Smart tablets in primary schools – the move to better literacy?

Media technologies and children – from panics to ‘literacy’

coo-coo, poot-toot, burp...

coo-coo, poot-toot, burp…

The debate is an on-going one: whether the new millennials, who spend, on average, up to eight hours daily engaging with new media, will turn out just as any other generation before them, or, as some pundits lament, into the ‘dumbest generation’ of ‘Narcissists’, unable to keep eye contact, incapable of deep compassion for another, and depth of knowledge and expertise in any given field. And while both arguments have proven to trigger a long-term research agenda, either spectrum of the debate is speculative in nature than a fact.

The panic over the future of the new generation has recently settled to a steadier pace (panic but we are able to reason) thanks to a wave of research that has looked on the how and what of young people’s new media use. In fact, now concerned parties – parents, educators, policy makers – are slowing coming to terms with the special place new media take in young people’s lives. This has shifted the focus from panic to the issue of ‘literacy’.

This newer debate gains popularity not only among academics and researchers alike but, among policy makers, educators, business leaders, and parents. Today everyone speaks of digital literacy, new media literacy, computer literacy, etc., encouraging policy makers and educators to build strategies to incorporate media technologies into the educational system under the pretext that ‘media literacy’ will enhance future success. Yet, questions arise whether such direction was inevitable and what advantages and disadvantages media literacy will bring to children who already deal with an overloaded curriculum.

The objective of this article is not to discourage any efforts of building strategies in bringing up a society that is new media literate, or even such aims as bridging the newly emerging digital gap (where children engage with new media completely differently in informal settings from the way they do in school). The aim here is to raise the following questions: to what extent new media literacy entering compulsory education is an inevitable necessity; to create a parallel between user and content by acknowledging their mutual relation in equal importance in the effort to identify what constitutes new media literacy; and to question the commercial aspect of equipping young children with new media tools, while respecting the possibility that, on the one hand, they can be enabling and empowering the ‘user’, but on the other, such tools as mobile apps can create dependencies and therefore limitations. 

Educational mythologizing of new media
The construction of the computer as an “educational device” as Professor Neil Selwyn explains was by no means inevitable. Steve Jobs, the Apple founder, aimed to create the personal computer. More than that, he aimed to sell his product to everyone. Targeting everyone was by no means educational in its own regard. However, as an educational credibility was established – since to be employable and competitive in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ one must be media literate – this has put pressure on parents, and now on politicians and educators, to invest in media technologies and ensure that children become digitally skilled. This is not to say that placing ‘smart’ tablet in the hands of children is purely commercially driven. Media technologies entering primary schools is not a natural occurrence. Behind such broadly economistic discourse lies the co-relation between education and business where education needs to establish means to bring employable people, while businesses provide the software and the hardware to fulfil these means. In one instance, this is well reflected in the Maltese government’s tablet-per-child strategy; in another, the recent Microsoft’s objective to achieve a ‘lighthouse’ for innovative educational technologies “that go beyond the introduction of hardware in schools”, whatever this ‘beyond’ entails. As Roger Dale et al. maintain in a study such strategies are driven from the supply side rather than as a result of educational demands.

Then, seeking ways to digitally educate society’s (future) workforce in order to ensure its employability easily becomes part of a political agenda, too. If that were a satisfactory argument to allow new media to go at par with compulsory education, then one should argue that the real urgency here should come from the more pressing matter – that of defining media literacy.

Defining ‘media literacy’
Defining media literacy will shape the debate of building the educational strategy and the research agenda in Malta as elsewhere in the developed world. Definitions of what media literacy comprises abound. In a key essay on the state of media literacy, W. James Potter lists a rich sample of definitions; some, like Alvarado’s and Boyd-Barrett’s stress on new media literacy as a critical cultural issue; others, as Professor Livingstone writes, are purely idealistic: “the term literacy is shorthand for cultural ideals as eclectic as economic development, personal fulfilment, and individual moral fortitude”, according to Tyner.

A definition widely used in literature for the past decade, adopted from Professor Patricia Aufderheide’s speech during a key conference in Aspen back in 1993, generally defines media literacy as the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages in a variety of forms. Yet, others are just as mouthful and overloaded: according to the national eLearning strategy of Malta new media literacy entails “collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship, and character education.”

The range of definitions varies; some overlap. A lot, however, as Professor Livingstone maintains, seem to focus on the audience more than anything: teaching kids to collaborate, communicate, think critically, for example, can be limiting in that ignoring the origin of the content/provider on the other side of the communication line can skew the debate by seeing the user – the child – as either incompetent or naïve in certain instances, failing to recognise that the content/provider may be deceptive and manipulative to begin with.

Seeing the other side of the argument – the content/provider – for producing biased or untruthful information will have to bring forward the analysis of interactivity, which is key skill from the range of skills necessary to become digitally literate.

It's all in the (cook)books.

It’s all in the (cook)books.

