Monthly Archives: September 2011

The New Media Literacy

For several decades now, media literacy has been in the discourse of consumer society.  Sociologists, philosophers, feminists, and critical social theorists have warned us to beware the messages transmitted to our spongy, impressionable brains through the channels of mass media.  Subconsciously enculturated into a materialist, capitalist, and vain world of crippling self consciousness, we are constantly bombarded with affirmations that we aren’t good enough, and that we always need to acquire more (or less, depending on if we’re talking about money, goods, or weight).  Or so goes the watered-down (but nonetheless transformative) version of the story.  Digging a little deeper, and approaching a more critical stance towards our social values and institutions, media literacy theorists have argued that persistence of the messages, signs, and symbols projected at us helps naturalize the meanings of those messages, validates their existence, and basically perpetuates a system of institutional racism and gender discrimination, or at least reproduces the mechanisms by which we justify the marginalization of non-mainstream behaviors, ideas, and personalities.  For many of these years, print media, television, and popular music have been the most obvious culprits of this social engineering process, with good reason.  But for the past decade, we have witnessed the decline of the print media, network television, and music industries, and the simultaneous rise of cable and internet-based television (which has necessitated the evolution of the advertising structure that dominated print and television media for so many decades), personalized media consumption, and social networking.  Arguably, the entire landscape of media has changed, and with it, so has the nature of the messages we receive and internalize.

I began thinking about this after reading Farhad Manjoo’s criticism of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook.  While Manjoo’s critique focuses on Facebook’s push to “socialize” (read: share) all of our consumptive online activity, what struck me is that here we have a great case study for investigating the role of new media on our collective consciousness and social practices.  Facebook boasts the following numbers on its statistics page:

  • 800,000,000 active users
  • 50% of active users log in at least once a day (if you’re counting, that’s 400,000,000 log ins)
  • Over 900,000,000 “objects” (pages, groups, events, community pages) exist on Facebook for people to interact with, of which the average user is connected to 80
  • Every month, more than 500 million people interact with a Facebook app or Facebook Platform on other websites
  • And my favorite, “There are more than 475 mobile operators globally working to deploy and promote Facebook mobile products”

To say that Facebook is ubiquitous for the internet-accessing, media-consuming world would probably be fair, if only a slight over-statement.  But let’s just say that Facebook has a clearly “far-reaching” domain.  There are a few things that I find fascinating about this:
  1. The social nature of Facebook has morphed the public user role from “consumer” to “consumer/producer”
  2. The messages transmitted through the Facebook channel come from multiple forms of media-producing entities: local individuals and groups that share our cultural values and discourses, “global” individuals and groups that have different cultural values and discourses, local corporations that have an intrinsic understanding of their local constituencies (and target them as such), and global corporations that have a foreign understanding of their non-local constituencies.
  3. The personalized look and feel of the Facebook interface offers a consumption experience that differs from that of traditional mass media channels.
  4.   The sheer size and reach of Facebook (still a privately-owned company at the time of this posting) harkens the imagery of a virtual “empire”, which it runs with particular interests, understandings of social practices and values, and goals for the future (including its own survival).

As regards media literacy, I feel like we have something akin to the quantum revolution taking place; a crazy, unpredictable, unintuitive world where the closer we get to identifying the cause of a phenomenon, the more we lose sight of the object.  Did that sentence make any sense at all?
 If not, maybe I’m on the right track.  My point is this: because Facebook allows us to consume all forms of messages, from our friends, relatives, community groups, and major corporations in a seamless, elegant, branded format, all while under the guise of personal choice and preference, it is harder to distance ourselves from the evil, mass media monster that was so easily identifiable in years past.  This is not to say that Facebook is evil, or a monster, as mentioned above, it is large, has a far reach, and is privately owned.  It is also privately constructed.  Any part of the Facebook experience that is developed by a third party must adhere to Facebook’s branding guidelines.  We call these constraints.  Now, constraints can be both a productive force, as well as a restricting one, but the are constraints nonetheless.  These constraints form the virtual “walls” within which we experience the messages, images, advertisements, coolness, bullying, community, rejoicing, grieving, and mundanity of the Facebook channel.  In other words, Facebook is a means for delivering an experience of socialization.  What are we socialized into through Facebook?  I’m not sure.  But I bet we all experience it a little differently.  That is what I find so fascinating.  With a magazine advertisement, we see the same photo, read the same slogan.  With Facebook, we see photos of our friends mixed in with Facebook’s branding.  Media companies like Youtube, Hulu, and Netflix offer infinitely more breadth of viewing options than did network television, and with fewer (if any) commercials, and riskier material.  Advertising features far less prominently to the untrained eye in these formats (behold the power of product placement).

