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For so long, the focus of media literacy education has been on helping students understand the media they consume. What are the biases? Who owns what outlet? How are news reports produced? But with the rise of new media, perhaps the focus of media literacy education should shift to educating the educators — and other adults — about blogs, podcasts, social networking, mobile content and virtual worlds. That way, adults could relate better to students and help them understand the world in which they are digital natives.

That’s one of my biggest takeaways from the recent Media: Overseas Conversations IV conference I attended in New York last week. About 50 to 100 people went to the conference, and that audience was incredibly attuned to media literacy issues and came from around the world. The panel I moderated on new media and social networking included one professor from the University of Toronto, one from the University of Algarve, Portugal, and one from an academy in Beijing.

Vitor Reia-Baptista, the professor from Portugal, noted on my panel that he was trying hard to educate the educators more about new technologies, so that they could then pass on that knowledge to students — or at least keep up with them. That set off the idea for me that perhaps new media literacy has to begin with the teachers before the pupils.

Jordi Torrent is a filmmaker, media literacy educator, and activist who organized the gathering. In between panels, he told me about his experience working in New York public schools, helping to push more critical thinking of media. He was disappointed that more local teachers didn’t show up at the conference, even though it was in New York for free on a Saturday.

“Because I work in the school system, I see how overtaxed the teachers are,” he said. “When you go to the schools, you see so many people doing incredible work in the classrooms. But they are scared of the new technology; it’s overwhelming them. We would like to teach them with professional development workshops, and the technology is actually getting simpler and easier to use. If they run into questions when teaching [new media], their students would probably have the answers for them.”

One hot-button issue for educators that came up repeatedly at the conference was around the use of copyrighted material and fair use, the exception to the law that allows comment or satire on copyrighted works. Many entertainment companies have been restricting fair use for academics in school, and that makes it very difficult to teach media literacy when you can’t show media examples due to copyright constraints. Documentary filmmakers have been pushing media companies to allow them to use copyrighted material under fair use, so they don’t have to spend countless days getting permission.

The Center for Social Media at American University has an amazing online resource related to fair use, with a report on fair use in online video platforms, as well as a “Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use” by documentary filmmakers. Probably the most entertaining take on copyright law is a video called A Fair(y) Use Tale, put together by Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University. The clip takes snippets of animated dialogue from Disney films to explain how copyright law works. These efforts are paramount in supporting educators so they feel more comfortable teaching new-media literacy without fear of being sued.

Engaging Students on Their Own Terms

Many times during the conference, educators decried the current educational system in the U.S. as being a product of the 19th century, not being innovative and not considering the reality of the wired world for students outside the classroom.

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Jordi Torrent

“A teenager in the U.S. spends between 8 and 10 hours per day engaging in different media,” Torrent told me. “That’s more than double the time he spends on a yearly basis at school, so the first question is, ‘Who is educating, who is informing the teenager — the school or the media?’ The media is outside of school so there’s this division between the reality of [the student’s] life and the school. It’s becoming wider and wider, because school is this isolating place where you never discuss the parallel life [outside]. We need to bring these issues into the educational system so that we radically change the way we think, or we will fail to provide truly meaningful tools for critical thinking. Ultimately we will be at the hands of economic and political interests, which is what rules in media currently.”

Educators are worried that if we don’t teach students to understand the media in their real world, they will not think critically about them and accept whatever is fed to them by commercial and corporate interests. In order to engage students in a critical analysis of what they do with their media time, teachers have to reach students on their terms. One teacher noted that students never come to meet them face-to-face in private meetings at their offices. So instead, she decided to be available at night over instant messaging so students could correspond or ask questions. The tactic worked, and now she has a more open relationship with her students.

Another meme at the conference was about students being “digital natives,” while educators and parents are “digital immigrants.” The concept was first explained [PDF file] by educator and game designer Marc Prensky in 2001:

Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work.

But Digital Immigrants typically have very little appreciation for these new skills that the Natives have acquired and perfected through years of interaction and practice. These skills are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants, who themselves learned — and so choose to teach — slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all, seriously.

Using Manga and Machinima

Prensky says that if immigrants want to teach natives, they will have to change their ways. At the conference, I saw two distinct types of media that might help connect teachers to students: manga comics and machinima.

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Manga comics panel

Manga is the style of comic books that originated in Japan but is now a massive global business. According to Masami Toku, associate professor of art at California State University at Chico, it takes a Japanese teenager only 30 minutes to read a 500-page manga comic book because of their familiarity with the artform. Michael Bitz from the Teachers College at Columbia University discussed his Comic Book Project, passing around comic books created entirely by students. The comic books helped the students explore real-world issues around them such as violence and sexual abuse. That old media example of printed comic books could easily be transferred into having kids create online graphical or multimedia stories.

Another presentation at the conference was devoted to machinima, a form of amateur filmmaking that takes place within videogames. The game makers allow players to modify levels of games, but the players have gone beyond simple game design and created short films on the cheap. One series of machinima, Red vs. Blue, based on the game Halo.

While it might be a bit too technical for the average student to create machinima in a high school classroom setting, I could see how teachers might use machinima to help explain underground filmmaking and the D.I.Y. aesthetic of piggybacking onto someone else’s technology. Youth media usually involves having students create their own audio, video or textual stories, but it might also one day include a way for them to cheaply create their own movies via machinima.

While I marveled at the way many more people could create 3D animations using machinima — instead of the typical Hollywood productions — conference keynote speaker Douglas Rushkoff was not as impressed. The educator and author titled his talk, “Why Johnny Doesn’t Program,” and railed against technology and game companies for forcing people to work within their worlds.

“When kids go in to modify games, they never program them,” he said. “They are restricted to working within the confines of the game, using the skins provided to them. Only very rarely do kids actually create or program games from scratch. Kids are becoming product-specific literate…There’s no germ of actual creation.”

Rushkoff also noted that the Windows operating system forces you to invoke the “wizard” if you want to add a software program, and that corporate interests want to make the Internet more about content than contact. He said that he was initially excited about new media and the democratization of media, but that “fear and money concerns undid the power of programming.”

Despite Rushkoff’s dark vision of the new media world today, and his call on media literacy educators to subvert the current thinking, I did point out during the Q&A that there are still positive changes going on, that open source software is threatening Microsoft’s monopoly and that non-commercial collaboration still happens on projects such as Wikipedia.

Despite the commercialization of the Internet and new media, they still remain places for innovation and creation for anyone with a connection and a bright idea. Hopefully, media literacy education can evolve and help educators and students live in this always-on, hyper-connected world in a more knowledgeable way. And if the educators themselves are educated on new media issues and start to live in the world of their digital-native students — and reach them on their terms — there’s a much better chance for success.

What do you think? Should media literacy classes be required in schools? What’s the best way for teachers and students to learn about new media in a collaborative way? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and tell us about any innovative media literacy programs you have seen or taught.

Photo of Jordi Torrent by Rosana Ferraz.