Media Smarts: Key Concepts of Digital Literacy

NAMLE has had the opportunity to interview Media Smarts for our organizational partner spotlight. Below you will find information on their recent project Digital Literacy 101. 

When did your organization launch and why?

MediaSmarts (originally known as Media Awareness Network) came out of an initiative launched by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1990s. Originally conceived of as a clearinghouse for media literacy teaching resources, we quickly began developing our own material for both teachers and parents as well as conducting original research.

What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?

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 research, including reports on topics ranging from non-consensual sharing of sexts to what encourages youth to intervene when they witness cyberbullying; our website articles, backgrounders and tipsheets 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.

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

What’s probably most distinctive about MediaSmarts is our holistic approach to media and digital literacy. Rather than treating them as separate domains, we view digital literacy as an extension of media literacy that recognizes the continuing importance of the classic key concepts of media literacy – some of which have become even more important, as many digital platforms intentionally obscure how they make money from their users – but also respects the ways in which networked technologies are fundamentally different from the traditional media forms and industries that shaped those original key concepts.

What are recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?

Our most recent project is Digital Literacy 101, a training workshop for teachers that provides an overview of essential digital literacy skills and key concepts of media and digital literacy, familiarizes participants with the digital experiences of Canadian youth, and introduces the resources and tools that are available through MediaSmarts’ USE, UNDERSTAND & CREATE digital literacy framework. This workshop (available in customized versions for K-6, 7-12 or K-12 settings) can be accessed as either a downloadable Powerpoint or self-directed tutorial with audio, and is accompanied by guides, posters and short videos to help teachers integrate digital literacy into their teaching practice.

The core of this project is the development of five key concepts of digital literacy that complement the original key concepts of media literacy:

  • Digital media are networked: In traditional media like TV or magazines, content only flows one way. But online, you’re part of an infinite network – you can connect to others as easily as they can connect to you. You can be part of a community and find or share things with anyone around the world. But everyone else can do that too – and it is just as easy to share fake information as real.
  • Digital media are persistent and shareable: When you’re online, you leave “digital footprints.” Everything you share is stored somewhere – even things that you think are temporary. Other people can also copy, share and spread things you have shared.
  • Digital media have unexpected audiences: It’s hard to control who sees the things you share online. Once something is online, it’s almost impossible to erase it.
  • Interactions through digital media can have a real impact: What we do online can help people or hurt them, and through our actions online, we can choose to help make the world better or we can contribute to making things worse. But because we can’t see people’s faces or hear their voices, we can’t always tell if something we’ve done has made them happy, angry or been hurtful.
  • Digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use: How digital tools like social networks and search engines are designed affect how we use them. Sometimes it’s because of questions the designers didn’t think to ask (like whether a tool might be used to harass people or whether news stories should be treated differently from ads) and sometimes it’s so they can make more money (for instance, social networks are designed to make you use them more often).

 Like the original key concepts, these make digital literacy more accessible to teachers and students by providing central ideas that can be addressed throughout students’ school careers at different levels of sophistication and in different contexts.

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

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.

Why is media literacy important to you?

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 moreso: 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.

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