Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom

A Collaborative Paper

By:     Michael Haran

Jennifer Poovey

Christine Cook

November 17, 2014

(This paper is an assignment from EDCT 552, Dr. Maryanne Berry, SSU, MA – CTL)

It may still be developing but K-12 online learning is here to stay. The MacArthur Foundation sponsored “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project” and Jessica Parker’s “Teaching Tech-Savvy Kids: Bringing Digital Media into the Classroom, Grades 5-12” both take a look at how education technology and media literacy are impacting contemporary K-12 education.

The primary focus of both writings is on the comparison of digital learning inside and outside the classroom and how both educators and parents can not only rethink pedagogical applications but also support this new learning methodology as they themselves are coming to grips with the concept of the youth driven participatory culture.

The MacArthur Foundation study ( or its YouTube channel at was led by two primary research questions:

  1. How are new media being integrated into youth practices and agendas?
  2. How do these practices change the dynamics of youth-adult negotiations over literacy, learning, and authoritative knowledge?

In Parker’s concluding chapter she again brings up her “Three Tough Questions:”

  1. What does learning look like in the 21st century?
  2. What does literacy look like in the 21st century?
  3. What is knowledge in the 21st century?

Although she offers no model or blueprint to answer these questions what she does do is present contemporary environments in K-12 education where these issues are being addressed and dealt with.

The MacArthur Foundation Study

Contemporary social media, such as social network sites, online games, video-sharing sites, and gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones are now fixtures of youth culture,  are becoming one of the primary “institutions” of peer culture for U.S. teens, occupying the role that was previously dominated by the informal hanging out spaces of the school, mall, home, or street.

It is critical that schools now look for way to incorporate social media into the formal learning process. Online learning will be the primary form of post-formal education for most people so schools should be obligated to not only teach the proper use of social media but also integrate it into all forms of academic training, This requires a culture shift that allows and encourages experimentation and social exploration that is traditionally not characteristic of educational institutions. It is encouraging to note that the MacArthur study found many instances of media production programs and parents supporting these activities.

Since every generation wants to forge their own identity it is important to recognize that any change to K-12 instruction and curriculum has to start with a look at what’s going on at, so to speak, ground zero. Education decision makers which include administrators, teachers and parents, have to work from the “bottom up.” The implementation can be from the “top down” but the instruction materials have to be designed from the bottom up in order for the students to embrace learning as their own.

Online networks are now used by kids to extend the relationships established at their school, extracurricular activities and church and to explore interests and find information that goes beyond what they have access to at school or the local and school libraries. Youth join online groups to share interests such as electronic gaming, creative writing, video editing, or other artistic endeavors and to make known their intellectual and creative works to both online peer and general audiences.

Kids use online spaces and communication media as places to “hang out” with their friends and to connect with like-minded peers who share knowledge and expertise that may not be available to them locally. Online networks have changed the way kids socialize and have added to the existing youth practices of hanging out, flirting, and pursuing hobbies and interests. However, the McArthur study, contrary to fears that online activities are eroding social norms, did not find many youth who were engaging in behaviors that were riskier than what they did in offline activities.

The so called youth “Participatory Culture” is defined by peer-based learning which is characterized by a context of sharing, where participants feel they can both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture. Kids are constantly experimenting with online activities creating new forms of expression and rules for social behavior, and through trial and error they learn self-taught media skill such as creating or customizing video games or social media pages.

Because of its shear volume of available information the internet makes self-directed online learning easier which allows some kids to develop certain knowledge or talents that, in many respects, erase the traditional markers of status and authority. This allows for, in many ways, a greater degree of freedom and autonomy than is not found in classroom settings.

As a result, once knowledge or a skill has been authenticated kids will respect a peer’s authority online and they are often more motivated to learn from each other than from teachers or adults. Because of their ability to be in constant private contact with each other the force of peer-based learning can weaken adult participation.

Peer-based learning is evident in media networks like Facebook as well as in “geeked out” interest groups which are more likely to be intentional knowledge networks. In many cases peer-based learning is motivated by gaining recognition and is often directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests and in contrast to some of the guidance of parents and teachers. Also, kids often take on more “grown-up” roles and ownership of their own presentations, learning, and evaluation of others with peer-based learning.

Yet adults can still have tremendous influence in setting “learning goals,” particularly on the interest-driven side, where adult hobbyists can function as role models and more experienced peers. Unlike online friendship activities where adult participation is often unwelcome, with interest groups there is a much more inviting role for more experienced participants to participate.

