Interview with Renee Hobbs:
Media Literacy for the 21st Century
Dr. Hobbs is Professor and Founding Director, Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island and Director, Media Education Lab
By Fran C. Blumberg, PhD
Division of Psychological & Educational Services, Fordham University
Dr. Renee Hobbs
Q: What do you see as vital 21st century media literacy skills for today’s student, particularly at the middle and high school level? For their instructors?
Digital and media literacy is an expanded conceptualization of literacy. There is a constellation of 5 inter-related competencies that are now needed to participate in contemporary culture. Both students and teachers need tese competencies, which are acquired as part of a lifelong learning process. These include:
ACCESS skills, including foremost among them listening skills and reading comprehension, but also keyboard, mouse and interface skills, understanding hyperlinking and digital space, and using effective search and find strategies.
ANALYSIS skills include the ability to identify the author, purpose and point of view of a message; evaluate credibility and quality; and recognize and resist stereotypes. To advance analysis skills, especially at the post-secondary level, it’s important to build knowledge of how power relationships shape how information and ideas circulate in culture, considering the economic, political and social context. However, when it comes to analysis skills, most people think they’re quite competent. But as Ezther Hargittai has shown, there are substantial skill gaps between people who claim to be effective Internet users. I have found that many instructors at the high school and the college level remain woefully ignorant of the economics of the Internet and few can explain how Google produces a list of hits when you enter various keywords.
CREATE & COLLABORATE competencies are fundamental to digital and media literacy, as people must be able to brainstorm and generate ideas, work collaboratively to create messages using language, image, sound and digital forms like curation and remix, using feedback to edit and revise. Today, you’re media literate if you can write a press release, compose a tweet, and create and upload a YouTube video. You also need to have a strong command of how to use rhetorical strategies to inform, persuade and entertain in both online and offline real-world composition contexts.
REFLECT and TAKE ACTION skills are metacognitive competencies, as people knowledge the power of communication to maintain the status quo or change the world; consider the potential risks and harms of media messages; and understand how differences in values and life experience shape people’s media use and their message interpretation. People who reflect and take action apply ethical judgment and social responsibility to online communication situations and understand how concepts of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are reshaped by digital media. A media literate individual also appreciates and respects legal rights and responsibilities (copyright, intellectual freedom, fair use, attribution, etc.) and is active in participating in advocacy and self-governance at the local, regional, national and international levels, using the power of information and communication to make a difference in the world.
Q: How would you characterize the success of current media literacy education programs in place at the pre-college level?
There is a robust spirit of experimentation now underway in K-12 schools, as elementary and secondary educators discover how to introduce these competencies to children and youth. There’s a significant and substantial international community as well, and this developed even before the European Commission mandated that media literacy be measured and assessed in all European nations. We have come a long way, baby! Truthfully, twenty years ago, the scholarly and professional literature largely consisted of advocacy-based exhortations to explore or experiment with media literacy education. Now practitioners, advocates, artists, media professionals, community leaders and researchers from a wide range of fields – including education, communication and media studies, psychology, public health and more – have implemented a vast number of projects large and small in a variety of school- and non-school contexts, documenting their work and beginning to contribute to a knowledge base of best practices.
We’re learning even more from documenting and interrogating the many challenges, failures and problems that occur when media literacy education sometimes doesn’t work as expected. Right now, it’s challenging to keep up with the research because it’s published across so many disciplines. The number of dissertations produced that explore media literacy programs and pedagogies have exponentially increased in the past five years. It’s been exciting to see large philanthropies, like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, investing in exploring digital and media literacy educational practices that connect classroom to culture. There’s a real “gee-whiz” tone to a lot of new work in this field. As it did in the early 1990s, the field again faces the challenge of coherence, which means that stakeholders need to recognize and respect the many ‘flavors’ of digital and media literacy that occur in the United States and around the world. Media literacy in an urban public school is going to look different than media literacy in an affluent, well-resourced school, which will look different from a media literacy afterschool or library program. Chinese media literacy and Middle Eastern media literacy are going to look different that what we see in Brazil, Canada, Great Britain or the United States. There’s no one “right way” to do it.
Q: What are some take-away messages for media literacy education that you have found from your own research?
