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Modern Times

How can children gain vital literacy skills in today’s internet, mobile phone and video game era? Aviva Silver says it’s about storytelling.

Modern Times

It was MIT's Nicolas Negroponte who said way back in 1998: "Face it – the digital revolution is over. Yes, we are now in a digital age, to whatever degree our culture, infrastructure, and economy (in that order) allow us. But the really surprising changes will be elsewhere, in our lifestyle and how we collectively manage ourselves on this planet."

We live in a world that has changed radically as a result of the rollout of digital technologies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the development of the media and their permeation of our lives. Their impact is felt most strongly by new generations, whose outlook is shaped by the different media, including social networks, to a greater extent than ever before. Policymakers have become obsessed by 'digital' and national, European and international policies are peppered with 'forward looking' and technology informed approaches, advocating the teaching of coding in schools and warning of the dangers of being left behind in the digital race.

In this article I refocus the debate on 'content' and education. I argue that the general approach to education should be technology neutral. Education should be future proof – it must be based on methods, processes and qualities that will engender curiosity, creativity and the ability to adapt to changing environments and, most importantly, to create new environments. Digital skills are important but are one of many issues pertaining to education – content is the essential element and we need the ability to appreciate, evaluate, criticise, enjoy and demystify it. This should be independent from the media or technology that are used to distribute it. The genuine novelty of digital technologies is enabling users to be creators, reducing the barriers to access and of course facilitating distribution of content.

So any approach should be open and create the necessary conditions for the development of future societal and technological revolutions. I will look at two separate but linked aspects of media literacy and how they are affected by digital technologies:

  • The concept of media literacy (defined by the European Commission as the ability of people to access, understand, create and critically evaluate different types of media, ie. an extension of the classic concept of literacy)
  • The concept of education through media (media as a tool for learning and more specifically the use of opportunities flowing from digital developments to enrich formal and informal education).

Media literacy is not a new concept. Organisations such as UNESCO have worked in this field for many years, funding research and promoting concepts. UNESCO issued the Grünwald Declaration of 1982, which recognised the need for political and educational systems to promote citizens' critical understanding of 'the phenomena of communication'. UNESCO updated the declaration in 2007: "In the light of globalisation and the explosion of ICTs, the Grünwald Declaration was reaffirmed at the international level by experts (information, communication and media), education policymakers, teachers and researchers, NGO representatives and media professionals from all the regions of the world."

Democracy and human rights

UNESCO is also working with UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations), an organisation that was created in 2005. One of its projects is the Media and Information Literacy Clearinghouse, which considers that: "Empowerment of people through information and media literacy is an important prerequisite for fostering equitable access to information and knowledge, and building inclusive knowledge societies." UNAOC sees media literacy as building on 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.

The importance of media literacy in maintaining democracy and human rights is also an element of European policy. The European Commission launched a European policy debate on this in 2006 and put in place a group of experts who drew on experience worldwide and highlighted best practice. This group included members from public bodies and education but also from media industries, and was a starting point.

The EC also enlisted research into various aspects of media literacy; later studies focused on the different levels of media literacy across Europe and the development of tools to assess media literacy levels across a range of ages, education levels, income levels, access levels, and geographic locations. The first EC policy document set out a number of areas where media literacy could be important (commercial communications, audiovisual and ICT).

This expanded to include the concept of media literacy in legislation (the Audiovisual Media Services Directive).

One of the more thorny issues is the inclusion of media literacy in the school curriculum, which has met with resistance from the member states, which want to shape their own education policies. A second group of member state experts was created to look at the issue of media in education.

Media literacy policy is generally based on the notions of empowerment and protection, from identifying propaganda to avoiding cyber-bullying etc. If we look at the research findings, to quote a senior EU official, "Media literacy is like apple pie and motherhood, but it won't win any votes." What should we do and why? Cynics might say that rhetoric in member states about the importance of media literacy is not reflected in curriculum policy. Does this matter? I believe it does.

The internet and social media are omnipresent and at the same time ephemeral. The sheer volume of content requires critical evaluation and appreciation. Children4 need roots and benchmarks to navigate and arrive (safely) at their destinations. How to we achieve this? At the same time, the power of images is undisputed. Young children can decipher complex emotions and situations beyond their ability to read. Harnessing this force to empower children is surely a positive step forward.

 

Getting into film

There are many projects relating to media or film literacy, working with different ages of children to achieve different aims. One I have followed with great interest is Into Film (formerly Filmclub) in the UK, which now reaches over 430,000 children every week through 12,500 free film clubs in schools, colleges and youth groups. This is a project based on a particular type of content – film. As Beeban Kidron, a co-founder and trustee of Into Film, has said: “I think that stories and the telling of stories is the foundation of human communication and understanding and I think that if kids are watching films and asking questions, then the world will eventually be a better place.”