Personally, I enjoy Facebook and the experience it brings.  I like being able to share websites, articles, videos, and photos with friends, and I like reading about my friends’ experiences.  One of the great things about the sharing protocol of Facebook is that it is, by nature, more personalized than, say, the recommendations Amazon delivers to my email inbox every morning.

So yes, please, Facebook, crowd-source my willing friends.  But only my willing ones.  Is there a “like” button for that?

Alternative Assessments and Multimedia

I’ve been lucky to witness a new wave of inspired, progressive (or perhaps simply bored) instructors experiment with multimedia production as a form of summative assessment over the past couple of years.  For a long time, it seemed multimedia-production-as-assessment was only a viable option for technology-based courses with both access to media production tools and skills-driven curricula.  Perhaps due in part to the consumer electronics industry’s penchant to continuously roll out newer, shinier, cheaper toys and software specifically targeting what was once considered a population of technology illiterates, or perhaps because consumer technologies seem to be ever occupying every possible space in our professional and personal lives and the lives of our children, or even PERHAPS because education and psychology research has bent enough policy makers’ ears towards the theory that people actually learn differently , there seems now to be a critical momentum of instructors who are at least open to the idea of moving away from traditional forms of assessment and embarking into the vast abyss that is creative expression.  This is a good thing.  For many reasons.  Least of which is that, despite what some complain as a lack of emphasis on content, media production can touch on a number of learning objectives (e.g., collaboration, demonstration of competence in a specific domain, skills-development and acquisition, higher order thinking, etc.) while enabling students to try on new identities, explore different voices, and connect to their socio-historical selves.  Of course, media production doesn’t cause these outcomes. But it can do a lot to make these potential outcomes accessible to students.

All that being said, even the most gung-ho teacher will face possibly the biggest challenge standing in the way of instructional media production’s ubiquity in the education toolkit: assessment.  If the point of alternative assessment in general, and media production in particular, is to offer students a flexible, adaptive way of engaging with- and demonstrating knowledge for a topic, then one must often come to grips with a grading system that is rigid, high-stakes, and completely unindividualized.  Creative expression is, almost by definition, the antithesis of such a system.  Hence, the bane of all my instructional experience: the rubric.  Rubrics, and complicated, time-consuming to draft (especially if you plan to have a different rubric for each assignment), and can be confusing – even abstract – for students.  Actually, I’m sure they are confusing and abstract for most teachers.  But simply put, if media production is a valuable activity for students’ learning development, equally important is providing detailed, explicit feedback on students’ work.  I found a link to this rubric for a digital storytelling project at the University of Houston (it wasn’t hard to find – it was the first link that came up in a Google search for “digital storytelling rubric”), which stands out as an excellent example of what I’m talking about.  On its face, the rubric seems vast, with several criteria for evaluation, and a sophisticated checklist detailing everything from the project’s purpose to the student’s choice of production software.  But herein lies the value of this particular rubric: it leaves room for flexibility, decision making, and expression, yet clearly outlines any expectations, assumptions, and learning objectives.  Attributing a numeric value to each of the categories (though unsavory to those of us already opposed to the rigid constraints of the score-based grading system) maintains both the integrity of the evaluation, and lends an element of objectivity to a subjective exercise.

Of course, the use of a rubric doesn’t eliminate any of the other hiccups and roadblocks that disrupt the always smooth process of integrating technology into instruction, but in my experience, it has been a good touchstone for those teachers who might feel a little uneasy about taking their first steps into media production.