Respect educators’ diverse motives for engaging in media literacy education. I’m probably best known for my work examining the fault lines in media literacy education, the “great debates” that reflect the tensions, paradoxes and contradictions among practitioners, theorists, advocates and researchers. It’s a remarkably diverse community, with a complex interplay of motivations that bring stakeholders to care about advancing the knowledge, skills and habits of mind that are needed to navigate in a media-saturated society. Most educators are driven by a mix of protectionist and empowerment motives, wanting to limit the negative potential impact of life in a media-saturated society and also wanting to enable children and young people to take full advantage of the many benefits that come from being an active, engaged producer and consumer in a dynamic, media-centric culture. I have recently developed a 48-item online questionnaire that helps educators identify and reflect upon their motives for implementing digital and media literacy education. We expect that this work will help us understand how to tap into teacher motivation to improve the quality of professional development programs in the field.
Recognize the robust relationship between media literacy and literacy. My research has explored how learning to analyze advertising, movies, news media and popular culture supports the development of reading comprehension and writing skills among adolescents. Recently, I have also discovered that very young children can engage in active reasoning about their favorite media and that these practices are associated with academic achievement. Many children who are still learning decoding and print comprehension skills can actually engage in media analysis and discussion skills at a much higher level, when they can activate their considerable funds of knowledge about mass media and popular culture to the practice of “asking critical questions about what you watch, use, see, play and read.” That’s why media literacy is a vital component of addressing the engagement/motivation gap that’s such a powerful obstacle to many children’s success in school.
Respect the ‘messy engagement’ that comes from tapping into students’ engagement with digital media, popular culture and mass media. Media literacy pedagogy creates high levels of motivation and engagement as students make connections between the classroom and the culture. But it also disrupts traditional school hierarchies that position the teacher as the sage of the stage. Talking about mass media in school, for example, raises issues about “what’s appropriate” for children and young people of different ages. The best media literacy instruction occurs when teachers use inquiry with authentic, current issues that are occurring in the community and happening popular culture radar screen right now. This often creates unpredictable situations that require that a teacher be able to use improvisational teaching techniques, akin to jazz performance. Talking with undergraduate students about Kony2012 will likely lead to a complex, multi-faceted conversation that may be hard to control. Good media literacy teachers play in harmony with student voices and use their perspectives to deepen knowledge and skills in a climate of mutual trust and respect.
Advance knowledge in the field through robust university-school partnerships. I am committed to the goal of ensuring that every American student gets some exposure to digital and media literacy education during the K-12 years. University-school partnerships are perhaps my signature style that I have been using ever since the early 1990s, when I spent three years with a group of 30 elementary and secondary teachers in the Billerica, MA public schools. I’m not keen on ‘one-off’ projects in media literacy as this work generally creates unreliable evidence that often fails because it ignores the many contextual and situational factors that enable or discourage educators from implementing the instructional practices of media literacy education. If the field is to move forward, educators and researchers must be true partners in developing the knowledge base of the field.
Q: What do you see as the best models to explore creation, consumption, and analysis of media?
These days, I’m keen on cultivating students’ intellectual curiosity through digital and media literacy education. One activity I use in my “Mass Media and Children” course for undergraduates asks students to find a YouTube video that features children. Students select a video that interests them. Then they analyze the video using the 5 critical questions of media literacy: (1) Who is the author and what is the purpose? (2) What techniques are used to attract attention? (3) What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented? (4) How might different people interpret this message? (5) What is omitted? Next, students create a screencast, using a simple free screencast tool like Screencast-o-Matic or Snag It. Essentially, they turn their analysis into a script that they perform, while showing bits of the YouTube video they’re talking about. They publish it online. You can see an example here. This activity explicitly connect access, analysis and media composition skills. Finally, students work with a partner to generate a list of research questions that might be explored in relation to the videos they have selected and analyzed. This encourages reflection and taking action and activates student engagement.
As a professor, I want to help young people develop intellectual curiosity through digital and media literacy education. That means I try not to dump all my own knowledge on students through lectures and readings. Instead, I try to create a robust learning environment where students can self-direct and ‘own’ their own learning in the context of a collaborative knowledge community. I will look forward to dialogue with members of APA Division 46 as we seek to improve the quality of teaching and learning about media psychology and technology in higher education.
