The National Media Education Conference Helps Strengthen the Field

What happens when over 300 classroom teachers, college and university faculty, youth media professionals and community leaders gather for several days and nights of stimulating presentations, screenings, discussions, workshops and keynote speeches? None other than the 2007 National Media Education Conference (NMEC), held in late June this year in St. Louis, Missouri, a bi-annual event brimming with research and reflections on the theory and practice of media education in a variety of school and community settings. With the increasing growth and diversity of the field, we believe this gathering of media literacy educators is more important than ever before.
The theme of the four-day series of workshops and screenings was “iPods, Blogs and Beyond: Evolving Media Literacy for the 21st Century.” For one of us (Robb Grieco), it was our first experience at a national gathering of media literacy educators; for another (Hobbs), it was one of perhaps a dozen such events attended over the past twenty years. We share here, briefly, our critical reflections on the conference, with particular focus on its relevance to readers of Youth Media Reporter.
As described in Hobbs’ keynote address, there are many factors now in place that are enabling the development of media literacy in the United States and around the world. These include:
• the increasing diversity of media content, formats and genres (new genres create new opportunities for critical analysis and production)
• access to digital tools for authorship and new forms of distribution and exhibition
• widespread public awareness of need for critical thinking about new forms of online media
• state curriculum standards (now in almost every state)
• new stakeholders—nearly 1/3 of the NMEC conference registrants were first-time attendees
• recognized instructional practices, implementation processes and models for teacher education and staff development
• case studies of practice in school and after-school
• graduate programs and coursework at universities around the country
However, media literacy educators gather at this conference every two years not only to celebrate accomplishments, but also to challenge each other, to provoke each other, to push at each other’s assumptions. After all, the definition of media literacy is still contested, and it will be for quite a few years to come. Is it a skill? A competency? A set of tools? A knowledge base? Does media literacy have a particular perspective or point of view on media culture? Is media literacy a lifestyle? What about the uses and purposes of media literacy? All these different perspectives were presented—and argued about—at the conference.
At NMEC, participants viewed media literacy as widely as:
• a new type of literacy that responds to the digital media environment;
• an educational approach to promote critical thinking about popular culture;
• an awareness-building process for recognizing bias in the media;
• giving young people a voice in their culture and communities;
• the process of teaching and learning about tools and technologies of communication;
• a means to support the development of healthy lifestyle decisions; and/or
• an advocacy tool to push for social and political change.
These different perspectives contributed to the fresh, dynamic mix of engaging ideas from people with a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives, leading to an exhilarating sense of possibility for the future of the field. From our point of view, while the vitality of the field is strengthened by these diverse conceptualizations of media literacy, it can also be confusing. Because of the different perspectives driving the advancement of the field, it is important to ask: What flavor is your media literacy? Practitioners and scholars need to reflect on the understandings they bring to this complex term while respecting the diversity of voices in the field.
Research Expands Our Understanding of the Impact of Youth Media
One highlight of the conference was the two-day Research Summit held in conjunction with the conference, where nearly 100 scholars and graduate students gathered to share research on media literacy. Organized by Marilyn Cohen (University of Washington) and Renee Cherow-O’Leary (Teachers College, Columbia University), the research summit was the first of its kind, the result of a growing number of researchers who are exploring the impact of media literacy on children, youth, and adults. We found ourselves in a state of amazement at the collegial spirit in evidence at the event: this group truly appreciates the pleasure of trans-disciplinary inquiry.
And with scholars from the fields of communication, education, public health, the humanities and the fine arts all rubbing elbows, participants seemed to enjoy the chance to learn about theories, research methodologies and approaches to research that were far outside their own areas of expertise. Unlike traditional academic conferences, where we present our ideas to people who (mostly) share our same knowledge set, here we had to frame our ideas more broadly so they could make sense to people from a wide range of academic backgrounds. As a result, plenty of deceptively simple questions yielded surprising and provocative discussions.
Yet we were also able to share the nitty-gritty of our current work, too. Some research sessions felt a little like the sensation you get when driving from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 3.5 seconds. To be truthful, it was an intellectual rush that most of the old timers (used to the more-typical focus on ‘show-and-tell’ teacher workshops which focus on classroom implementation) found breathtaking.
