Defining 'Media Literacy'

Phrases like 'media literacy' and 'digital learning' are thrown around so frequently now in the world of education that they are beginning to lose their meaning. They encompass a huge range of classroom activities: doing Internet research, using mobile technology, blogging, watching film clips, reading news articles, thinking critically about ads... and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

There are few educators that would argue against the importance of using media and technology in the classroom. One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who thinks reading current events articles is useless or using visual media is irrelevant.

And yet, we have made very little progress in implementing any media literacy curriculum on a national, or even statewide, level. This is partially because of a lack of funding for technological resources. Two years ago, I worked in a public school in Providence, Rhode Island. Even though it was the top school in the city, I still had to wait my turn to use a ten-year-old projector in my classroom. And when I showed my tenth graders a film clip and asked them to think about it, they were taken aback. No one had ever asked them to do that before.

A year after that, I did a stint at a Brooklyn charter school. The scene there was completely different. Each teacher had their own new laptop and projector, among other ed tech gadgets I never even learned to use. However, in the classes I observed, the teachers rarely used the projector for anything but to enlarge a worksheet or show a traditional Powerpoint presentation. This was not the visionary media education that I had heard about.

This made me wonder: why it so hard to make real strides in the world of media literacy?

Many suggest some educators are so far behind the times that the learning curve is too steep -- teachers are far too set in their old ways to do anything truly 'modern.' Others argue that some teachers think visual media and technology water down valuable content.

Although these are factors in certain schools, I tend to disagree with these generalizations. Most teachers want to do cool activities with their students, and many schools are getting the funding to deck classrooms out with everything a teacher could need. The problem is not with the teachers, but with the very definition of 'media literacy' itself. What is it, really? Can we swap the term out with 'digital learning' or 'ed tech' or 'culturally relevant education'? If so, all these terms are essentially meaningless. A student learning how to use an iPad in the classroom is not the same as a student asking critical questions of the messages in television. One is about using the media; the other is about analyzing it. These skills are as different as reading and writing.

Before we can take any steps toward a national media curriculum (like the UK has had for a long time), we need to come to a consensus about the meaning of these words. If the average American can easily articulate the difference between reading and writing, he should also be able to quickly explain why we need media in the classroom. Only then can our students get the forward-thinking education that they deserve.