Audiences, Participation & Engagement

Media education in the age of digital capitalism

Professor David Buckingham

Readers of this site would probably agree that all of us need to study and learn about contemporary media – and that includes children. Teaching about media in schools is by no means a new development: in the UK, it can be traced back to the 1930s, both as part of English teaching and (since the 1970s) as a specialist subject in its own right, Media Studies. However, media education has often remained on the margins of the education system: it is frequently derided as a ‘soft option’ or a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject, and it is now increasingly under threat from backward-looking educational policies. In the last few years, Media Studies has been struggling to survive; and elements of media have been almost completely eradicated from the curriculum for English. Yet in the modern world, learning about media should surely be a basic entitlement for all children.

This month, Polity Press are publishing my Media Education Manifesto. It’s a short, inexpensive book that’s designed to reach a wide readership of students and teachers, and might even (I wish) be read by policy-makers. I make a succinct and passionate case for media education, based on several decades of research and practice in schools. However, this isn’t just a ‘call to arms’: the book also outlines the key principles of media education pedagogy, makes practical proposals for teaching, and explains where media education should fit into the curriculum.

At the same time, the Manifesto also seeks to reformulate the argument for a digital world, and to look forward to the future. I believe we’re now at a tipping point in the public debate about digital media. In the past few years, the utopian ideas that inspired the pioneers of networked technology – and fuelled countless marketing campaigns – have given way to a widespread disillusionment. Technology is increasingly being seen as a threat, not just to democracy but also to our individual well-being. Headlines are dominated by stories about fake news, invasions of privacy, online radicalization, hate speech, pornography and social media addiction.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”785″ img_size=”medium”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]One solution that’s often proposed in this context is ‘digital literacy’. If governments seem largely incapable of dealing with such problems, people (it is argued) need to take responsibility for their own use of media and technology. Both in the UK and internationally, policy-makers imagine that ‘empowered consumers’ will learn to cope with this flood of digital data. But digital literacy – or media literacy more broadly – is often poorly defined, and frequently amounts to little more than a set of rhetorical good intentions. If media literacy is going to become a reality, it requires a systematic and comprehensive programme of media education in schools.

However, it’s important to be clear about what media education is, and is not. Media education should not be confused with educational technology: it is not a matter of learning instrumental skills in operating hardware or software, or learning how to write computer code. Nor is it a defensive or protectionist enterprise, that seeks to rescue children from the harm that the media are often assumed to inflict upon them. It is not a quick fix for the problem of ‘fake news’, an instant antidote to online radicalization, or a means of weaning children off their ‘addiction’ to social media.

On the contrary, media education is about critical thinking. It invites children to analyse how media communicate, how and why they are produced and used, and how they represent the world. And it has well-established ways of doing this that promote children’s creativity, and encourage them to reflect on their own cultural enthusiasms. This can prove engaging and motivating, but it’s also very far from being a soft option, either for students or their teachers.

Digital media present new opportunities and new objects of study for media educators; but they also present new and demanding challenges. Even so, I don’t believe we need to reinvent the wheel. The Manifesto demonstrates how the existing conceptual framework of media education, developed in relation to ‘old’ media like film, television and the press, can be extended and adapted to new phenomena like social media; and it offers some practical suggestions for teaching, which go well beyond current proposals for ‘spotting fake news’ or warning children about internet safety.

Nevertheless, this isn’t just an argument for a particular school subject. We need to rethink how and why we teach about culture and communication much more broadly. In the process, educators need to take account of the bigger picture. We need to address an environment of ‘total mediation’, in which media have comprehensively pervaded the economy, the political process, the arts and culture, as well as our social and intimate relationships. We need to understand and confront what might be called ‘digital capitalism’ or ‘surveillance capitalism’. Ultimately, media literacy education is not a substitute for regulation: the aim is not just to understand and cope with the media world, but also to imagine and demand change.