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What is 21st Century Media Literacy?

Unless you're 50 years old or older, your attention has turned away from newspapers, magazines, TV and radio and shifted toward internet and electronic delivery of content.

That attention is directed at such diverse areas as using search to find any of the ONE TRILLION sites in Google's index; reading any of the 2.6M articles on Wikipedia; watching some of the 70M+ videos on YouTube; trying to read even a fraction of the 133M blogs; act as one of the 100M users who log on to Facebook daily; or attempt to follow some of the more than 3M tweets sent through Twitter daily.

How can a student possibly think critically about the multitude of competing messages and stimuli generated by that flood of content? How can you teach them to handle it all?

Of course, this flood is being generated by both actual media organizations but more often by the audience, formerly known as consumers, who have also become producers of media. Whether a person creates a blog filled with posts on a given topic (and publishes videos, podcasts, and posts that reference other news articles, blogs or websites) or simply actively comments on a blog's posts or sends out a tweet with a link to one of them, those sorts of participative behaviors result in both the consumption and production of media.

THAT is your biggest challenge in teaching media literacy today: media literacy means learning how to be both a consumer of media and a producer of it.

The question then to answer is, "What does it mean to be media literate today and how can I teach a comprehensive curriculum on this subject?"

Being a literate consumer of media today means a student must be able to determine what is fact, fiction or spin. Teaching that used to be relatively simple when there were only a handful of news outlets, newspapers, magazines and TV shows, but now that anyone can produce media and there are millions of producers, how do students think critically about all of this content at their fingertips?

The current healthcare debate is illustrative of this challenge. Creating my own opinion on this complex healthcare debate has taken an inordinate amount of my time as I skim several dozen blogs, access thought leaders on both sides of the issue and read opposing views along with the cable news channels that support each of them. 

Even after all of that, I still find myself befuddled by the plethora of information and factoids that seem to fly in to my consciousness from everywhere. Just when I have my mind made up on some aspect of the debate, new information (or perspective on it) appears and I question what seemed like something already settled.

That's why I've come forth with this view: Being a literate consumer of media in the 21st century will require significantly higher levels of discernment since the number of "trusted sources," and those that "appear to be trustworthy," have accelerated and are continuing to grow as more and more people learn how to manipulate and message through new media.

Therefore you need to teach, and s tudents must learn:

  • How to determine, not only whether a source is trusted or not, but at what level "trusted" a source can be (e.g., a former treasury secretary who blogs about economics is ostensibly more 'trusted' than a smart, but newly minted PhD in economics from Harvard)
  • How to limit their sources to thought leaders and those higher in 'trust', or a community of trusted people who collectively examine a position or message. Clearly if a student reads a blogger but can't find out much information about that blogger (who he/she works for, why they're writing on this topic, etc.) or if that blogger is writing anonymously, then that is a low trust blog. If a blogger is a former BusinessWeek journalist with several books out and who is blogging on that same topic, she or he might be seen as "high trust"
  • Learning what (and whom) to ignore, and how to shut out the noise. Often ten thought leaders will write about the same news item with only slightly varying perspectives. Is it necessary to read them all? If not, which ones should be chosen?
  • It's also understanding when (and how) to make ones own voice be heard, whether that's actively commenting on a blog or news site, creating a YouTube video, starting a Twitter campaign, or otherwise engaging the creator side of oneself in media delivery around a topic.

Creating and teaching a framework for analysis, and a methodology for thinking about media (regardless of who produces it), is key to understanding what to include and what to exclude in either ones consumption of media or if a student chooses to be a producer themselves.

One way to teach about the weakness that can exist with trusted sources is to shift the student's perspective toward one where they become the producer of media: creating a topic blog, a video or a packaged set of collected links with some persuasive text around them. 

I've done this and smiled when questions burst forth from students: What if people think I'm an expert? How do I find the best sources and cite them? What if those sources aren't trustworthy? I haven't included everything...does that matter?

It's my view that it's as important (if not more important) for each student to understand how to be a producer of media, what choices to make and why, how to make those choices and then ways in which they can present that content in an ethical way. Lastly, what it means to do an objective and thorough job of bringing together all salient points and communicating them in an approachable and clear manner.

In a day when most of us have our attention distributed to traditional media as well as to blogs, social networks, Twitter, news websites, internet video, and the opinions of millions of others, those with whom we're trying to communicate are also feeling this onslaught of media coming at them and that should help you inform students on how they should utilize media production techniques.

Let's say you're a student who needs to deliver a persuasive multimedia report. Some elements to consider include:

  • That the content topic chosen is well researched and cited and, of course, well written
  • The 'container' chosen (i.e., blog, video, podcast, etc) is visually attractive and pleasing to the reader/viewer (this opens up an exciting array of cross discipline teaching)
  • That the content is delivered in an authentic and transparent way (i.e., with disclaimers pointing out one's affiliations which provide readers with an insight in to motivations or that the producer doesn't believe that this work is the de facto authority on the topic)
  • The audience is identified and their media consumption preferences considered (i.e., if it's a fragmented audience of young people, for example, then short and clear videos, blog posts and so forth are the method chosen for delivery) and why the choice was made
  • Lastly, how should the student deliver high signal and low noise communications when you're in a virtual venue? Too often people deliver webinars, are in virtual spaces, publishing podcasts or other media and are simply not cognizant of the fumbling, noisy way that they're delivering their communications (think of watching a webinar with lots of icons on someone's desktop, windows overlapping windows, humma-humma's and um's, and you'll get the idea).

    If there were one thing I could teach to students, it would be how to best deliver and present high value, strong signal, and very low noise communications in a virtual environment, since it is one of the most critical media literate skills they'll need to possess going forward (since they'll be doing significantly more of those sorts of presentations and media communications in their respective futures).

Educating our kids in the positives and negatives of media consumption and production will be one of the most important skills you can give them, especially in a time when students play both roles.


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tnx so much i hope that you can help my research studies about media literacy and its role in the teaching performance of college professor,,,

I agree with this"If there were one thing I could teach to students, it would be how to best deliver and present high value, strong signal, and very low noise communications in a virtual environment, since it is one of the most critical media literate skills they'll need to possess going forward (since they'll be doing significantly more of those sorts of presentations and media communications in their respective futures)."

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