Google announced new curriculum resources associated with its Be Internet Awesome initiative last month that include lessons on how to recognize fake websites and identify the way that those who create media frame their messages by deciding what information to include.
The program is just one of an increasing array of media and news literacy programs that have expanded since the 2016 presidential election cycle in an effort to give students — and their teachers — the skills to approach media messages, videos and images with a critical eye.
A new report from the RAND Corp., however, notes that those programs tend to define media literacy in multiple ways, emphasize different competencies and use different approaches to measure outcomes. As a result, the “dramatically different” ways that media literacy is defined and measured make drawing any conclusions about these efforts difficult.
Why the differences?
One reason for the variety of approaches is because media literacy — and the researchers studying it — represent a range of fields, the report says. These include journalism, political science, library sciences, sociology and public health. The topic can also fit into multiple places in the curriculum including social studies, English or an elective.
The authors recommend more collaboration among experts from these different disciplines, which could “facilitate the identification of a set of common competencies, and even the development of some sets of shared measures,” they write. They also call for the creation of an “interdisciplinary commission” to work toward those goals and gather information on the state of the field nationally.
“It’s kind of an emerging field and so it’s not surprising to me that there’s still quite a bit of variety and ongoing discussion about how to teach it and how to measure the effect of it,” said Jonathan Anzalone, an assistant director and lecturer in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York.
The university’s Center for New Literacy hosts teachers, school leaders and librarians in a summer academy where they gain strategies for teaching students how to evaluate the credibility of news reports and sources. The academy also offers information about new technologies being used to alter and fabricate messages, such as the ability of artificial intelligence to create “deepfake” images and recordings.
“Healthy skepticism — we’re trying to make it second nature to people,” Anzalone said.
Searching for solid assessment plans
The report also discusses the mixture of assessment approaches used in media literacy, which range from self-reports and multiple-choice measures to portfolio assessments and observations of how students interact with media. While self-reported measures are common, the authors write that there are “significant, well-documented drawbacks” to such assessments.
“A measure that asks participants to rate their own competency in evaluating sources should not be interpreted as an accurate assessment of actual competency in that area,” they write. “Additionally, self-report measures are susceptible to social desirability bias; for instance, a student might provide the response they believe their teachers want to see."
But more objective measures are becoming available. The Stanford History Education Group — which drew attention to students’ lack of media evaluation skills in its 2016 study — has developed the skills-based Civic Online Reasoning assessment, which can be given as a pre- and post-test evaluation.
With a grant from the Rauch Foundation to work directly with school districts, Anzalone said measuring student outcomes will become more important. “As we’re engaging more with middle and high school teachers and administrators, we really want to button down a solid assessment plan,” he said.
In addition to educators having different perspectives on how to approach the topic, there is also variation in how states that require media literacy instruction in schools include it in the curriculum.
For some, it's a part of civics. Others include it in English language arts or view the subject as a librarian’s responsibility to teach. And some are linking media literacy — particularly safe and responsible use of social media — to health and sex education.
"What’s still needed is broader buy-in from policymakers and educational leaders to set policies so that [media literacy] ... is an essential part of how we teach."
Senior managing director, Education Development Center
Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit advocating for the subject to be included in state policy, has been tracking 15 media literacy-related bills in 12 states this year. A bill in Colorado passed that will create an advisory committee to focus on implementing media literacy in elementary and secondary schools, and New York passed a resolution that will proclaim this October as Information Literacy Month. Bills in other states are pending.
"What’s still needed is broader buy-in from policymakers and educational leaders to set policies so that [media literacy education] isn't just an optional topic to cover but an essential part of how we teach," said Tony Streit, a senior managing director of the Education Development Center and a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE).
'Perfect cross-curricular topic'
Streit and other experts in the field also say that while these different definitions and approaches to teaching media literacy in schools can be a challenge, they are also strengths.
“While standardizing definitions and outcomes might make it easier to integrate media [or] news literacy into K-12 education and even college programs, by limiting and omitting various viewpoints and approaches, standardization could well stymie the area also,” said Natasha Casey, a communications professor at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.
There are also practical reasons for weaving media literacy skills — what NAMLE outlines as a set of key questions to ask about media messages — across the curriculum, suggested Julie Smith, a communications professor at Webster University in St. Louis and NAMLE board member.
"Schools don't have enough time in the day to offer an actual media literacy course," she said, "and it's a perfect cross-curricular topic, but teachers don't have the training to add these skills to what they're already teaching."
The RAND researchers also note that teaching students to evaluate claims should not be confined to one course.
“This a competency that can be applied in all academic areas, from science to history,” they write. “For [media literacy] to build resiliency to false information in the news media, in politics and elsewhere, it will not be enough to teach students skills that apply to specific areas. Instead, a more significant shift in the way we interact with all information is required.”