Media Literacy: Helping Students Make Sense of the Digital World

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Kids today are shockingly ill-equipped to evaluate the information that comes rushing at them on their phones, tablets and computer screens. They may have grown up with the internet, but they lack the skills they need to tell legitimate news from advertising or propaganda. In this edition of Focus on Education, we show you how these skills, known as Media Literacy, are increasingly being taught in Ventura County schools.

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   Winter/Spring 2019
Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools   
Media Literacy
Teaching a Critical Survival Skill for the Information Age
An informed population is one of the keys to a healthy democracy, but these days it's harder than ever to know if you're getting an accurate, unbiased account of important events. Thanks to the internet and social media, we're deluged with so much information that separating news from opinion and fact from fiction can feel impossible. If it's confusing for adults, imagine what a challenge it is for kids to make sense of it all. 
Schools are increasingly recognizing that being an intelligent consumer of news is a skill that needs to be taught. Often called "media and information literacy," its purpose is to teach students to think critically about the information that comes rushing at them minute-by-minute on their phones and computer screens. It also helps them navigate thorny issues like copyright, plagiarism and online safety. In this edition of Focus on Education, we look at what educators in Ventura County and beyond are doing to help our kids become well-informed citizens of our digital world.
Stan Mantooth
Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Can You Tell an Ad from News? Many Students Can't
A Stanford University study recently found that middle school, high school and college students are "easily duped" when asked to identify legitimate sources of news. For example, eighty percent of middle-schoolers didn't understand that articles labeled "sponsored content" on news websites are paid advertisements and not objective journalism. The study's authors reached this alarming conclusion: "Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak."
It's a problem that Cathy Reznicek, an Educational Technology Specialist at the Ventura County Office of Education, is working to address. She says, "The rise in the amount of media we consume on digital devices came fast, and educators haven't caught up. It's at the point where it's critical right now."
Reznicek says today's students face challenges in conducting research that older generations didn't have to contend with. "If you get a book at a library, it's a relatively safe bet that there was some scrutiny as to what was written in the publishing process," she says. "Online, anyone can publish anything and you don't have those checks and balances."
That's why students need to learn to be skeptical about the information they find online. Instead of assuming the first result in a Google search is the best one, they need to look for trusted sources and know how to determine whether a particular publisher is trying to inform or to persuade. Reznicek says one of the best ways to teach these skills it to have students create their own digital content. "As they produce their own digital media, they start to better understand how it's produced by others and they can see through the veil."
There are endless opportunities to teach media research skills and critical thinking in any subject at all grade levels and Reznicek says it's starting to happen at a growing number of local schools. She's glad to see the issue getting more attention because in the 21st century, literacy is about much more than knowing how to read and write.
Oak Park District is Making Media Literacy a Priority
In the Oak Park Unified School District east of Thousand Oaks, students are learning media literacy skills as early as elementary school. The district started incorporating media literacy into the curriculum about three years ago and they even have a "teacher on special assignment," Keenan Kubrick, who works on building digital skills at all grade levels.
Kubrick says all of the district's teachers undergo special training each summer to help them build media literacy into their classroom curricula. While elementary students get dedicated instruction on the topic, in the higher grades it's embedded into the students' other work. "For instance, if they're writing essays in English class, one of the essays might have a media literacy component in it. Or if they're doing research for a science class, they learn how to be sure the information is accurate and useful," Kubrick says.
The district also helps students become smarter about the digital persona they're creating online. "You want to be careful what you put out there because it could be seen by anybody. When students are applying to colleges, we want their body of work to be seen and not photos they may regret having posted," Kubrick says.
Today's students are sometimes called "digital natives" because they've never known a world without the internet, social media and smart phones. That's why Kubrick says schools have an important role to play in helping them be smart and safe when using digital tools. "We don't want students to be afraid and think everything online is bad. We want them to pause and think about how this technology is affecting them before they proceed."  
