The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Luke Ramsden

Navigating digital media: an essential part of the school curriculum?

Luke Ramsden makes the case for the explicit teaching of media and digital literacy to equip young people for a world of limitless information.

If you look at the front page and mission statement of any school around the country you are likely to see that they boast that they are teaching for a ‘21st century education’ (and not a moment too soon it could be argued, having already reached 2021!). What isn’t always clear is what they are doing that’s different from teaching for the 20th century. 

Traditional GCSE and A level curriculums remain unchanged and while, for instance, coding is now taught in a number of schools, this could be seen as the equivalent of teaching basic mechanics to someone who wants to learn how to drive – good to know but not directly relevant.

In fact, school children, born into the internet age, arguably do not need that much help with the technical side of computer use, but do quite definitely need far more education in how to understand and interpret the limitless tide of information that can be found on the internet (to be fair, something that could be said for most adults as well!).

What’s available currently for schools who want to teach about digital media?

In response to the growing problem of ‘fake news’, UNESCO published Journalism ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation in 2018, and there are now many other excellent internet resources that explain how to avoid ‘fake news’ and use online media intelligently, such as the Poynter Institute’s free course, How to Spot Misinformation Online, and The Guardian’s Newswise course for primary school children. Yet, with the exception of Newswise, most of the resources currently available are not specifically aimed at school children, are not tailored to classroom teaching, and do not see these vital skills as linked with the school curriculum.

Time and again surveys show that people trust websites because they look professional and have good graphics rather than because of their content

There have been educational leaders advocating the much wider roll-out of a curriculum for digital literacy, but there has not been much movement since the publication of a government commission report on fake news, which reported that only 2% of school children have the skills to be able to tell if a news story is real or fake.

This is in contrast to Finland, which has its own governmental media education authority, perhaps not surprisingly given its proximity to Vladimir Putin’s Russia which is such a large source of online disinformation. As their policy guidelines state:

Good media literacy enables us to understand and critically appraise the world and the culture we live in… Good skills in media literacy are an important element for participation and inclusion in society.

Making digital media part of our PSHE curriculum

One company looking to fill this gap is Bellingcat, a leading organisation in investigative journalism and online fact-checking. It is launching a collaboration with my own school, St Benedict’s in Ealing, to produce an in-depth digital media course that will be part of the PSHE curriculum for all students from years 7-13. This will ensure that even in Year 7 our students are aware of the importance of critically evaluating what they read online.

People should be prepared to look critically at what they read online and think about its origins and purpose, rather than just taking it at face value

With a course that runs through their time in senior school, students will develop and deepen their understanding of these skills, ensuring that they emerge from school fully equipped to critically evaluate the online world that they will be spending so much of their time inhabiting.

The resources for this will be made available online for any other school to use and it is hoped that this will prompt more schools to incorporate this vital subject into their own schemes of work. (Want to stay up-to-date re progress on the proposed resources? Contact Luke.)

How to navigate digital media

Like all education, digital media education is about giving students the tools to critically evaluate the information in front of them. There are a few skills which are particular to the digital world.

  • Lateral reading. If you open up a website to find information, make sure you take the time to open up other websites to check what you read on the first site. This allows you to widen your investigation of a topic and to find information either to confirm or contradict what you first read. Time and again surveys show that people trust websites because they look professional and have good graphics rather than because of their content, so this cross-checking can be absolutely vital.
  • Click restraint. Searching for a topic on the internet will not always take you to the most accurate and useful website, but most internet users will click only on the first two sites found when they make an internet search. These top findings will be either adverts or the most popular sites for that search which does not necessarily make them accurate! Take the time to look at more of the sites in the search listing, as they might be more helpful and accurate, even if not the first one you come across.
  • Reading upstream. This bit of fact-checking terminology is about reading every article beyond its dramatic headline. Rather than take any piece of information that you read at face value, always go further and check where the information has come from. If an article presents its sources and allows you to ‘read upstream’ easily, then that in itself suggests that it might be a trustworthy source. A good example of this is a Wikipedia article where you can verify the information presented in the article by following the footnotes which tell you where that information came from.

Thinking is critical

The common theme in all of this is that people should be prepared to look critically at what they read online and think about its origins and purpose, rather than just taking it at face value because it has good graphics and comes top of your Google search.

I am hopeful that sooner rather than later all schools will be looking to ensure that our young people can engage critically with digital media, so that they can make fully informed choices and not get carried away by the ever-rising tide of ‘fake news’.

Further reading

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