A quick search on the internet will show that Ontario is seen as one of the leaders in the Media Literacy movement. Media education has been part of the secondary curriculum since 1987 and has been embedded in the English and Language Arts curricula since 1999 (revised 2007). In the secondary English curriculum, it is one of the four strands along with Oral Communication, Writing and Reading and Literature. The curriculum document states that “This strand focuses on helping students develop the skills required to understand, create and critically interpret media texts.” It makes reference to the significance of conventions, to the roles of the audience and to the production elements and industry. In addition to being part of all four years of secondary education, students can take a stand-alone course, EMS 3O, as an option. One would think that with all this emphasis media studies would be thriving and a vital part of most English classes. It’s not. My own experience within my school and what I hear or read about is being done in other schools suggests that there are some teachers who have embraced this area but the majority fit it in as an add-on to something in literature or as a product that is created for an assignment. This is better than nothing but it fails to meet all the expectations in the strand and it does not capitalize on the critical literacy that media studies afford.
So why is it not working? First, most English teachers do not have backgrounds in Communications. Those who are successful Media teachers are either self-taught or have taken some university courses in the subject area. For many years, Media was seen as the domain of a few interested specialists. When the curriculum was changed to make it compulsory for all English teachers, the majority ignored it or interpreted any creation or use of technology e.g. newspapers on Macbeth, videos or podcasts on a topic as sufficient media education. Secondly, as a subject matter, it is vast, ever-changing and open to endless possibilities and interpretations. Most people have no idea where to begin and what to focus on. If you are the type of person who likes structure and concrete approaches, then media studies is discomfiting to you.
Teacher education is vital for this area. I do not understand why faculties of education do not offer a mandatory course in it. As I have stated in a previous post, very few of the many student teachers I have mentored, had any idea of how to teach it. The province is not being well-served by the universities and should demand that it is taught. As well, present teachers should be given PD in it by their school boards. There is a problem with this solution, however. The fact is that a lot of PD has been offered in this area but it has not had any design or structure so that one walks away with a few ideas and maybe a lesson plan but no education in the matter. Before PD can be offered, a focus has to be created. What I am suggesting is that the Media portion of the curriculum needs to be more prescriptive. The language is purposefully vague as in the other strands in order to offer flexibility and choice but this has not been successful in this area. What has happened with the other three strands is that people took what they were already teaching and adjusted it to fit the strand. This is obviously not the case with Media, since they weren’t teaching it to begin with. Change at the Ministry level will not happen quickly; however, there is no reason why this could not occur at a school and board level.
Media education addresses the idea that one needs to be literate on many levels to be successful in our society. This short video from the UK explores the topic with experts in the field. Watch this here. Two ideas that struck me from the conversation were: we are doing a disservice to our students to overstate their competence with technology and you need to learn about and through media before you can create it. In part two of this post, I will discuss my suggestions about what needs to be taught.