Film clubs are springing up in many countries. Denmark has long had film clubs and Sweden is trialling them. Film Literacy Europe and its partners are coordinating pilots this year in Romania, Spain and Cyprus, funded by the EC. The Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Lithuania and Greece are considering pilots. Each is developing their own model but centred on a curated catalogue of films. The results demonstrate the impact of film literacy and how such initiatives can achieve wider objectives in public policy.

The education landscape is littered with failed initiatives and schools are filled with pupils disengaged from learning. All teachers and pupils know that trying to bring a text or an idea to life in a classroom, several times a day, five days a week can be a challenge. Sometimes, even the best strategies become tired and ineffective. Exceptions appear to be drama, music, art and a great story which, more often than not, engage most pupils most of the time. It’s not surprising then that a well-chosen film that embodies all of these art forms can almost always immediately engage young people.

Stories have always been the foundation on which learning is built. Film is perfect for storytelling, since it deepens the viewer’s immersion and promotes memorable learning. Film encompasses a huge range of stories across humanity, history, geography and language, so why wouldn’t we want this great educational resource available in schools? Film clubs go further, creating a shared experience that immediately leads to discussion following the screening. Teacher feedback shows that children who don’t normally speak up in class, an increasing and worrying trend among teenagers, find themselves naturally offering their opinions on the film and its subject matter unselfconsciously.

As Mark Higham, programme director of Film Literacy Europe and former CEO of Into Film, comments: “Watching such a wide range of films coupled with this interplay between pupils attending weekly film clubs, builds confidence, critical thinking and communication skills that filter back into their other subjects and classes, augmenting what they’ve learnt from the films themselves.”

The shared experience and the range of content are what pupils most frequently report they most enjoy – a healthy counterpoint to the increasingly atomised and sometimes isolating experience that technology in the home and school can mean. It helps pupils become empowered young people, engaged with learning and their own community with an increased understanding of the world around them. In this case, new technologies enable the delivery of a tailored, low cost service for cultural learning on a large scale to millions of young people. This will still require the support of the film industry and licences for schools but means projects could become large-scale networks bringing curated content to millions of young people.

Film clubs are an excellent example of the value of media literacy and indeed many consider that they should be part of formal education. What about the other side of media education – using media for education? I noted that schools are filled with pupils disengaged from learning, and the power of images and stories. They have never known a world without video games, mobile phones and the internet. Have developments in technology changed the way media can be used for education to reengage pupils and foster creativity?

The rollout of digital technologies has multiplied the content available (leaving to one side questions of concentration). Media consumption, and viewing and user habits, have adapted to this new environment. Increasing power of smartphones and tablets have also had an impact (more than 50% of UK and US households now have a tablet).

 

Enter game-based learning

The meteoric rise of video games in all of their incarnations is a key component for media businesses (and YouTube launched a new app and gaming channel this year to compete with services like Twitch). Video games generated more than $23bn in Europe in 2014.5 Game-based learning is also growing, at 21%, and will reach $4.8bn in 2019.

Game-based learning is a term now used in preference to 'serious games', moving on from the idea that learning should only be serious and not entertainment. Games that promote learning through experience and discovery also applies to adults as well as children.

This is one aspect of how education through media can alter the way in which we teach basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. The idea of interactivity in education is not new – a Chinese proverb states: "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." The author James Paul Gee, author of a book on video games and their impact on learning and literacy, begins with: "I want to talk about video games – yes, even violent video games – and say some positive things about them." The author, who is an American professor of education, looks seriously at the positive outcome (from an educational point of view) of playing video games.

Take 'Professor S.', one of the first of a new generation of learning games focused on storytelling, from German firm LudInc. Third and fourth graders explore schoolwork through an interactive time travel web series. The game unfolds over the course of up to two school years, transforming each class into one big adventure. The series contextualises learning content, combining the story of Professor S. with children's real life experiences. Pupils are immersed in an entertaining and mind-enriching narrative, giving a lasting learning experience.

One reason for picking this example is that the game features a media library in which each piece of content is handpicked by experts specifically for the target age group. Films, games, books and merchandise all serve a single purpose: intelligent entertainment. This is a key point – there is so much content that selecting (curating) and transforming it into educational use is arduous.

But the online explosion of media has created a massive demand for age appropriate and high quality, curated content, both from education (schools and teachers) and also from parents and families. This ties in with the film club concept and the need for shared experiences to create memorable learning.

And this brings me to a firm conclusion about content and technology. Content is at the heart of shared experiences be it film, games or education. New technologies can and should be used to serve public policy and indeed for entertainment but without the stories and the shared experiences technology has no meaning and no purpose.

Keep telling stories!

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