Classroom Technology Q&A

Media Literacy for ‘Empowerment and Protection': Q&A With Renee Hobbs

By Sarah Schwartz — November 07, 2017 7 min read
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The Iluminati, the “faked” 1969 moon landing, reported alien sightings: These aren’t generally topics that come up in the average high school social studies or English class.

If they do, teachers may feel compelled to dismiss them and hurriedly move on to more reputable sources of information.

But there can be instructional value in teaching students about far-fetched claims pitched as news, or even conspiracy theories, says Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communications and Media. Hobbs is also the director of the Harrington School’s Media Education Lab, a research hub and educator resource for teaching media literacy.

"[W]hen teachers and school librarians make all the choices for students, students never get the chance to learn how to make good choices for themselves,” she wrote in an article published earlier this year in Knowledge Quest, the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. Challenging students to evaluate loosely-substantiated claims teaches source evaluation and bias detection, she argues.

Hobbs is also a member of the steering committee for Media Literacy Now Rhode Island, one of the organizations that advocated for Rhode Island’s recently passed digital literacy education law. The state is one of several to recently implement legislation requiring teachers to teach media literacy, preparing students to identify “fake news” and misinformation online.

All of these issues are front and center over the next few days during Media Literacy Week. The third-annual series of events, webinars, and virtual discussions aims to highlight the importance of media literacy and its role in K-12 and higher education. The program is arranged by the National Association for Media Literacy Education and sponsored by Twitter, Facebook, and other corporate partners.

Hobbs spoke with Education Week by phone from Media Literacy Week’s kick-off event in New York City, where she led a workshop on teaching conspiracy theories and determining validity. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In many ways, media literacy isn’t a new idea. Teachers have been demonstrating how to identify and analyze media bias and propaganda for years. But the internet and social media have overwhelmed today’s teenagers with information, often from politically polarized viewpoints. What skills do students need to navigate this new media landscape, and how should educators change or update their approach to teaching media literacy?

One thing that teachers are doing is they’re bringing in the artifacts of the social media landscape as an object of inquiry. Today I just talked about conspiracy theories and my article in Knowledge Quest from the Association of School Librarians. Bringing in a conspiracy theory in order to deconstruct and analyze it: That’s one pedagogy that teachers are using.

Teachers are also bringing in examples of memes. Memes spread and share and get transmitted and are created in ways that are different than other forms of expression and communication. There, the basic competency is: Can you ask critical questions about those artifacts in ways that promote intellectual curiosity, deepen analysis skills, and inspire student creativity?

Media literacy tries to build a bridge between the classroom and the living room. Often, students learn—and not just students, but teachers also, when they go through teacher education programs—they learn that there’s stuff that you talk about in school, and stuff that you never talk about in school. There’s stuff that you analyze, and then there’s stuff you just enjoy. Media literacy wants to problematize that. We want you to analyze the stuff you enjoy.

It really builds a learning model where teachers and students are co-learners. For a middle or high school teacher, it’s very likely that she knows less about Snapchat as a platform, as a medium of expression and communication, than her students do. But the teacher doesn’t have to be the expert in the medium. What she has to do is adopt a model of co-inquiry where, as learners together, we’re going to try to understand: What makes a message shareable on Snapchat? What’s a good Snap? How are image and language combined in this medium in ways that reshape meaning? And how can you spread or share information—and misinformation—on Snapchat?

In your book published this year, Create to Learn: Introduction to Digital Literacy, you encourage the development of students as digital authors. How does creating and sharing multimedia texts develop different skills than writing an essay with pen and paper, or giving a class presentation?

One example gives you a sense of the power here. One of the standard activities we use in high school and middle school—and all throughout the curriculum, certainly by grade 3—we’re engaging in the practice of comparison and contrast. It’s a form of analysis that’s pretty standard.

It turns out that some visual media really change the way we think about comparison/contrast. Teachers will often use the classic Venn Diagram to teach about comparison/contrast. But when students are asked to make an infographic to engage in comparison/contrast, they actually end up having to think through the idea of similarities and differences in a way that activates linguistic representation, visual or pictorial information, and spatial information. They find out that where you put the words on the screen shapes the way that the viewer receives it: whether that information is at the bottom, whether it’s in the middle, whether it’s at the top.

Students learn that some visuals kind of shortcut people’s thinking; they’re kind of like a stereotype. In the process of creating an infographic, students become more aware that information and ideas are always constructed by people who have motive, and they’re always selective and incomplete.

Earlier this year, Rhode Island passed a law that requires the state department of education to consider incorporating media literacy into the curriculum. Media Literacy Now Rhode Island, of which you’re on the steering committee, played a big role in advocating for the law. At this point, are there any updates on what that media literacy component will look like, or how it will be integrated across the curriculum?

The passing of the law would never have been possible if it weren’t for the mobilization of teachers, librarians, youth media advocates, and other activists that happened over the five years of the community forming, largely around the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, which is a professional development program for educators that [the Media Education Lab has] been running since 2013. Every year at that event, we get teachers from all across Rhode Island and from 15 or 20 different states as well. Those teachers began to see themselves as part of a community.

The bill itself is very modest. It says that the Rhode Island department of education will consider incorporating media literacy into its basic curriculum. It’s very much a first step. The plan is simply to use the best practices [that we’ve been collecting.] Tonight we have our webinar: What’s already happening with the state of media literacy in Rhode Island, collecting those best practices, and sharing those with the Rhode Island department of education, as a way to say look: Here’s what’s already happening. It’s certanly not happening in ways that reach all children in the state. But, best practices can really inspire other educators and school leaders.

What are some best practices being used by districts?

My first book [Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English], written in 2007, was about a school district in Concord, New Hampshire, where the entire English department got together and said, “We’re preparing our students to be English majors in college, but most of them won’t be English majors in college. Maybe we should think differently about preparing them for life in a complicated, information-dense media world.” That school district’s initiative to bring media literacy into the curriculum is still pretty exemplary.

Since then, there are so many others. [The Journal of Media Literacy Education] just published a really interesting article: A school in Florida, the G-Star School of the Arts, that integrates media literacy into the curriculum through creative expression.

We could say more broadly that succesful programs can be built upon this dialectic of empowerment and protection. Teachers can be motivated by wanting to protect kids from the worst aspects of media culture, and they can also be motivated by wanting to share with students the best aspects of what media and technology bring. Both approaches can be very successful in schools, and it’s really situational and contextual. In the buckle of the Bible Belt in Tulsa, media literacy is going to look different than in does in Brookline, Massachusetts. That’s the way it should be. It needs to be responsive to the community and the culture.

Photo courtesy of Renee Hobbs.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.