Q: How would you describe the digital divide? Do you believe there is a Digital Divide?
The most significant digital divide occurs as a result of differences among parents in how the Internet, social media, television, news media, and videogames are used in the home. A child who grows up with a mom who is on her cell phone constantly using Facebook and Twitter will want to use social media tools at an early age. A child who grows up where the Internet is mostly a resource for downloading music and watching dance videos on YouTube will have a different set of knowledge and skills than a child who grows up in a household where parents read a print newspaper and use the Internet to gather information about questions that occur in the context of daily life. Differences that begin in early childhood are likely to widen during the elementary years in schools where technology is used mostly for games or drill-and-skill learning. That’s why I am so committed to advancing digital and media literacy in elementary education, and my new book with David Cooper Moore, Discovering Media Literacy: Digital Media and Popular Culture in Elementary School (Corwin/Sage, 2013) documents what we learned from a three-year project we implemented in Philadelphia elementary schools.
Q: What do you predict will be the major challenges in media literacy education over the next 5 years? 10 years?
I think one major challenge will be connecting the dots between ACCESS, ANALYZE, CREATE, REFLECT and TAKE ACTION. This “big tent” vision of digital and media literacy education may, in fact, be simply “too big to know,” as David Weinberger has put it. The education bureaucracy is addicted to chunking up complex competencies into discrete, bite-size units, since it’s easier to measure bits of knowledge and isolated skills. For these reasons, educators sometimes choose a small piece of the media literacy pie – like analyzing credibility, for example—and then reduce it to a stupid checklist.
Plus, our fetishizing tendencies with technology and our tendency to seek simple solutions means some people may confuse using MOOCS, Smartboards or Flipped Classroom videos with the more complex nuances of expanding the concept of literacy. We must address this challenge more directly in the years to come.
A major challenge of media literacy education in higher education will be to create truly interdisciplinary training for the next generation of educators, scholars, researchers and advocates. It’s no longer enough to major in communication or education or media studies or media psychology or public health or information studies. That’s why I have moved to the University of Rhode Island to become the Founding Director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media, a new school that brings together programs in journalism, public relations, film/media, communication studies, writing & rhetoric, and library & information studies. Many faculty in our programs specialize in exploring the pedagogy of teaching communication, writing, film/media and information literacy and my colleague Julie Coiro in URI’s School of Education is a leading researcher in the area of online reading comprehension. All across the country, we need to work in a more interdisciplinary and collegial way, and one dimension of this will be the creation of new graduate and undergraduate programs that enable students to explore the synergistic connections between the disciplines.
Selected Publications by Renee Hobbs
Hobbs, R. & Moore, D.C. (2013, in press). Discovering media literacy: Digital media and popular culture in elementary school. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin/Sage.
Hobbs, R. (2013). The blurring of art, journalism and advocacy: Confronting 21st century propaganda in a world of online journalism. I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 8(3), 625 – 638. (Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University)
Hobbs, R. (2013). Improvization and strategic risk taking in informal learning with digital media literacy. Learning, Media and Technology, 38(2), 1 – 28.
Hobbs, R. & RobbGrieco, M. (2012). African-American children’s active reasoning about media texts as a precursor to media literacy. Journal of Children and Media 6(4), 502 – 519.
Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action. Washington, D.C.: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute.
Hobbs, R. (2008). Debates and challenges facing new literacies in the 21st century. In Sonia Livingstone and Kristin Drotner (Eds.), International handbook of children, media and culture. London: Sage(pp. 431 – 447).
Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the media: Media literacy in high school English. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hobbs, R. (2006). Non-optimal uses of video in the classroom. Learning, Media and Technology 31(1), 45 - 50.
Hobbs, R., Ebrahimi, A., Cabral, N., Yoon, J., & Al-Humaidan, R. (2011). Field-based teacher education in elementary media literacy as a means to promote global understanding. Action for Teacher Education 33, 144 – 156.
Hobbs, R. & Frost, R. (2003). Measuring the acquisition of media literacy skills. Reading Research Quarterly 38(3), 330-354.
Hobbs, R. (1998). The seven great debates in the media literacy movement. Journal of Communication, 48 (2), 9-29.