Aspen Media Literacy Conference Report - Part II:

Posted with permission of the Communications and Society Program of the Aspen Institute, Washington, DC

Procedings and Next Steps

The Aspen Institute Wye Center
Queenstown, Maryland
December 7-9, 1992

Media literacy, the movement to expand notions of literacy to include the powerful post-print media that dominate our informational landscape, helps people understand, produce and negotiate meanings in a culture made up of powerful images, words and sounds.

I. Definition

A media literate person- and everyone should have the opportunity to become one- can access, analyze, evaluate, and produce both print and electronic media. The fundamental objective of media literacy is critical autonomy relationship to all media. Emphases in media literacy training range widely, including informed citizenship, aesthetic appreciation and expression, social advocacy, self-esteem, and consumer competence. The range of emphases will expand with the growth of media literacy.

Just as there are a variety of emphases within the media literacy movement, there are different strategies and processes to achieve them. Some educators may focus their energies on analysis-- perhaps studying the creation and reception of a television program like The Cosby Show, and thus its significance for a mulicultural but racially divided society. Others may emphasize acquiring production skills--for instance, the ability to produce a radio or television documentary or an interactive display on one's own neighborhood. Some may use media literacy as a vehicle to understand the economic infrastructure of mass media, as a key element in the social construction of public knowledge. Others may use it primarily as a method to study and express the unique aesthetic properties of a particular medium.

There have been and will be a broad array of constituencies for media literacy: young people, parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, citizens. And there are a variety of sites to teach and practice media literacy: public and private schools, churches, synagogues, universities, civic and voluntary organizations serving youth and families, mass media from newspapers to television.

But no matter what the project, constituency or site, media educators share some beliefs. Media educators know that understanding how reality is constructed through media means understanding three interacting elements: the production process (including technological, economic, bureaucratic and legal constraints), the text and the audience/receiver/end-user. In a slightly different formulation of the same understanding, they understand some basic precepts in common:


  • media are constructed, and construct reality.
  • media have commercial implications.
  • media have ideological and political implications.
  • form and content are related in each medium, each of
    which has a unique aesthetic, codes and conventions.
  • receivers negotiate meaning in media.


Finally, media literacy educators in principle agree on a pedagogical approach. No matter what the setting or project, but particularly for formal learning, media educators insist that the process of learning embody the concepts being taught. Thus, media literacy learning is hands-on and experiential, democratic (the teacher is researcher and facilitator), and process-driven. Stressing as it does critical thinking, it is inquiry-based. Touching as it does on the welter of issues and experiences of daily life, it is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular.

II. Building on Experience

It is ironic and also understandable that the United States is the premier producer of international mass media, but that media literacy education is only beginning in this country. The United States has a culture fascinated with individualism and with tote potential of technology to solve social problems. Its culture is also pervaded with commercialism such that as one participant argued, it simultaneously produces a "culture of denial" about the cultural implications of commercialism. Media literacy is thus an especially difficult challenge in the United States.

The U.S. experience until recently has been that of a blizzard of idiosyncratic projects, typically driven by the passion of individual teachers and organizers. These include the regional media arts center Appalshop's efforts to rescue regional self-images; the Foxfire teaching experiment; the network building of the National Telemedia Council; individual media literacy courses in schools and universities; programs with teenagers, people in housing projects and prison; civic initiatives in support of the First Amendment; public forums on media influence in conjunction with the industry organizations; the adoption of a Girl Scouts merit badge for media literacy; citizen activism around children's television legislation; cable access programs and practices; youth ministry programs in churches and synagogues; teacher education at the school and district level; and public television programs and outreach activities. Corporate projects and materials, in search of markets for new technologies, have also explored media literacy.

This diversity reflects, among other things, the decentralized nature of U.S. education. In the last several years, leaders in various media literacy arenas have coalesced around basic definitions, approaches and goals for media literacy. This emerging process has been reflected, inter alia, in the creation of the National Association for Media Education, and indeed in the conference itself. The experience of other nations, as well as the history of individual efforts within the United States, may be important to the growth of media literacy here.