Moreover, Livingstone further questions the possibility, even the desirability, to adapt what is known of traditional media literacy (print and audio-visual) in order to search for better definitions in the constantly changing media environment. This brings to mind the recent unravelled record of Pixar’s and Disney Animation’s president Ed Catmull in his Creativity, Inc. where, although he focuses on what triggers creativity in his environment specifically, deep down, the way in which a unique creative idea is born – be that a Toy Story character or anything else for that matter – comes very much from ‘traditional skills’ such as rote learning, perseverance and focus, and in-depth research (as when the animators had to spend long hours in the kitchens of French Michelin-star restaurants in order to understand the intricate work of top chefs and brilliant staff; learn every single place of every single utensil; and even master the “ratatouille” dish for the eponymous Pixar animation feature film). Or, as Deresiewicz writes in the Atlantic Magazine, today no one is interested in putting the 10,000 hours work, partially driven by the market demands and fluidity; artists thus have replaced their depth of knowledge by breadth of skills; one today is an artist and a photographer and a writer and a nurse, not one thing specifically.

This is of course a whole new topic to discuss – creativity and ‘the creative entrepreneur’, as Deresiewicz puts it – for another time. The point to make here is that looking at more traditional media as well as more traditional educational and learning methods as still relevant and valuable can and should contribute to a wider definition of literacies concerned with the newer media ones. 

New media and commercialization of children

OMG, sales online are on! IOW, totally need new LBD for my 12th birthday bash!  w00t!!!

OMG, sales online are on! IOW, totally need new LBD for my 12th birthday bash! w00t!!!

In any case, the common denominator to all these definitions of media literacy is that they all present a skill-based approach. Media literacy is not an esoteric or a genetic component of sorts but something achievable, learnable, and quantifiable. In fact, a recent discourse is that of “inevitability”, as Robins and Webster point out in their Times of the technoculture: from the information society to the virtual life, from which there is no going back, unless one wants to be forever branded as a ‘dinosaur’. This is to say that the question has now moved from the whether to and the why adopt technology, as David Buckingham reflects in his Beyond Technology, to the how; governments across the modern world including in Malta, at different pace, have already begun to build strategies (perhaps even more so, in the hope to bring brownie points with voters) aiming to deliver technologies to the classroom in an effort to develop an information society that is necessitated by the ‘knowledge economy’.

On the other hand, the focus of the child as the learner in this aim is, as Buckingham says, somewhat conflicting. Facer et al., in an article of theirs in the Journal of Youth Studies, suggest that the child is more in the position of a consumer, “a test-bed market for software manufacturers”, thus, blurring the facts, if any, between the notion that children – the “digital generation” – are somewhat digitally knowledgeable or else plain incompetent; either way they need technological education. This crucially leads policy makers and educators to ignore the fact that children learn plenty in informal settings, as Sefton-Green has pointed out on numerous occasions – a fact that has led to the newly emerging digital gap (of what kids can do thanks to their tinkering outside school against what they are being taught in school) – and blind them from seeing the possibility of children as being creators of information, rather than as consumers only.

With the risk of giving leeway to economic determinism here one should be aware of the aspect that while parents and policy makers are worried about the risks of harm and cyber bullying there is the big question of children being commercialized at an ever younger age today more than any other previous generation. Specifically, the App Generation, as Howard Gardner dubs them in his most recent book (in collaboration with Katie Davis) engage and ‘navigate’ their lives through the hundreds of software applications on their mobile phones. And while many of these ‘apps’ have the educational tag, their authorship and ownership needs to be taken into account and analysed before shoving such innovative, experimental in nature, tools into the hands of children under one umbrella with compulsory education.

Engaging with new media – the educational means and goals
Beyond the range of panics from those about cyber bullying and children’s possibility of accessing pornography sites and content inciting extremism and hatred; beyond the concerns of children’s commercialisation, which has existed probably since Disney opened his studios and started selling Mickey Mouse paraphernalia; beyond the politics of what will make a child successful tomorrow that will require of him to learn today, the debate about the educational means and goals with regards to new media literacy remain open and hot. On the one hand, especially among members of governments and the corporate world, there is the argument that employability requires a set of twenty-first century skills, among them creative and critical thinking, collaboration and community. On the other hand, predominantly among educators, the insistence is on sticking to traditional methodologies of learning and assessment – tried and tested methods of a long gone era.

This polarized discontent has brought about a plethora of arguments supporting the new media learning. For example, Gardner and Davies mention the quality of apps in that some of them allow the learner to be his own ‘creator of knowledge’. The app world has come to support a wide variety of learning and understanding styles, or as Gardner had made known, the multiple forms of intelligences. While the traditional form of education has always focused on two major forms of human intelligence – the linguistic and the logical-mathematical – the new media now provides a wide spectrum of choices and tools.

On the other hand, one could argue that to become good at something one still needs to go through the rote learning and boring repetitiveness – a person cannot just become a violinist by playing with an app or simply imagining. To that effect, many an argument has come to criticize the effect of such digital tools entering the realm of education in that they are “poorly constructed, consisting simply of mishmash of images, sounds and video that offer little more than light entertainment”, as Aldrich et al. point out in a study. Furthermore, others argue that educational packages glittered with entertainment nuances are often no more than ‘electronic books’ that betray the material’s origin – a crucial component to the digital media literacy skills, as pointed out earlier.

Finally, it is hard to say what educational philosophy new media technologies will take on; whatever the learning outcomes, they will essentially demand innovative ways of assessment, yet another important matter to be considered prior to setting off course to new media education along with the compulsory one.

The questions raised in this article need to be considered when drafting educational policies. One should also factor in the possibility that besides seeing new media tools as enablers to learning, there is also the dependency on them that can limit unknown potentials.

As Beastall puts it, ‘enchanting the disenchanted child’ by incorporating new media technologies into the school curriculum needs more thorough evaluation and analysis before such efforts of enchantment are put into practice.

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