacy, is to ensure that trainee teachers have an understanding of the media that encompasses “knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses, biases and priorities, role and impact, and artistry and artifice.” (Ontario Media Literacy Resource Guide - website)
One perspective on the key concepts of media literacy is presented in Annex IV.
The above definitions of MIL are relatively broad but educational decision-makers at all levels tend to want precise definitions on the purpose of a curriculum component. They may also question the expectations of authorities concerning the outcomes of MIL education. However, narrow definitions and statements of expected outcomes are vulnerable to the rapidity with which technology changes and individuals and communities appropriate it to their own purposes. What can be learned about MIL and the way it can transform education demands acceptance of open-ended definitions.
Further, an agreed conception of media and their purposes is fundamental to definitions of media and information literacy. While not discussed in depth during the meeting, participants had available a variety of documents that provide a starting point for and justification of the development of an MIL curriculum for trainee teachers. What follows is a synthesis of various reports2 on the media and democratic development.

“Media outlets are crucial to the exercise of freedom of expression because they provide the public platform through which the right is effectively exercised. The idea of media as a platform for democratic debate embraces a variety of overlapping functions. Media, in this context, refers to all those channels that carry news and public information. The media may be seen as:

  • a channel of information and education through which citizens can communicate with each other

  • a disseminator of stories, ideas and information

  • a corrective to the “natural asymmetry of information” (Islam 2002:1) between governors and governed and between competing private agents

  • a facilitator of informed debate between diverse social actors, encouraging the resolution of disputes by democratic means

  • a means by which a society learns about itself and builds a sense of community, and which shapes the understanding of values, customs and tradition

  • a vehicle for cultural expression and cultural cohesion within and between nations

  • a watchdog of government in all its forms, promoting transparency in public life and public scrutiny of those with power through exposing corruption, maladministration and corporate wrongdoing

  • a tool to enhance economic efficiency

  • an essential facilitator of the democratic process and one of the guarantors of free and fair elections

  • an advocate and social actor in its own right while respecting pluralistic values.


It is equally apparent that sometimes the media may serve to reinforce the power of vested interests and exacerbate social inequalities by excluding critical or marginalised voices. The media may even promote conflict and social divisiveness.
The key question for those concerned with issues of free expression, good governance and human development, then, is how to nurture a media framework and practice which contributes to these overarching goals. This is a particularly acute concern in new or restored democracies, whose media systems have been warped or shattered by oppression, corruption or the effects of war and under-development.”
UNESCO participants in the meeting underlined the need for teachers to have a clear understanding of free, independent and pluralistic media as a discerning tool to ensure freedom of expression within the broader context of democratic discourse. Further, teachers also need to understand the normative role of the media in providing verified information and a platform for informed discussion. However, considerations that take MIL beyond mere critique of media content were not addressed in depth during the meeting of Experts but need to be explored in the on-going development of the initiative.

What difference will MIL make to a teacher’s life? Will it help teachers engage with students?


Today’s students see and consume media in new ways. Their experiences outside school may differ markedly from those traditionally expected to promote learning, particularly where education is teacher and text book centred. For example, it was noted that today’s journalism and communication students are the “Google Generation” - a group of young people for whom the Internet has always been a reality. Many do not accept that news and information should come from a daily newspaper or at set times from television and radio broadcasts. Rather, they expect to get information, news and entertainment when they want it and to share opinions, experiences and lifestyles through social networking sites. Their world is dynamic, exciting, and ease of use and access to the new media are highly motivating of participation. School students similarly engage with each other through sites such as Facebook and MySpace, often with little thought for possible consequences of publishing their activities in very public arenas.
The view was expressed that people in general need to improve their intellectual performance in light of increased availability and new uses of mass media and communication. Media and information literacy education is a tool for achieving that improvement. However, the Expert Group also agreed that if MIL among students is to be improved, teachers themselves must be media and information literate. The challenge for teachers is then to harness the motivational characteristics of these new media to empower students in learning to learn, in learning autonomously, while simultaneously encouraging dialogue and cooperation to make sense of the media world. As one participant put it, “Teacher trainees need the oxygen of MIL to teach students!” A belief was also expressed that through educating students for media and information literacy, the teachers themselves would be better able to respond to changes in their role as education moves away from being teacher-centred.

Does MIL need to be included in teacher training?


One might be tempted to think that since students are rapidly appropriating media tools for their own purposes, they do not need education concerning them. However, from the Expert Group discussion it was clear that students’ purposes tend to be social and perhaps superficial, while those of teachers focus on engaging critically with information, developing analytical, organizational and evaluative skills, problem solving and communication. In other words, teachers focus on the competencies that underlie intentional learning and that will allow critical engagement with future media content and form and emerging information and communication tools. Trainee teachers are themselves unlikely to have developed these competencies in relation to current media.
There was agreement too that learning about, with and through media and information literacy will require a pedagogical approach that differs from that traditionally used in some countries, i.e. student- rather than teacher-centred and resource-based rather than centred on set texts. Teacher training in respect of these pedagogies is crucial to modern education and just as students find media motivating, it was suggested that an MIL syllabus might motivate teacher retention in countries where a teaching qualification may be treated as a step towards moving into other professions. Further, the inquiry and authentic problem solving activities central to media and information literacy are not only applicable across the curriculum, they can be used to integrate subject contents and development of competencies in a manner that may streamline teaching and learning.
However, some Expert Group members reported encountering resistance to the development of MIL courses among established teachers and teacher-trainers. It was mentioned that MIL is marginalized in teacher training institutions and in schools by lack of engagement with context of students’ lives and low awareness of the impact of changes in media availability. An additional factor often mentioned was that the curriculum in schools, as well as teacher training institutions, is already overloaded. Thus it will be important to develop a strategy that influences adaptation and implementation of the MIL curriculum by decision-makers by demonstrating how MIL can be integrated into existing teacher training programmes rather than being a stand-alone addition.

Purposes of a Media and Information Literacy Curriculum


The Expert Group deemed the purposes of a media and information literacy syllabus to be:

  • promotion of understanding of the functions of the media, its potential and limitations,

  • promoting critical autonomy in the use of media,

  • strengthening the capacities, rights and responsibilities of individuals vis à vis the media, and

  • facilitating access to, and the creative and productive use of, information and communication technologies.

In discussion, it was suggested that through these purposes, MIL is also a vehicle for the development of local and cross-cultural understanding, educational opportunities, and the democratization of society at large. On an individual level it promotes personal fulfilment, social inclusion, employability, and adaptation to change. One facet of the employability factor related to the commercial value of media products, goods, and services, usually emphasised in university education for the media professions. As one participant pointed out, the economic implications of MIL, particularly those around communication abilities, may be attractive to decision makers. Further, the possibility of MIL having agency status was raised with the question, “If young people understand ethical responsibilities associated with producing media messages, what will they be able to achieve as journalists of the future?” A note of caution was sounded at this point since there is no evidence that media and information literacy education will have all the expected effects. This suggests that when trialling the curriculum with trainee teachers, empirical evidence of effects on their learning and teaching practice should be gathered.
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