Scholars from many disciplines are exploring how youth media impacts the lives of adolescents. Some of this work maps nicely onto what youth media practitioners have discovered from their own practice. For example, in her work with Native American youth, Karon Sherarts has shown how, when students create media, the production process brings together the intersecting skills of writing, problem-solving, social skills, and creative/aesthetic development. In measuring learning outcomes, she showed that, with guidance from skilled adults, these programs can also generate leaps in students’ self-understanding. This is a key point because, although youth media programs can be positioned to emphasize skill-building and workforce development outcomes, the key benefits may be in supporting a healthy process of identity development, socio-emotional and personal growth, particularly among minority youth.
Other research sessions also focused on youth media, including the work of Korina Jocson, an expert in adolescent literacy who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Her work examined how adolescent literacy practices are enacted in video production activities. At the Research Summit, she presented a model for examining the developmental trajectory of student learning. Technical skills, conceptual understanding and aesthetic abilities simultaneously develop during the course of a media production experience. We believe that models like this contribute to the process of understanding how youth media production experiences can be best designed and implemented to meet clearly articulated objectives.
Another fascinating presentation was shared by Just Think, a San Francisco-based media literacy organization, who with an evaluation team from the Michael Cohen Group, developed an approach to evaluate the impact of a media arts program implemented with 16 teachers in two low-income California middle schools. This school-based program involved children in critical analysis and media production activities using digital cameras and graphic design software. In this program, media literacy was explored through an approach that was inquiry-based, using the critical questions now codified by the AMLA’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education. Teachers participated in staff development programs that helped them practice media analysis that emphasized open-ended questioning. There was an emphasis on the development of “strong-sense critical thinking,” in which critical thinking skills are applied to all texts. Based on the work of Richard Paul, strong-sense critical thinking encourages students to question even the ideas and opinions that they support. Critical thinking in the strong sense emphasizes the metacognitive and reflective processes that enable a person to have insight into his or her own cognitive and emotional responses. Throughout the four days, it was easy to see how this passion for strong-sense critical thinking is deeply shared among conference participants.
One of the strengths of the research developed by Just Think was its mix of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. While qualitative work is essential for building the future of the field, it is important to develop quantitative approaches that enable us to address the question: What does a media literate person do, think, feel and believe?
Reflecting on the Research Summit overall, it’s important for researchers to be critical about the practice of their research on media literacy. Because the field is new, we are still searching for the right kinds of theoretical and conceptual tools that offer insight on this work. We saw some sessions where theory and evidence were clearly mismatched, methodological rigor was lacking, and researchers were searching for evidence that confirmed existing theoretical (or ideological) stances. The opportunity to share ideas with colleagues—and ask critical questions—deepens the quality of our own work.
Exploring Popular Music and Personal and Social Identity
Going beyond the “bread and butter” topics of media literacy education—news media/citizenship, advertising/consumerism, media ownership/economics, and stereotypes/issues of representation—this year’s NMEC workshops and presentations provided a deeper focus on issues including popular music, film, videogames, and the Internet by media literacy educators.
For example, Mike Robb Grieco presented a workshop on using music for critical inquiry. He developed a high school English unit that enables students to question, explore and communicate the different ways that popular music holds power in their lives, using carefully selected clips from the popular film High Fidelity (2000) to promote rich discussion. In the workshop, he modeled a lesson from the curriculum where students choose the top five songs that they would want played at their funeral. As participants enacted and then discussed the activity, it became clear our rationale for most of our choices clearly connected to the core questions of media literacy inquiry such as: Who is telling the story? Who is the target audience? How might different people interpret the message differently? What values are embedded in the message? What is omitted from the message? Although this particular unit did not involve youth as music producers, it did focus on students as producers of the meanings and power that music holds for them.
Such lessons help students take greater responsibility for communicating their understanding of the meaning-making process with expressive media like popular music. Activities like this strengthen students’ ability to reflect on how music contributes to the development of a sense of personal, social and cultural identity.
New Media Literacy: Skills for Thriving in Participatory Culture
The theme of the conference was well-articulated by Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s New Media Literacy (NML) project, who piqued attendees’ interest with his keynote speech, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us about New Media Literacies.” Jenkins explained how the user-generated, collaborative nature of knowledge (such as that gathered and created in the ever-growing, openly-updated sites like Wikipedia) challenges and changes traditional notions of knowledge and expertise. We are seeing a shift in the role of the expert; instead of the expert being seen as one who creates, holds and distributes knowledge, the expert is one who can navigate resources and connect areas of knowledge for collaborative problem solving.
As media literacy guru Marshall McLuhan pointed out more than forty years ago, we are living at time when the concepts of knowledge, authority and credibility are all in flux. As a result, there is new demand for expanded types of critical thinking and literacy skills, which in turn may need new pedagogical approaches. According to Jenkins, four of these new media literacy skills include:
• Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
• Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.
• Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.
• Negotiation: the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms.
While acknowledging debates over the credibility of user-generated knowledge in sites such as Wikipedia, Jenkins emphasized the advantages of participatory cultures in developing collective knowledge. For example, the lack of authoritative credentials in wikis often creates a greater impetus for both the author to explain how she knows what she knows and for the reader to scrutinize the basis for credibility of any given entry than most traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge offer. According to Jenkins, collaborative, participatory sites like Wikipedia help overcome a “transparency gap” by calling attention to the constructedness of the media and information that they offer.
We think this perspective has enormous value to the future of the field, but we quibble about whether it’s really “new” media literacy or rather media literacy applied to new media forms. After all, recognizing and responding to the constructedness of media representations is one of the key concepts of media literacy. And media literacy advocates also emphasize that each form of communication and expression has its unique language, codes and conventions. What Jenkins offers is an effective elucidation of the key skills needed for a particular set of communication technology tools—the current dominant online participatory media environment of the 21st century.
This keynote address invited media educators to address the participation gap by helping to provide all youth the opportunities to participate in such knowledge production and to develop new instructional approaches to examine the ethical issues such participation raises. We believe that educators at all levels—and in all settings—need to explore how to incorporate these new competencies, skills and practices into the classroom.
Youth Participation and the Future of National Gatherings of Media Literacy Educators
The Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA), the organization that hosts this conference, has long struggled with attracting funders to support its work. At this event, we saw the impact of this challenge on some aspects of the conference, including event coordination and publicity. The conference is run by an elected board of directors who generously volunteer their time. Without an executive director and paid staff, the organization finds it difficult to attract funders who share in its mission. Its status as a membership organization makes it just a little too “grass roots-y” in this regard.
This year, the lack of funding led to a sharp decline in the number of young people who participated in the conference. One traditional component of the NMEC conference has been M3, the Modern Media Makers, an innovative program that has been a major feature of conference for many years. The M3 program consists of a group of teens who attend the conference, partner with media educators to learn media literacy principles, and create digital videos during the conference. At the closing event of the conference, the voices of these youth participants are showcased. Students screen the videos they created during the 4-day conference and answer questions about their work from participants. Old-timers in media literacy have consistently rated the youth participation events as offering the most inspiring moments of the conference.
Sadly, this year’s M3 was smaller than usual with only a handful of youth participating. For some conference participants, this highly anticipated event was a disappointment as compared with previous years; for those attending NMEC for the first time, it was still a treat to be able to engage with even a few young people about their own learning experiences with media literacy. Few conferences for educators involve youth in any meaningful way, and that’s a shame. We would like to see NMEC continue to develop and deepen this active, authentic way to involve youth participants in the next NMEC conference, which is scheduled to meet in Detroit in the summer of 2009. Perhaps the youth media field can support a dramatic expansion of these efforts. Most importantly, the next NMEC conference needs greater support from the foundation community in order to continue to fertilize the field at the grass roots level.
Media Literacy and Global Initiatives
As the largest regular gathering of media literacy educators, the National Media Education Conference drew participants and presenters from England, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Argentina and many other nations. Paul Mihailidis, Director of Media Literacy Initiatives at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (University of Maryland) described a new program set to begin this summer in Salzburg, Austria. It brings together faculty and undergraduate students from six continents for a three-week media literacy course with an emphasis on global media and change.
One of the goals of the institute is for students and faculty to collaborate on the development of a media literacy curriculum for undergraduate students which they will bring back and implement at their respective universities. When asked by an attendee at his workshop, “How will students from such different cultural backgrounds and media landscapes share understandings of the media literacy skills needed for change?” Mihailidis responded optimistically, “That’s what we will find out!”
One thing is certain: media literacy educators are comfortable experimenting with new ideas and new instructional practices. They embrace the possibility of bringing people all over the world a deeper understanding of mass media and popular culture, and are excited to consider the implications of this work for enhancing peace and global understanding.
In a sense, Mihailidis’s goal to explore the implications of media literacy cross-nationally is similar to the goal of the conference organizers of the National Media Education Conference. It’s why the conference is so central to the future of the field. By sharing our experiences and questioning our assumptions, we can grow and learn from one another, finding opportunities to strengthen our own practice and develop the capacity to bring media literacy to people in our own families, our neighborhoods and communities, and around the world.
Renee Hobbs is a Professor at the Media Education Lab, Temple University School of Communications and Theater. Michael Robb Grieco is a student in the Mass Media and Communication Ph.D. program at Temple University. Contact: