Saturday, February 28, 2009

Media Literacy - UU and Ofcom conference

On Friday, the University of Ulster and Ofcom hosted a conference about ‘Media Literacy for the 21st Century’ up on the Magee campus.

“85% of what youngsters learn about digital media happens outside formal education.”

It was well organised, and there was a good line up of thought provoking speakers, who provided different perspectives on the state of media literacy in Northern Ireland and the future paths it might take. This post isn’t a proper report on the day – just a reflection on the points that struck me enough to jot them down at the time. Most of the sessions were filmed and should appear on Youtube in a day or two. (I’ll update this post with a link when they appear)

Stewart Purvis – fresh from his RTS gold medal award win the night before in London – highlighted some of the relevant actions in Lord Carter’s recently published Digital Britain interim report. (He’s chairing the Digital Britain Media Literacy working group alongside his work as Ofcom Partner responsible for content regulation.)

Anthony Lilley (Magic Lantern Productions) provided further insight. He remarked that the call of “you don’t come around with the grandchildren often enough” from grandparents (an act mediated by footfall) is now being replaced with “you don’t post enough pictures online” (an act mediated by Flickr). Have sales of teak plummeted with digital media moving away from TVs in cabinets sitting in curtain-drawn living rooms?

Services need to be designed with the consumer in mind, person-centric, rather than being technology or system based. He finished with a demo of CBBC Bugbears which left me marvelling at the cartoon lip-syncing to the uploaded audio. (Must stop thinking about the technology!)

From Anthony Lilley’s perspective, new media seems to have two offers:

  1. Things only possible through new media (like World of Warcraft, rating other children’s worries, etc);
  2. Extending existing things through new media (eg, Facebook which is really an extension of phone calls and letters).

Michael Callaghan (UU lecturer and research team lead for Serious Games & Virtual Worlds) transported us into the field of virtual worlds, currently inhabited by over 30 million virtual avatars. At the end I was still a bit unconvinced, and left wondering about the mass-market, real world uses.

Paul Moore (Head of UU’s School of Creative Arts) talked about a literacy project he’d got involved in. Unlike may projects which are so well backed and supported, this one was set up with failure as a possibility. Take a rural school with no particular history or enthusiasm for technology, use only the equipment they already have, and see what difference can be made to pupil’s understanding of a book by going wider than the normal comprehension techniques and allowing them to explore and express through making short videos.

One point that resonated was the reminder that technology can profit children (and adults) who may otherwise find it hard to communicate and express themselves through writing and talking. Kids with learning difficulties are frequently exceptionally creative when it comes to editing together films and photo montages, with an eye for detail and a patience and concentration that other kids lack. Technology can be liberating and not constraining.

Before and after lunch, the first year UU Creative Arts students (and some helpers) ran a quick series of workshops looking at

  • Social Networking - "Twitter's no use" so they missed the fact that at least two people in the audience had been tweeting through some of the sessions;
  • Blogging - which seemed to be run by a non-blogger, though I was late arriving so could have got this wrong;
  • Youtube - demoed playing back clips but not actually uploading one; and
  • Gaming - which I didn’t get to.

Given the range of conference attendees, it would have been better to run a couple of flavours of each workshop – one aimed at sheep dipping complete novices, and the other starting conversations amongst existing addicts. But at least it whetted people's appetite.

The afternoon panel discussion highlighted the definitional question that had endured throughout the day:

What exactly is media literacy?

Everyone wants to increase media literacy. But it’s a bit slippery to get clarity and agreement on its definition. With his typically wise and topsy turvy thinking, Anthony Lilley helped by defining what it was not. It’s not IT literacy in the sense of fixing broken PCs. And it’s not just about understanding how the (old) media (newspapers, radio, TV) works – though that’s a part.

But it’s about individuals being able to make their full contribution as a citizen to society and not being excluded by an inability to make contact, inaccessible content and inappropriate conduct. It’s about not being illiterate and missing out on the opportunities that are only possible through new media (going back to Lilley’s two-pronged description of new media above).

Personally, I was disappointed that the conference attendees was so unrepresentative of the creative technology (new media) companies and organisations – like those under the umbrella of Digital Circle – that have so much to offer in creating those new possibilities and opening up new ways of fulfilled citizenship. Instead, the room was dominated by educationalists and the new media wing of old media broadcasters. Not sure why it happened that way, but it was unfortunate.

Eileen Kelly (Director of Educational Guidance Service for Adults/EGSA) referred to the need for media literacy to become part of general literacy, as well the need to embed it in the adult education agenda.

Yet Bernard McCloskey (Northern Ireland Screen’s Head of Education) was concerned by continuing narrow definitions of literacy, for example the reading & writing focussed Draft NI Literacy Strategy (link not found) which largely ignores any non-traditional aspects.

Media literacy could be driven through formal education and extended (adult) education, through the context of family (eg, using POS (parent over shoulder) as a way of digitally literate children educating their illiterate parents), through community organisation that can extend their reach through adoption of new media tools (and raise awareness in the process), and of course through the traditional media in partnership with other bodies.

Training teachers in the presence of pupils or immersing the entire teaching staff of a school for a day might be more effective than the old approaches of taking one teacher out of school for a day’s training.

One key problem today is the standard policy of schools to severely restrict internet access on school networks. Kids’ mobile phones have better and wider connectivity than many school facilities. There have got to be more creative ways of keeping safe without constraining the art of the possible. (A common theme from US teachers’ podcast The Tech Teachers.)

As well as talking about the BBC’s role in partnership with the wider community, Mark Adair (BBC NI’s Head of Corporate and Community Affairs) touched on the corporations’ sixth public purpose

“in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services ...”

(Though it’s a theme that permeates the first three purposes too.)

Visiting professor, Adam Singer (deputy chair of Ofcom's Content Board) gave a closing address that’s worth listening to when it appears on Youtube. He talked a lot of mulch (and that’s not an insult). But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with his through that

“People cluster where the bandwidth is – rail, roads, network, ...”

In her closing remarks, Ofcom NI’s Joanne McMullan (Head of Broadcasting and Telecommunications) announced:

  • the launch of which seeks to draw together initiatives promoting media literacy across the UK. touched on the need and agreement to work in partnership;
  • the formation of a Media Literacy Network in Northern (with founding partners Ofcom, Northern Ireland Screen, BBC NI, EGSA and UU/Paul Moore);
  • a Creative Technology lunchtime event in Belfast on March 26 ... details tba.

As I think about our four year old Littl'un asleep in the room next door, her ability to access and consume information, as well as her skills in creating it, will be key competences as she grows up. Her ability to judge appropriateness and nuances around formality and security will need to be second nature in a way I didn't need to develop during the first half of my life. Her literacy will need to range across the written word, spoken word, electronic word, as well as a barrage of visual images.

Question is, will I ever catch up with her?

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