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Never too Late for a Year in Review (and a 2020 sneak peek)?

I know I’m late to the ‘year in review’ party. But hopefully February isn’t too tardy for a 2019 roundup and you’ll read on.

Although it is more than a little cliched (not to mention impossible) to do any kind of ‘year in review’, let alone one focusing on media and information literacy, it is useful for me at least, to take stock of some 2019 highlights and look forward to some exciting developments slated for 2020. So rather than ‘year in review’, perhaps ‘round-up from my limited perspective’ is more accurate, although not the catchiest-keep-you-reading phrase eh?


2019 was in many ways a banner year for media and information literacy. The release of three reports provided some indication of how active the field is and perhaps more importantly, suggestive of some desire for those outside the field to get a handle on what exactly is media literacy and how/where is it taught, lobbied for, and researched. All three reports took a stab at providing an overview of the field, albeit from very different perspectives. All three also shed light on some of the complexities of categorizing an amorphous field (if ‘field’ can even be used).


The National Association for Media Literacy Education unveiled Snapshot 2019: The State of Media Literacy Education in the U.S. at its biennial conference in Washington, D.C. in June 2019 (full disclosure: I was involved in some of the preliminary report discussions).

The authors noted that their purpose, “ . . . is to inspire dialogue and create momentum to support research, training, practice, and policy efforts needed in order to grow the field of media literacy more fully as we enter 2020 and beyond”. Snapshot is a very explicit term here because as the report says the information is based on a survey taken by over 300 people (mostly white, middle aged, female educators and librarians). But it is a start. I have the wacky idea of building a database to try to help figure out how media and information literacy is being taught across the US but no idea how to start this. Anyone want to help?


Less than a month after the NAMLE snapshot, the ‘nonpartisan’ (only using quotation marks because I’m not sure anything can really be nonpartisan) think tank Rand Corporation published Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay. In reviewing the report journalist Linda Jacobson highlighted some recurring complications observed by the report’s authors. “Programs tend to define media literacy in multiple ways, emphasize different competencies and use different approaches to measure outcomes. As a result, the “dramatically different” ways that media literacy is defined and measured make drawing any conclusions about these efforts difficult”.


One of the most ironic elements of the report for me was although the authors said they included perspectives from many different “media literacy experts” and “leading researchers”, they didn’t name them (although I suspect footnotes and references provide some clues). Given that a basic media literacy question is “who created the message”, this seems like an odd approach to take. Nevertheless the report is worth a read. Some of their recommendations for researchers in the field include “strengthen interdisciplinary communication and collaboration” and you already know how I feel about this.


The third report, U.S. Media Literacy Policy Report 2020: A state by state survey of the status of media literacy education laws for k-12 schools by Media Literacy Now (an advocacy organization that works primarily on media literacy education policy) is a handy overview (as the title implies) of where various state legislative efforts are at, though it is a challenge to keep up with these constantly in flux developments.

Media literacy is defined in this report as ". . . a broad term that encompasses consumption and production of media and digital products and communication technology of all kinds, and is defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and take action with all forms of communication, and encompasses the foundational skills of digital citizenship and internet safety including the norms of appropriate, responsible, ethical, and healthy behavior, and cyberbullying prevention". There are lots of slippery terms, especially in the latter part of that definition. Who defines the norms, what is appropriate and responsible or ethical and healthy? These are not universally agreed upon within media literacy, let alone beyond it.


One of the main challenges identified in all three reports is how media literacy is implemented and taught. What can and does it look like in the classroom? This is where competing definitions of media literacy come into play - a topic that surely could take up its own report! While many see this, the lack of universal ways to ‘measure’ the effectiveness of media and information literacy programs, and the absence of universal standards as the greatest issues in the field, I think these definitional and other differences can be strengths. And while standardizing definitions and outcomes might make it easier to integrate media and information literacy into k-12 education and even college programs, by limiting and omitting various viewpoints and approaches, standardization could well stymie the area.


Too much of the education system is already unwieldy and bureaucratic, and bureaucracies like order and systems but these systems also constrain. Is there a 'best' way for an educator to teach media literacy? Surely it is contextual, dependent on any number of factors including the culture of the institution, how much autonomy the teacher has, what other fields (education, media studies, library sciences) have influenced that practitioner's approach. It worries me whose definitions and views of media and information literacy will be stamped with an 'official' and 'right' way and whose will be left out and why. Standardization might make it easier to implement media literacy in the classroom but it might also result in very watered down and prescribed skills based only versions of it, which I'd hate to see. Often rubrics and learning outcomes focus too narrowly on “measurable” skills when one's media and information literacy should be placed on a knowledge continuum, the lifelong learning idea - there is always room for improvement. I stopped using surveys in my media and information literacy class (a vain attempt to ‘measure’ what students had learned) and instead use their final projects, reflection papers and Twitter takeaways to help provide insight into what they learned. The ‘data’ is unquantifiable and I’m ok with that.


Slight rant over. So what’s ahead in 2020?


The projected 16 month American Library Association initiative Media Literacy Education in Libraries for Adult Audiences will develop further. Glad to see that media and information literacy overlap although definitional discrepancies abound.


There are some terrific upcoming conferences:

April, Illinois, U.S: 19th Annual Information Literacy Summit

June, Illinois, U.S: American Library Association Conference

June, Porto, Portugal: International Media Literacy Research Symposium

July, Colorado, U.S: Digital Pedagogy Lab

October, California: Critical Media Literacy Conference of The Americas the proposal deadline is June 19. This event will surely help fill the void left by the defunct annual International Critical Media Literacy Conference.


Finally, some upcoming media and information literacy books:

Media Literacy in a Disruptive Media Environment - William G. Christ & Belinha S. De Abreu

Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age - Renee Hobbs

Media Literacy in Action: Questioning the Media - Renee Hobbs

I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at the first and last on this list. Both are strong additions to the field and sure to spark debate.


Thanks for reading!

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© 2019 by Natasha Casey

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