Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jun 20, 2019
Media literacy – A need for the hour

In a society where information is ubiquitous and terms like “post-truth” are increasingly becoming part of our narratives, consumers’ awareness and understanding in terms of ‘information’ per se needs to evolve. While it is not uncommon for information creation and propagation to be laced with certain agendas, the ascent of fake news in this digital world across political, ideological, economic and social spectrums has become a matter of concern.

Armed with social media as well as other omniscient messaging networks, where large-scale information dissemination is not the domain of elites or media outlets alone, it is impossible to stem the flow of information. In such an environment, it is essential to equip consumers with tools to filter, analyse and even reject information. This practice must match the timelines of information bombardment, which begins at a young age. Thus, it is imperative for curriculum, pedagogy and learning ecosystems to keep up and devise methods to differentiate between fact and fiction.

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets means that the current generation of students have more access to information than ever before. A 2016 study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group found that although students were proficient on different social media platforms, more than 80% could not distinguish between native advertising ("sponsored content") and news stories. Simply put, students cannot objectively navigate the barrage of information coming their way. Some nations were quick to diagnose this issue and have been honing their response over the last few years.

For instance, 2014 onwards, Finland (which has one of the best public education systems in the world) launched an anti-fake news drive that majorly focused on developing critical thinking and discerning abilities among students. As per a 2016 IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education study, 82% of teachers in Finland picked “promoting student's critical and independent thinking” as their most important goal. Through different modules developed in collaboration with fact-checking organisations and/or external experts, Finland has attempted to develop critical thinking skills among students to counter disinformation. This includes discussing current thematic issues with students, building a culture wherein questioning and cross-checking is inculcated not just as an attitude, but as a practice. Similarly, in September 2018, a bill to encourage media literacy in American public schools was approved by Governor Jerry Brown, Governor of California. The bill, proposed by state senator Bill Dodd, mandates the department of education in the state to provide instructional resources to instill media literacy and train teachers accordingly.

In India, where the veracity of information is fast becoming elusive, there is still scant conversation about structured media literacy modules at the school level. 

In India, where the veracity of information is fast becoming elusive, there is still scant conversation about structured media literacy modules at the school level. While ICT continues to make inroads in different spheres of the education space, functional technology skills cannot be conflated with literacy. Since the flow of information easily transcends geographical boundaries, ethical as well as contextual considerations while consuming content is critical.

India’s school education system that largely depends on completion of syllabus and rote learning is not geared to take on this dynamic mantle. To begin with, there is still limited cognition of the magnitude of this problem at the administrative level. In addition, since most teachers are not digital natives, familiarity with technology is often a major hurdle. Also, the prevalent community culture of blindly trusting the printed word in newspapers or spoken word on television or even WhatsApp forwards largely goes unchallenged. In order to change this social conditioning, reform must occur at different levels.

Firstly, state education departments must recognise the need to incorporate media literacy as an integral part of the curriculum. In this regard, a central government directive will also be useful. This must be promptly followed up with the setting up expert committees to prepare modules for teacher trainings in the subject. Such committees must include existing practitioners and as well as representatives from fact-checking organisations who have developed mechanisms to verify information. It is important that such committees are state and if possible, even region specific, so as to ensure relevant and contextual modules for their respective students. The training modules must be exhaustive and conducted on an annual and evolving basis.

Secondly, parents and immediate elders are at least as pivotal (if not more) to a student’s development. It is impossible to instill an analytical culture within students if the converse is prevalent in their homes. Despite the increasing prevalence of the internet among children, studies have found that families remain their most trustworthy source of information. So in addition to teacher training, parents must be sensitised to the possibility of skepticism towards circulated information. Parent-teacher meetings, school management committee events, annual days, sports days etc., are some of the platforms to initiate discussions about the same.

Thirdly, there is a case to be made for not having a formal curriculum in this regard. Since the medium of information flow is almost never consistent, it is essential that any training in this domain keeps pace with whatever is the current information paradigm. For example, it is pointless to devote too much time to teach students how to spot paid content in newspapers, if most of their news consumption is through Twitter or WhatsApp. Instead, it behooves such modules to use as recent information as possible (both true and false) in the local, national as well as international context while teaching students how to think and analyse.

Lastly, while skepticism towards information must be encouraged, care must be taken that it does not morph into cynicism. For all the dangerous implications of unrestricted information flow, the increasing prevalence of different media has greatly democratised information and increased its scope, access and diversity. The fear of being duped should not overtake the curiosity to learn or be informed. In fact, developing a propensity towards information is a precursor towards anaylsing it. It is essential to understand that media literacy does not mean media control. Under no circumstances should students be instructed to depend on certain sources of information and avoid the rest. The objective is to instill the ability to make such decisions in an informed manner. In an era where misinformation and disinformation campaigns are already having an impact of societal issues and even national elections, it is imperative to equip students with tools to assemble, assimilate and analyse information.

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