A. The Canadian Experience

In Ontario, Canada, teachers built on English and Australian media literacy programs and practices, as well as on academic work in cultural studies. Recently media literacy became a mandated and funded element for grades 7-12, within language arts programs. Integrating it into formal schooling gave it unparalleled legitimacy. Currently Canadian media education organizations are lobbying in other provinces to repeat the Ontario initiative.

Elements of the Ontario success story include:


  • a grassroots base with teachers, who first experimented with media literacy and then pressured provincial educational authorities to mandate it in the schools, specifying a percentage of time to spend on the subject in different grades;
  • active support from boards of education;
  • in-service training;
  • consultative staff for teachers;
  • publishing of textbooks and teacher-support materials;
  • professional organizations;
  • using evaluation methods that do justice to the processes implicit in media literacy activities;
  • collaboration between teachers, parents, researchers and media professionals.


B. The German Experience

In Germany, media literacy or "media competency," as it is termed, is a voluntary program in the schools, mostly for grades 5-10. It has a broad mandate, with the following specific goals:


  • to compensate for negative media effects.
  • to lead students to reflective reception.
  • to educate students to authoritative use of all media.
  • to encourage students to create media themselves


Germany's media education is beset with the usual limitations of a voluntary program, including poor teacher preparedness (at most a third of teachers get university training in media). Textbooks and ample support materials do exist, although they are not typically tailored to particular age groups or subjects. Media competency classes are now extending beyond an initial focus on electronic media to all information technologies, from books to computers. Also relevant is a mandatory curriculum in computer-information technology, exemplary in its integrative approach joining technological with socio-political concerns.

C. Initiatives in the United States

Within the United States, both in-service and pre-service programs for teachers have attempted to put media literacy on the curricular agenda. In-service efforts are de-centralized and diverse, offered variously by such groups as Educational Video Center in New York, Strategies for Media Literacy in San Francisco, Center for Media and Values in Los Angeles, Southwest Alternate Media Project, the National Council of Teachers of English and other. The 1993 Institute on Media Education, supported by Harvard Graduate School of Education and drawing on the expertise leading U.S. media literacy activists, is an example of training that also deepens institutional commitment to the approach.

As well, an adaptable and successful model for teacher training is the experience of the National Writing Project for English teachers, a project of the National Council of Teachers of English. The Project is an in-service, intensive teacher training summer program that is community-Based and stresses learning by doing. This voluntary program reaches veteran teachers who want to learn better both how to write and teach, and both builds on and creates a community of reference for them.

Perhaps the most sustained institutional effort at pre- service training within formal schooling has been at Appalachian State University, where North Carolina's largest teacher training institution requires competence in media literacy and offers courses to that end. The success of that program reflects some useful strategies:


  • searching for ways that media literacy fulfills existing mandates;
  • finding links to other areas, e.g. health education and social studies, so that media literacy is not isolated within one course;
  • paying attention to institutional context, particularly principals and library media specialists;
  • training not only for subject matter but also in how to be change agents;
  • defining and operationalizing productivity, effectiveness and evaluation.


III. The Current Landscape

A. Challenges

For those who want the heterogeneous experiences of local U.S. individuals and groups to grow into a movement, there are dramatic challenges in the current landscape, not least of which are the rapidly evolving technological possibilities.

Several key things have until now been lacking:


  • a central mission or mandate, which could unite different expressions with differing goals. Thus, the constant need to differentiate oneself from a rival when appealing to funders has tended to divide potential allies.;
  • infrastructure -- an operating foundation, a professional association, a central database and network;
  • legitimacy of the kind granted by requiring such material in the schools;
  • basic information on such areas as:


    • what are media literacy success stories, and their lessons for repeating them?
    • what curricula have been developed by individual teachers and schools?
    • what are current educational objectives that might be met by media literacy?
    • what kinds of teacher training for media literacy have been effective?
    • what teacher training objectives could be met by media literacy?
    • what don't people know now that demonstrates a need for media literacy ("pre-testing")?
  • evaluation for media literacy. Outcome assessment, the measure of a media literate person and the programs that brought him or her to that state, is still in a primitive state; the best extant evaluation models are extremely labor-intensive, and come from England and Australia.

    Those who see formal schooling as a major target perceive the unyielding bureaucracy of both public schools and teacher training as a major stumbling block. They note that media literacy's natural link with critical pedagogy and the implicit reform agenda in its empowerment goals makes it suspect with traditional teachers and bureaucrats. Furthermore:


  • the school day is presently broken up into c. 45-minute segments, too short for much media experimentation;
  • expensive, labor-intensive teacher training is needed, both at pre-service and in-service levels;
  • budgets are being cut, while subsidies and release time for teachers would be necessary to encourage media literacy;
  • textbooks and curricular materials are lacking;
  • corporate media, most boldly Whittle's Channel One, have entered the schools with a commercial rather than educational agenda.


B. Opportunities

Some of these very problems might also provide opportunities. For instance:


  • Channel One offers a chance to enter into public dialogue and educational on media, whether as part of the controversy over its acceptance or as an object of critical analysis and media literacy instruction.
  • Some commercially funded enterprises, for instance the outreach efforts of cable industry's Cable in the Classroom, may prove beneficial to teachers who understandhow to use them.
  • Although public schools may be hidebound by bureaucracy, alternative, private and religious schools (particularly Catholic) may be open to media literacy projects and programs. The 1992 Catholic Connections to Media Literacy Project will likely have a spillover effect for both public and private education.
  • The need for educational reform is patent, and may be the subject of presidential concern in the new administration; media literacy might become part of a reform agenda. Pending legislation such as the re-authorization of the 'Elementary and Secondary Education Act' and the 'Ready-to-Learn Act' could be sources for federal funding of media literacy pilot projects at test sites around the country.
  • The ever-more contentious battle between cable and telephone companies for entering into each other's businesses may provide opportunities to influence policy in support of media literacy. Citizen activism that uses this policymaking juncture to insist on a portion of the resources being devoted to educational and nonprofit purposes could highlight media literacy objectives.
  • The frustrations of trying to introduce new material and different pedagogical approaches to entrenched teacher training programs might militate toward creating an entirely new degree instead -- an M.A. in media education, offered perhaps to mid-career teachers.
  • Teachers bucking the 45-minute classroom might be able to join forces with other teachers and thus pool class time.

IV. Toward a Media Literacy Movement

If media literacy is to become a nationwide movement with a coherent image and clear mandate, permitting widely flexible goals, it must take steps to meet some basic needs.

A. Needs The growing movement for media literacy in the United States has several kinds of clear and urgent needs:


  • Data. Researchers need to get some basic information on the kinds of questions listed in "Challenges."
  • Publicity. Media literacy needs a coherent image and definition, so that individual programs are correctly perceived to participate in a larger movement.
  • Infrastructure. The movement needs a home in several senses: an agenda-setting institution such as an operating foundation, a network, or an association.
  • Productive relationships. The movement needs to build bridges with policymakers, with educational reformers, with creative people working within mass media nd new technologies, and with activists and officials in voluntary organizations and public television.


B. Approaches

Participants in the leadership conference took several steps toward building a media literacy movement in the United States. In terms of data: Nodes of task forces, which would involve people not present at the conference, were created to address fact-finding in the areas of teacher training, networking, and the creation of an operating foundation for media literacy. In terms of publicity: Two major actions were taken. First, participants endorsed in principle and set in motion the creation of a mission statement, which could become a common platform for diverse projects in media literacy. As well, a prize for model curricula in media literacy was proposed, through the National Council of Teachers of English.

In terms of infrastructure: The National Telemedia Council and the National Association of Media Education were encouraged in their respective networking efforts. It was recognized that the movement's diversity was part of its strength, and that networking among efforts was a highly constructive step. It was also recognized that task force efforts, including the creation of a common mission statement, would lead to establishing other institutions, such as an operating foundation.

In terms of productive relationships: the conference participants endorsed in principle a test site for media literacy in the schools, in New Mexico. New Mexico now has a media literacy requirement on the books. Thus, this project can become a place to garner publicity, establish relationships and build networks.