Most students who have embraced online learning have had robust technology access, ample time and autonomy to experiment and explore, and a network of peers who supported their new media interests. The most successful examples of online learning are media programs that are based on kids’ own passionate interests that allow lots of unstructured time to tinker and explore without being dominated by direct instruction.

Sporadic online access at schools and libraries may prove sufficient for basic information research, but is insufficient for the immersed kind of participation on both friendship and interest activities. In addition, adult lack of appreciation for youth participation in popular culture has created an additional barrier to access for kids who do not have Internet access at home. When kids lack access to the Internet at home and public libraries, and schools block sites that are central to their social communication, youth are doubly handicapped in their efforts to participate in common social culture.

At this time there appears to be a gender participation gap in the case of highly technical interest groups and complex forms of gaming which is often defined as a masculine domain. The differences in participation are not simply a matter of technology access but represent a more complex structure of cultural identity and social belonging. In other words, girls tend to be stigmatized more if they identify with geeked out practices. 

Youths’ participation in this networked world suggests new ways of thinking about the role of education. Friendship and interest online participation have different kinds of social connotations and this literacy makes it difficult to develop standardizations.

On the friendship side, youth are developing shared norms for online publicity, including how to represent oneself in online profiles, norms for displaying peer networks online, the ranking of relationships in social network sites, and the development of new genres of written communication. On the interest side, youth continue to test the limits of the diverse forms of new media literacy and expression.

Youth are developing a wide range of more specialized and sometimes exclusionary forms of new media literacies including online circulated personal media, such as photos, video blogs, web comics, and podcasts, as well as derivative works such as fan fiction, fan art, mods, mashups, remixes, and fan-subbing. Accordingly, it is important to understand the diverse conventions of youth media literacy before developing targeted educational programs.

Also, because the diverse literacy, culturally specific and technology standards are constantly changing it is problematic to develop a standardized or static set of benchmarks to measure kids’ levels of new media and technical literacy.   Educational networks should include those that are relevant and accessible to kids now, where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age.

Contemporary education has to evolve along with the technological advances that have been embraced by kids. Public education should be a more distributed network of people and institutions and it should be expanded to include a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement.  Building more bridges among these different communities of practice could shape awareness on both the in-school and out-of-school learning environments. 

Today’s media formats, that are changing how youth socialize and learn, have raised a new set of issues that educators, parents, and policymakers have to be aware of. Although youth are often considered early adopters and expert users of new technology, their views on the significance of new media practice are not always taken seriously. Students could benefit from educators being more open to experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic of educational institutions. Erecting barriers to participation deprives teens of access to these forms of learning.

Educators and parents should not burden kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed norms about how they should engage online, particularly if they are not attuned to contemporary youth norms. Parents should begin with an appreciation of the importance of kid’s social interactions with their peers, an understanding of their complexities, and recognition that children are knowledgeable experts on many domains of online participation.

Although youth don’t hold all the answers, it is important to listen to them and learn from their experiences of growing up in a changing media world. Adults who stand on the other side of a generation gap can see these new practices as mystifying and, at times, threatening to existing social norms and educational standards. But if parents can trust that their own values are being transmitted through their ongoing communication with their children, then new media practices can be sites of shared focus and forms of education for a modern society. 

Parker’s Conclusions 

Jessica Parker’s “Teaching Tech-Savvy Kids: Bringing Digital Media into the Classroom, Grades 5– 12,” highlights the most current research on youth participation in new media environments and their peer-based learning practices. Her included insights from classroom teachers, counselors, and other voices throughout education complement these research-based vignettes to provide an account of learning and literacy in the 21st century.

In her concluding chapter Parker takes exception to the fact that a lot of educators see new technologies as a god-send in its potential to reshape literacy and learning, and others who point to a history of educational technology that has repeated itself as one unsuccessful medium after another as the antidote to all educational ills. Accordingly, it is essential that teachers take on proactive leadership rolls within the field of new media as they are, along with students, directly affect by alterations to policy, funding and current trends.

Returning to the Three Tough Questions listed above Parker feels that these questions do not have simple answers. In fact, to grapple with these questions is to be a contemporary educator: to view learning as complex and socially constructed, to be open to new forms of understanding communication, and to appreciate diversity of learning experiences.

The excitement, sleekness and allure of contemporary technology should not suggest that students will magically acquire technical skills and understand academic concepts for technology is not at the core of pedagogy. Pedagogy is based on the learning, knowledge and critical thinking.

Since education principles should drive change efforts and not technology, it benefits educators to rethink key education principles starting with notions of school-based learning, literacy and knowledge as static and unchanging. Through such analysis discussions can be initiated on how to create new learning environments and refurbish traditional ones and at the same time give acknowledgment to the fact that these norms are inherently connected to teacher’s roles, student agency, and traditional notions of authority and expertise.

For instance, issues of ownership and personal creativity are connected to student media making such as integrating video production. Thus, this situation requires a shift in thinking: from a teacher teaching a lesson on video production to a teacher taking a journey with students through video production.

Educational institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media in order to stay relevant as research from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004) collaborated stating that a literate citizen must now have a higher level of critical and analytical skills than was true even a decade ago.

New media environments offer a unique starting point to place students’ motivation and engagement at the forefront of education as the new participatory culture, public networks, and peer-based learning are important tools for understanding the intense enjoyment and sustaining intrigue these digital worlds.

Parker offers a list of practical applications of the book’s concepts which range from creating change at an institutional level to fostering change on an individual scale:

  • Read the technology vision at your school (if you have one; if not, go forth and create) and see if it is in need of revision.
  •  Does your school have a literacy vision? If not, propose that a small number of teachers with you leading the way would like to think through such a project. If your school has one, are there areas that need revision? (And how can educators link a school’s literacy vision with its technology vision?)
  • Join the technology committee at your school (or start one yourself) and plan for both short- and long-term change.Reach out to a local media organization or an after-school program focused on youth culture and see if it possible to establish a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Start a reading group focused on new media technologies and education literature and blog about your discussions.
  • Embrace your inner teacher-researcher and document your efforts at integrating an idea from this book.
  • Dream about alternative learning spaces centered on broadened notions of learning and literacy and be brave enough to share your ideas online.
  • Our profession is known to burn people out. Don’t try and tackle these technological changes by yourself: Reach out and find like-minded educators with whom to collaborate and create partnerships.
  • Think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally—a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement (Ito et al., 2008). Share your ideas on your own educational wiki.
  • Continue to be curious about new media environments and youth culture and discuss your insights with colleagues.
  • Find a student who seems to be geeking out over an interest-based topic. Take this student out to lunch and ask them about their experiences: What is so great about their time spent online? What keeps them motivated to contribute?
  • Go to a youth film festival even if you don’t know any of the students participating.
  • Start your own Facebook profile and friend at least five people.
  • Upload a video response to YouTube.
  • Be bold. Go to Wikipedia and create an entry regarding your school.
  • Read the latest blog posts by Dinah Boyd and Henry Jenkins and post your opinion.
  • Find the self-proclaimed Luddites at your school and tell them that you are more than willing to walk them through some of this high-tech stuff.
  • Have other ideas for creating change in your school or for personally embracing technological change? Share your ideas on the online community forum at

Parker reiterates the MacArthur study by stating that a change in school culture is necessary if schools are going to bring the fun, experimental, peer-based practices that are happening in after school environments into the classrooms. A video posted on YouTube titled, “Why time Spent Online is Important for Teen Development,” presents the idea of a new generation of young people, who have grown up with technologies that allow them to pursue self-directed learning on their own terms and time schedules, being technologically developed.

This is very different than how kids learn in school, where they are handed a set body of knowledge that they are expected to master and the expertise really resides in the teacher. When kids go online to pursue their interests they can look around and connect with knowledgeable people that enable them to customize what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. And that is tremendously empowering for kids and motivating for them to learn.

Students want to pursue subjects that interest them and can become immersed in online, networked environments that connect around interest-based subjects and friendship driven practices. Teachers, parents and administrators can attest to the massive amounts of time and energy students put into playing video games, texting, writing blogs, surfing the internet, role playing and making media.

Teachers usually agree that motivating kids is a fundamental aspect of the job and to that extent teachers should think about student empowerment as the ability of students to choose from diverse areas of interest; pull from both online and offline resources other than textbooks; and feel a sense of control over their education. These online spaces become about the students themselves and how they define their creative abilities and personal interests.

Many students look forward to increasing autonomy; it is a sign that they are maturing intellectually and that their interests are acknowledged and respected. But increased autonomy should not imply that they only seek increased independence. In fact, new media environments are an examples of the degree to which young adults also want to be part of a community of learners.

Education is not only about learning specific content, it is also about developing personal relationships, social relationships among peers and teachers, and relationships to the world.