By Catherine Burgess
In the recently published JMLE 10.1, Dr. Amy Bach (University of Texas El Paso), Dr. Todd Wolfson (Rutgers University) and Dr. Jessica Crowell (Rutgers University) explore issues surrounding poverty, education and the digital divide while encouraging media literacy educators to consider these scholarship areas to inform their teaching. This month, we interviewed this author team about their research for this paper. You can read their complete work, “Poverty, Literacy, and Social Transformation: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Digital Divide,” on JMLE here.
NAMLE: How did you decide to partner together for this research?
The work presented in our article published in the Journal of Media Literacy Education (JMLE) grows from a research project in which we all participated that was supported by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) to investigate digital exclusion. We, along with two other colleagues, developed several publications from this project. Our article published in the Journal of Information Policy uses a framework of what we term as Digital Human Capital to understand the economic impact of digital exclusion in low-income communities (Bach, Shaffer, & Wolfson, 2013). The article we published in Communication, Culture, and Critique argues that a community’s relationship to communication technology and their ability to see it as a political and cultural tool to fight poverty, inequality, and other forms of oppression is a substantial factor that contributes to broadband adoption in low-income urban communities (Wolfson, Crowell, Reyes, & Bach, 2017).
NAMLE: How did the idea for this paper come about?
The idea for this paper came through discussions together where we each drew from our own disciplinary perspectives and applied them to understanding digital exclusion and the different initiatives developed to address it. Scholarship from the fields of poverty studies, critical educational studies and New Literacy Studies, and qualitative and ethnographic research on the digital divide have much to contribute to broader understandings of digital exclusion. Our research brings these different disciplinary fields into conversation with each other to highlight the complicated intersection between technological, economic, and social exclusion and the ways in which educational processes aimed at mediating the digital divide can either reproduce or alter entrenched social realities.
NAMLE: What do you hope to do with this research in the future?
Most immediately, we plan to incorporate this research into some of the courses we teach in our respective institutions. For example, this work will be used in teacher education courses to further graduate students’ understandings of the possibilities for, and limitations, of technology to be a tool to alleviate poverty, and it will be used in graduate research methods courses to generate discussions about study design and the benefits and drawback of qualitative and quantitative approaches to understanding complex social phenomena. Elements of this work, and some of the previously mentioned work that developed from the BTOP project, are evident in mission and focus of the new Media, Inequality, and Change Center (MIC) that Todd Wolfson and his colleague Victor Pickard have recently launched. This joint initiative between Rutgers University and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania will support research on technology, policy, and social justice and it will connect this research to social movements by partnering with activists locally, nationally, and globally who are working to address social problems related to these topics. More information on the MIC Center can be found here: https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/qa-victor-pickard-and-todd-wolfson-media-inequality-and-change-center
NAMLE: How do you hope this research will contribute to media literacy education?
Media literacy education is important because, as eloquently stated by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (n.d.), it “help[s] individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world” (para. 2). In a world enveloped in media texts, it is essential that people are able to critically deconstruct the multitude of media messages that surround them and that they are able to create their own media texts using the ever-evolving menu of available technological tools. But to what larger end? We hope that our research, which brings different disciplinary perspectives into conversation with each other to understand the digital divide and different initiatives intended to address it, will raise questions for media literacy educators to consider in their work. If research on poverty rejects neoliberal arguments that individualize poverty and frame it as simply the result of a lack of human capital necessary to participate in a capitalist economy, then how does education alone create change? If research by critical literacy scholars identifies a “literacy myth,” or the belief that literacy alone can create broader social change, a belief which is unsubstantiated in research, then how can media literacy and digital literacy initiatives work to interrupt cycles of poverty? Literacy, information technologies, and media and digital literacy initiatives can be used to create social change, but they must be used in ways that critically engage and mobilize people to organize and agitate for concrete changes that directly improve the lives and working conditions of marginalized individuals and communities. This is how literacy and technology can be transformative. As researchers and practitioners, we believe that critical research can and should inform practice and we deeply believe in the power of education and media to create change in the ways that we address briefly towards the end of our paper published in JMLE.
National Association for Media Literacy Education (n.d.). The core principals of media literacy education. Retrieved from https://namle.net/publications/core-principles/
Bach, A.J., Shaffer, G., & Wolfson, T. (2013). Digital human capital: Developing a framework for understanding the economic impact of digital exclusion in low-income communities. Journal of Information Policy, 3, 247-266.
Wolfson, T., Crowell, J., Reyes, C., & Bach, A. (2017). Emancipatory broadband adoption: Towards a critical theory of digital inequality in the urban United States. Communication, Culture, and Critique.