Primary and secondary teachers interact with students who are constantly on devices — consuming, sharing, and co-creating text, photos, videos, and memes.
On social media, hate speech, conspiracy threads and health misinformation overwhelm evidence-based material. The fabrications and fragmentations of reality cannot be challenged in real time.
Despite this massive influence on young minds, the government intends to remove one of the few teaching opportunities that could enable students to navigate their online world.
It is a step back. Making sense of today’s hyper-mediatized world depends on the availability of solid media studies courses in elementary and secondary schools.
The young inhabitants of this world serve only to replicate an “attention economy” shaped by the business models of social media and mass media companies. They need essential skills to understand this aspect of their lives.
Additionally, recent medical research suggests that excessive smartphone and social media use among teens is associated with mental distress. The social implications of this situation are worrying.
Media studies could disappear
Currently, Level 1 Media Studies students learn about media content regulation, analyze media coverage of current events, examine and compare media genres and production technology.
Over the next two years, they assess texts and media representations, develop a range of journalism skills in different media, and explore how particular media industries work.
The entire three-year program advances critical thinking and fundamental media literacy. Students appreciate how media texts are constructed and disseminated and how different experiences and viewpoints shape readings of these texts.
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After high school, media studies students are equipped to take graduate-level courses in communications, film production, journalism, radio, visual media, art and design, general humanities, and social sciences.
Without Level 1 courses, the risk is that some schools will drop the subject completely. Fewer media studies courses will reduce the number of qualified teachers available. Media studies courses will inevitably disappear.
This grim scenario was described to me by a senior media studies professor at the National Association of Media Educators (NAME). For her, the government’s decision is myopic and contradictory:
I find it hard to believe that Chris Hipkins, as Minister of Health and Minister of COVID Response, could warn that everyone should avoid misinformation regarding the management of COVID, but then, as Minister of ‘Education, agree to remove the subject that most equips students with the skills to avoid misinformation – there is such dissonance going on here.
I would add that Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s precise distillations of COVID-19 science reflect one’s own media literacy – a degree in communication from the University of Waikato. This strengthens the case for strong media studies courses at the high school level.
No political debate
The Ministry of Education’s justification is certainly difficult to understand. Its December press release was headlined: “NCEA Level 1 changes give students a broader foundation” – the implication being that media studies is a narrowly defined pathway.
Such an assumption ignores the disparate origins of media studies research and the range of knowledge available to student learners.
The growing ubiquity of mass media and digital media communication has brought together insights from journalism, history, literary studies, political studies, economics, sociology, anthropology and of psychology. These are the raw materials for secondary and tertiary curricula in media studies.
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Alas, media educators’ criticisms of the government’s proposals did not generate partisan debate. On the contrary, Hipkins’ unsupportable claims are complemented by disparaging remarks from National Party leader Judith Collins. Remarks:
The problem with high schools now is that there are too many photographs and too much media and other waking subjects.
It is clear that the government and the opposition are in agreement: the media literacy of pupils is not a high priority.
Losing historical memory
Meanwhile, New Zealand primary school students are using digital technology throughout the curriculum to develop their knowledge, skills and cognitive understanding. Nothing to complain about here — immersive digital learning recognizes the ubiquity of networked screens, online platforms, and computational intelligence.
However, a historical appreciation of communication technologies is also necessary. Phonetic alphabets, manuscripts, printing presses and telegraph/telephone networks necessarily prefigure the internet and social networks.
Without this basic knowledge, primary school students risk becoming figures of a hyper-mediatized present in which transitory information and images cancel out historical memory.
Without a sense of past and present, students will struggle to separate verifiable journalism from clickbait, infotainment, and orchestrated propaganda.
Yes, digital education is available for parents and students, including internet security programs to counter stalkers, scanners, cyberbullies and porn dealers. Although essential, this type of media education is insufficient.
Read more: COVID-19 misinformation on Chinese social media – lessons for countering conspiracy theories
Better media literacy is vital
The basic reality is that social media is not a neutral means of communication, content creation or information transfer. From the end of elementary school, digitally literate students should investigate the origins, motivations and tactics of disinformation networks such as QAnon and COVID or climate change denial.
Classroom activities can reveal how we inadvertently spread misinformation by sharing videos, using hashtags and adding comment threads. Like a recent American scientist editorial reflected, “Each of us is a knot on the battlefield for reality.”
As a result, students could share their experiences with Google and Facebook advertising and ask why users are encouraged to spend more time on the sites. Terminale students will ideally have the answers to the following questions:
Why did Twitter late close Donald Trump’s account?
How Does Facebook Profit From Extremely Violent Content?
how to obtain reliable information on the COVID-19 pandemic?
Finally, a question for the Minister of Education and his staff on behalf of media educators around the world: should aspiring citizens be more or less informed about the media than they are now?