Educators, Please Stop Confusing Media Literacy with Ed Tech

About a year ago, I emailed an old teacher and asked if I could teach a media literacy elective at my middle school alma mater. Was this a cocky proposition? Perhaps. But worth a try, I figured. He was very kind in his response -- a distant "maybe" -- but he said something offhandedly in the email that stuck with me. He conflated their school's "use of tablets" with media literacy.

Since then, I have heard a number of well-meaning educators toss out the term "media literacy" when discussing ed tech and digital learning. Understandably so, as they are deeply intertwined. However, they are not the same. In attempting to find a way to articulate the differences, I stumbled across this thought from Henry Jenkins: "To reduce the new media literacies to technical skills would be a mistake on the order of confusing penmanship with composition." He goes on to explain that, although computer labs have replaced the archaic typing classroom, media literacy is still notably absent in most places. "Students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world" (Jenkins 2009, 30).

In many cases, misusing educational terms is inconsequential. For example, if a teacher does a good job of teaching to different learning styles, it doesn't matter if she calls the practice "differentiation." However, to conflate media literacy with technology use in schools strikes me as a dangerous misunderstanding. By offering high-quality tech programs in our schools, we are handing students the tools to consume even more media than before. We encourage them to use Google Images and search YouTube to find compelling videos, but we haven't given them any tools to analyze all this media. In many cases, students have no idea how to be critical about what they consume. They take what they see at face value.

That's where media literacy comes in. It encourages students to deconstruct media messages, and ask the following questions: Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently? What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? Why is this message being sent?

That's not even close to teaching them how to use tablet apps or Google Docs. Although Google Docs may be a more important skill for workplace success, media literacy builds deeper critical thinking skills that students can apply well beyond their tenure as students.

Thus, I ask schools to pause for a moment before assuming their students are media literate because they know how to use new technology. After all, some kids can code their own apps, but are clueless when they see harmful stereotypes on television. Ed tech may be slightly sexier than media literacy, but let's try to teach both, shall we?