School Libraries Playing a Bigger Role in Digital Learning
Since the dawn of the internet, there have been predictions it would make libraries obsolete, but the opposite is turning out to be true on many school campuses. School libraries are evolving from simply being a place to check out books into a resource that helps students make the best use of today's vast trove of digital information. With their expertise in cataloging and organizing large amounts of information, school librarians are often among the best qualified people on campus to teach these skills.  
"There is this incredible spectrum of services libraries offer to students, which can include research skills, media and information literacy instruction, lessons on fake news identification and recognizing bias in research," says René Hohls, who runs the library at the Ventura County Office of Education and works with school libraries across the county to help them expand their offerings. "These are things that can then be taken out of the library and applied to any classroom scenario."
Ms. Hohls says the transformation is well underway. "What I see happening in Ventura County is a push to re-imagine the library as an essential learning environment, not just an outlying building full of books." The ideal situation is to have a librarian with a teaching credential – known as a teacher librarian – who is able to conduct classes. Unfortunately, she says California ranks last in the number of teacher librarians, with only about 750 statewide. In Ventura County there are 18. 
Whether or not they have a teaching credential, many local school librarians work closely with teachers to bring media literacy into the classroom. "Instead of being an isolated class, it gets integrated into all of the other subjects," she says. "If you're reading a novel or doing research in your social studies class or conducting an inquiry in science or math, you still have to have those skills."
VCOE to Present Media and Information Literacy Summit
This June, experts in media and information literacy from across California will come together in Camarillo for a summit presented by the Ventura County Office of Education. One of those experts is Glen Warren, the Director of Literacies, Outreach & Library Services at the Encinitas Unified School District near San Diego (he likes to be known as the L.O.L. Director). 
Warren is a big advocate of teaching media literacy skills by letting students research topics they choose themselves. It could be video games, skateboarding or movies - whatever they are passionate about. "This is the heart and soul of relevance," he says. "Because it answers the question, 'how does that relate to me?'." Warren calls it "desired learning" and says it builds skills that students can then apply to the "required learning" they have to complete in their classes.
He also says students need to be more aware that they're creating a digital footprint that will follow them throughout their lives. "Our students aren't just creating things that get posted on the refrigerator door," he says. "It's now going out for the whole world to see. And with that comes the need to understand safe and ethical use."
These are among the topics to be discussed at the Media & Information Literacy Summit, which will take place at the VCOE Conference and Educational Services Center on June 15. The purpose of the Summit is to give teachers and school administrators resources and lessons they can use to help students decode media messages and critically evaluate information.
While the Summit is geared toward educators, it's open to anyone interested in issues surrounding information literacy. More information and online registration is available here.
Media Literacy Resources
Tools to Help Kids be Smarter Information Consumers
Common Sense:
News and Media Literacy
Videos, articles and FAQs to help kids learn to spot fake news, fact-check stories and find reliable sources.
Smarter Google Searching
Google's top results aren't always the best results. These Google search tricks will help you find what you're looking for.
The 5 Laws of Media and Information Literacy
UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - had created the laws of media literacy, which it sees as a basic human right.
The Bigger Picture
Media Literacy is One Component of Digital Citizenship
Media and information literacy is a piece of a larger puzzle known as "digital citizenship" that encompasses the spectrum of knowledge and skills required to be safe and responsible with today's pervasive digital tools.
The well-respected educational nonprofit Common Sense has divided digital citizenship into these eight categories: Self-Image & Identity, Relationships & Communication, Digital Footprint & Reputation, Cyberbullying & Digital Drama, Information Literacy, Internet Safety, Privacy & Security and Creative Credit & Copyright.
Self-Image & Identity, Relationships & Communication, Digital Footprint & Reputation, Cyberbullying & Digital Drama, Information Literacy, Internet Safety, Privacy & Security and Creative Credit & Copyright.
The Common Sense website is full of great resources for anyone who wants to equip kids with the tools they need to become good digital citizens. Resources for parents are available at . Lesson plans and other tools for educators are at .
The Ventura County Office of Education has also created a Digital Citizenship website with helpful materials for teachers and parents. You can find it at .