One week ago Illinois Governor Pritzker signed HB 234 into law. The bill reads “beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, every public high school shall include in its curriculum a unit of instruction on media literacy”. Illinois joins many other states in the country requiring some form of media/information literacy (although it is not always called that - 'digital citizenship' is one popular alternative and of course, there are myriad interpretations of what media and information literacy and digital citizenship actually mean in practice). Check out Media Literacy Now's map for a national overview. But HB 234 means that approximately half a million public high school students in Illinois will get some media literacy instruction. About time eh?
But before we bust out the cake and candles, let's hit the pause button for a second to take stock of some of the inevitable issues involved.
First, as alluded to above, there are many different interpretations of media literacy (some think it means how to operate a computer or use your phone 'correctly' - this interpretation keeps me awake at night). Helpfully, HB 234 spells it out - "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of objective forms, including, but not limited to print, visual, audio, interactive, and digital texts". It reads like a mix of the standard definition of media literacy as promoted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education with a splash of lawyer/politician fluff (I realize fluff doesn't splash but what the hell does 'using a variety of objective forms' even mean?). Dodgy wording aside, it seems reasonable enough overall.
Next is the question of who will train Illinois' high school teachers in the ways of media literacy. Helpfully, this is also addressed, at least in part, by the state. "The State Board of Education shall determine how to prepare and make available instructional resources and professional learning opportunities for educators that may be used for the development of a unit of instruction under this Section". Hope there are some media literacy experts at the ISBE.
I'm not a high school teacher, nor do I play one on telly, but I imagine they are not overjoyed at the prospect of including one more subject into their already jam packed day. Of course, media literacy can be a stand alone subject, as my undergraduate course is structured, or it can be integrated into existing subjects, something Project Look Sharp does so well (and they offer free materials to teachers).
Other issues regarding the implementation of media literacy by fall 2022 include the severe shortage of teachers in the state (will there even be enough personnel to teach it?), the dodgy working conditions (hello, the pandemic is not over), not to mention the challenges of finding media literacy materials in a wide variety of languages (there are at least 23 other languages spoken by school age children and their families in Illinois including Spanish, Arabic, Polish, Urdu, Tagalog according to the ISBE).
Where is the lemonade amongst these lemons you cry? Of course, America loves its optimism. And this is why we argue.
Of course, I am delighted that my adopted home state has the good sense to introduce media literacy in public high schools. This must only be the beginning though. We need media literacy in every grade (including kindergarten - check out the work of Faith Rogow who has been doing work with early childhood educators for decades now), in every school (public and private), in all languages. Only the country's democratic future rests on it.