Org Member Spotlight: Media Smarts

MediaSmartsThis month, Emily Bailin, NAMLE Student Leadership Council Member, interviewed Matthew Johnson, Director of Education for MediaSmarts, Canada’s center for digital and media literacy. Matthew explains the mission of Media Smarts and describes the many resources available through their organization.

EB: When did your organization launch and why?

MJ: MediaSmarts (originally known as Media Awareness Network) came out of a TV violence initiative launched by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1990s. The organization started life in 1994 under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada. We were incorporated as an independent entity in 1996, under the leadership of a volunteer board that then, as now, included representatives from leading Canadian media companies, government, and the education, library and not-for-profit sectors.

In 2009, MNet embarked on a three year process which culminated in the release of our new brand “MediaSmarts” in May 2012. MediaSmarts was our final choice because it succinctly gets to the core of what we’re all about: critical thinking about media. We live in a wired world today: kids are using a wide range of digital devices, and adults can’t keep up. So how can we make sure that our kids are safe, but also savvy and informed? In the same way we teach them “street smarts,” we now need to teach them “media smarts.”

EB: What does your organization do? What are your main goals and main projects?

MJ:  Our mission is to ensure that children and youth have the critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens. To achieve this we develop and deliver digital and media literacy resources for parents and teachers; provide leadership in advancing digital and media literacy in Canadian schools, homes and communities; and contribute to the development of informed public policy on issues related to media.

Our main projects are our Lesson Library, which includes hundreds of lessons on a wide range of media literacy and digital literacy topics for students between kindergarten and Grade 12, all of which are linked to the formal curricula of the different provinces and territories; our ongoing research project Young Canadians in a Wired World, currently in Phase III, which focuses on Canadian students’ online experiences (while also studying parents’ and teachers’ attitudes towards and experiences with digital technology); our website articles, backgrounders and tip sheets that provide key information about media literacy and digital literacy to parents, journalists, researchers and policymakers; and our interactive digital literacy games and professional development resources.

EB: What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?

MJ: What’s probably most distinctive about MediaSmarts is that we have a specifically Canadian outlook: everything we do is created in both English and French and links to the curricula of the different provinces and territories, and it’s based both on specifically Canadian approaches to media literacy and on our own research with Canadian youth.

Another consequence of working from a Canadian context is that we don’t take a youth protection approach to media or digital literacy, but focus on empowerment instead. We’re careful always to take a positive approach, recognizing the important and valued roles that media play in young people’s lives. Everything we do is aimed not on shielding youth from media influences but on making them engaged, critical, and active consumers. Similarly, our digital literacy programs focus on helping kids take control of their digital lives and be proactive in shaping the values of their online communities.

EB: Are there any recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?

MJ: Our most recent project is Use Understand & Create: A Digital Literacy Framework for Canadian Schools, a comprehensive suite of lessons and resources that provides teachers and parents with a comprehensive, holistic digital literacy curriculum organized into six overlapping key concepts: Ethics and Empathy, Privacy and Security, Community Engagement, Digital Health, Consumer Awareness and Finding and Verifying. This project also represents a major step in integrating digital and media literacy by taking traditional media literacy skills and issues, such as decoding advertising and dealing with body image and gender representation, and applying them towards digital environments such as advergames, virtual worlds and social networks. The theoretical underpinnings of this project are provided by our research paper Mapping Digital Literacy Policy and Practice in the Canadian Education Landscape, written for us by Michael Hoechsmann and Helen DeWaard of Lakehead University, which provides a survey and synthesis of the different approaches to digital literacy education in different provinces and territories and identifies best practices already in place, as well as providing suggestions for the future of digital literacy education in Canada.

Another recent project is Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online, which provides parents and teachers with a variety of tools – including a training workshop, parent and youth tipsheets, and classroom lessons – to understand how young people’s moral and ethical thinking develops as they get older and how that relates to what they do online. Understanding the different levels of moral reasoning that youth progress through as they age is essential to knowing how to approach questions of ethics and responsibility with them: advice that resonates with an eight-year-old will not only not work but will likely backfire with a teenager.

EB: What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?

MJ: Media literacy is the absolute core of everything we do. All of our resources are aimed at providing youth – either directly or through parents, teachers and other sources – with the media literacy and critical thinking skills they need to be engaged and thoughtful consumers of media. We have also been a part of the effort to get media literacy, and now digital literacy, into the formal curriculum of each Canadian province and territory, and a lot of what we do is highlighting for teachers where those are already found in the curriculum they’re teaching to students.

EB: Why is media literacy important to you?

MJ: Media literacy is an essential skill for all of us, adults and youth alike. That’s been true for decades, and the arrival of networked and especially portable devices makes it even more so: besides the steady rise in how much time we spend with media continues, the explosion in sources of media makes it more essential than ever that we use media mindfully and engage with it with a critical spirit, informed by the key concepts of media literacy. As more and more of our media is delivered via digital means – and as we increasingly become media creators as well as consumers – it’s becoming increasingly vital that youth learn not just the skills traditionally associated with digital or information literacy, such as the ability to find and evaluate information, but those relating to good digital citizenship such as the ability to recognize and avoid the “empathy traps” of online communication, an awareness of their right and power to promote positive values in their online environments, and the habits to balance their online and offline lives and to  manage the media influences of both interactive and broadcast media.

EB: Do you have any thoughts on how Canada and the U.S. can work together to spread media literacy?

MJ: There’s a long tradition of Canadian and U.S. media literacy organizations working together, dating back to the help provided by the Association for Media Literacy to American media education efforts in the 1990s. Since that time, organizations from the two countries have continued to share research and resources, since most of the challenges and best practices of media literacy don’t stop at the border. In recent years social media has made it much easier for organizations in the two countries to keep in touch. In the future, we hope to see more direct collaboration between Canadian and American organizations, perhaps using the model of Canada’s Media Literacy Week which allows collaborators to make their own contributions to a shared event.

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