As devices flood schools, some want to do more to teach children – and teachers – media literacy

Digital Media Class at Stewart Middle School

Pending legislation in Washington state could give teachers free access to resources that would help them make students more media literate and help them grow into good citizens of the digital world they’ll inherit.
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Pending legislation in Washington state could give teachers free access to resources that would help them make students more media literate and help them grow into good citizens of the digital world they’ll inherit.

Kids are bombarded with information from digital media around the clock.

“Screens wake us up in the morning. They send us off to school,” says Linda Kennedy, a former Seattle television journalist who now offers media literacy education. “They sneak in a bit of fun when the teacher isn’t looking. They welcome us back home, join us for supper, entertain us in the evening and send us off to bed.”

Schools have embraced the promise of electronic devices to open new windows on the world for students. Preschoolers are using iPads, and some school districts are working toward what’s known as a 1:1 policy — ensuring there’s a laptop, netbook or tablet in the hands of every student.

But kids — and their teachers — need help navigating the constantly changing online environment.

Last year, Washington lawmakers approved a measure that convened a panel of media, information and education experts to come up with recommendations for schools. This year, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, has sponsored follow-up legislation that would build on their advice.

Senate Bill 5449 would:

▪ Require development of a model policy to better support digital citizenship, media literacy and internet safety in schools.

▪ Commission a statewide survey of teacher-librarians, principals and school technology directors to understand how they are currently integrating digital citizenship and media literacy education into their curriculum.

▪ Create a website with links to successful practices already used in schools, along with curriculum and other resources for teachers.

The legislation has already passed in the state Senate and is being considered in the House.

It was something we needed to tackle, and we could do it in a way that does not put a burden on districts.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood

At schools like Stewart Middle School in Tacoma, students not only consume digital media, they create it.

The newly remodeled Stewart contains a well-equipped production studio, where teacher Teri Harris offers classes on digital media and video production. Harris, a former photojournalist, runs the “Panthers Now” broadcast team, which records video news and announcements for the school, some of which are also broadcast on local public television. They hope to be able to broadcast live in the future.

In other classes, students build their own websites. And in social studies and language arts classes, students are learning online research techniques — including how to question what they find online.

Harris finds the digital world a great place in which to teach — not only technical skills, but also skills they will be able to use as future employees and responsible members of their community.

Her students learn to “collaborate and work together to create a product their peers will see.” Their productions give students a voice, including everything from a weekly sports wrap-up to a “joke of the week” segment.

“It’s about them — it’s their content,” Harris said. “They are also creating community at their school.”

Harris said other schools may be equipped with the technology to run similar programs. But they don’t always have the staff with technical expertise or professional experience in media and communications, she adds.

It’s about them — it’s their content. They are also creating community at their school

Teri Harris, Stewart Middle School teacher

Mindful of the larger education funding debate that’s going on in the Legislature, Liias said he focused this year’s legislation on “the lowest cost ideas” from the experts’ report, which was issued in December.

The goal, he said, is to “take the best practices that are happening in school districts and share them with everybody, post them on a website, so everybody in the state will have free and open access to them.”

Sen. Liias said he became interested in the concept of teaching kids to be better citizens of the digital world after a visit from Edmonds media literacy educator Claire Beach.

“She said it was something we needed to tackle, and we could do it in a way that does not put a burden on districts,” he said. “I didn’t want to create another unfunded mandate.”

State officials estimate the proposed bill would cost the state just over $32,000 for the next two years — including the one-time cost of the survey. Annual costs are estimated at $7,000 between the years 2019 and 2023.

Beach, part of the advisory group that came up with the December report, told the House Education Committee this month that Washington is leading the way on this issue, with six other states considering similar legislation. She said teachers and students are hungry for information about media literacy.

Marilyn Cohen, director of the Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy and an emeritus faculty member at the University of Washington, also served on the advisory committee. She’s also a member of a group, Action 4 Media Education, that supports the legislation.

She said students need teachers to guide them through the flood of information that’s coming at them every day. While schools and parents have grasped the importance of keeping kids safe in cyberspace, educators also need to know how to help kids harness the power of the online world for positive ends.

How do students interpret information they find online? That goes to the heart of media literacy

Marilyn Cohen, Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy

“How do students interpret information they find online?” Cohen said. “That goes to the heart of media literacy.”

She said a 12-state study of students from middle school through college found that kids know less about what they find on the web than parents and teachers think.

“People assume that they are fluent in social media, that they’re savvy about what they find,” Cohen told the House committee. “Our research shows the opposite.”

Cohen said problems arise when adults put devices into students’ hands without giving them the tools to analyze and evaluate what they are looking at. Even younger teachers, who — like their students — have grown up in a digital world, may lack knowledge about how to interpret what they find online, Cohen said.

She said educators have an obligation to teach students how to be critical consumers and thoughtful producers of their own media. But she said funding for teacher training in this area is “very minimal.”

Funding isn’t part of this year’s digital citizenship legislation. But Cohen and other supporters of the bill say they are hopeful that it will come soon.

“We’re seeing thousands of devices being delivered into our schools,” Cohen said. “We are in a revolution.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo