10/05/2012 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Media Literacy in the Digital Age


The first presidential debate moved me to reflect upon how we evaluate our leaders based upon who and what we see, which sometimes can be vastly different from what they say. Beyond politicians, instances of what we see mismatching who we are or what we do are widespread. Do any examples come to your mind? How about the images of the "ideal" female body splashed on magazine covers?

We know this culture-wide standard of the "ideal body" is unattainable for most girls and young women today, and we stress the importance of healthy eating and realistic body images. Still, women continue to be negatively affected by constant exposure that results in body image anxiety and eating disorders. Communication shapes our experience of reality. If we are not cognizant of the internalization of images, then how can we work to change its influence on our lives and the lives of our students, from the youngest to those in college?

Our culture has shifted from text as the dominant mode of communication to image. In today's image-based culture, reading images is critical to being able to understand and participate in civic engagement. Yet, image "illiteracy" is pervasive. How do we enable our students to discern reliable information in the mass media influx they receive each day and learn how to critically "read" images?

Teaching media literacy is a compelling way to move students from passive consumers of images to active citizens who can think critically about how they want to shape their own lives. Studies show that students who have access to media literacy skills that foster critical thinking begin to see themselves as agents of change. This process of empowering students is something we encourage at Wheelock College through our American Studies and our Communications majors, in which the core courses explore the role of the media in shaping and framing the way people think about the world and their place in it.

Professors at Wheelock are using a variety of methods to cultivate media literacy skills in students in order to ignite a passion for intellectual engagement with the world of ideas. These methods involve introducing students to a range of theories and concepts that provide a critical understanding of the images and messages that form the backbone of our collective culture. What follows are recommended tools and tips that have worked successfully with our students.

Use all the tools in the academic tool box.
• Start early. Teach media literacy and critical thinking to young children, and continue teaching it throughout students' entire academic career.

• Many students want to engage in improving the world but too often lack the skills, knowledge, and information they need to be effective. Helping them see how becoming a well-educated person will serve them in their quest for change is a central part of our mission.

• Embrace social media as a teaching tool.

o As part of an early childhood education course titled Meaning and Development of Play, students interview someone over age 50 about their play when they were young. Many students use this as an opportunity to interview a parent or grandparent using Skype. Feedback from the students indicates that it is a bonding experience from which they learn a lot more about the person interviewed as well as about changes in play between then and now.

o Tap into social networks to generate a connection between students.

o Blogs and vlogs can be a compelling way to share experiences when studying internationally.

• Using pop culture as a tool for deconstruction is one way to develop media literacy skills. Start the process with pop culture that students enjoy.

o At Wheelock, we hold evening events constructed around the theme of what is culturally or historically inaccurate in popular movies and TV shows; for example, Desperate Housewives. Students report that this reframing of the TV show inspires them to become more critical viewers.

Embrace community service and civic engagement.
• At Wheelock, we've developed Ubuntu Arts, a program integrated into the Juvenile Justice and Youth Advocacy Major. Each Wheelock student works with a group of high school students, an artist, and adult mentors to organize, create, exhibit, document, and evaluate a youth-led collaborative art-making project. This college-and-community activity provides opportunities for support and enrichment for everyone who becomes involved, including youth workers, faculty, viewers, and supporters. Wheelock students find that this experience has an especially powerful and inspiring impact on them.

• Break through the cynicism and chatter that mark our 24-hour news world by discussing current events in depth and providing the political, economic, and historical context needed for understanding the news.

• Use anchor issues that students are interested in to develop interest in being well-versed.

• Turn education into action in order to make learning a powerful hands-on experience ― fueled by a solid grounding in scholarly analysis ― and to turn students into agents of change.

Connect the dots between a robust student life and academics.
• Raise expectations about what it means to be prepared for class and for graduation, including a solid grasp of current events and civic dialogue.

• Make the news required reading when appropriate for class, and aim to shift reading habits to include a variety of news sources.

• Help students learn to locate reliable sources of information and to think critically about what they find. The key to this is showing them how to distinguish scholarly arguments from opinion.

• News literacy is a skill -- don't assume it will happen on its own. Instead, provide students with courses and out-of-class opportunities to gain news literacy throughout their college career.

• Model critical thinking. Class discussions, campus activities, and teachable moments are all opportunities to show the importance of being informed enough to participate in dialogues across campus.

• Be sure that higher education curricula give students an understanding of connections, patterns, and history so that students have a context for understanding the news they do consume.

Share successes and ideas with others.
• Word of mouth is one of the most powerful communication tools we have for working with today's students -- use it. Once students begin to engage in civic dialogue, encourage them to make it viral with their peers through social media. Do not lose the social aspect. Help students to engage each other by championing issues they care about and sharing what they learn with peers.

• Consider including cyber activism in education, looking at both the pros and cons. is a good starting point.

For other tips and success stories, please share in the comments section below or feel free to email me directly at