Acquiring of media literacy should start at an early age

In the digital era, media and information literacy is a trademark skill in development of future responsible, thinking citizens, and should be acquired as of the first encounters of children with information.

by Tamara Zablocki

The media literacy index of the Open Society Institute, which speaks about resilience of European societies against the fake news phenomenon in the post-truth age and dedication to media freedom and education, indicates that Bosnia and Herzegovina has reached European rock bottom in these terms; only Albania, Turkey, and Macedonia are positioned even less favourably than our country.

The poor position the Balkan countries occupy on this ladder testifies to the extent to which media is restrained in this part of Europe, but also to how much work would have to be invested in promotion of education. The insufficient media literacy in our region at the time of post-truth speaks about the necessity of learning critical thinking, and working on improvement of media literacy as of the earliest age, which would also be in line with recommendations of the EU and UNESCO.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, pre-university education does not treat media as an important part of everyday life, which is proved by the fact that the common core of curricula and syllabi for elementary schools in BiH does not include a separate course for acquiring of media literacy to teach school children the process of generation of news, necessary checking of its veracity, and social engagement; within the existing courses, media is mentioned at but a few classes a year. For example, according to the Framework curriculum and syllabus for 9-year elementary school in BiH Federation, from II to IX class media is included in the course ’Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian language and literature’ within the teaching area Media culture, the contents of which also include literature, music, theatre, film, libraries, comics, etc.

Media culture envisages teaching VI-graders about notions which characterize print and electronic media, radio and TV, as well as the emergence and development of the Internet, but not critical thinking about news on modern media platforms already largely surrounding children at that age. In the VIII grade, children are taught about different types of radio and TV programmes, while they learn about the Internet in the final, IX grade. However, from the curriculum and syllabus of the Federal ministry of education and science it is obvious that the emphasis in elementary school media classes is placed on definitions, without an overview of actual experiences of the digital generation, and that audio-visual media is in focus.

In grammar schools, media and its characteristics are partly tackled in the course ‘Civil education/Democracy and human rights’.  Analyses of media literacy in BiH emphasize the issue of its insufficient quality, as well as quantity of education on media in elementary and secondary schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the best proof of the latter criticism is in the fact that the course ‘Civil education/Democracy and human rights’ includes only a one-digit number of classes within four years of education. Regardless of this, according to the reply filed to us by the Federal Ministry of Education and Science, there are no plans to introduce media education in schools in a more comprehensive manner.

Media literacy needs to be a binding teaching practice

Experience of Namir Ibrahimović, teacher of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language and literature in the Safvet-beg Bašagić Elementary School in Sarajevo confirms that the elementary school teaching area Media culture is not sufficient for elementary school children to acquire basis in media literacy:

“Numerous topics got piled up in the area Media culture, and everything has been done superficially, quoting definitions, useless data, and even incorrect information. If you have a look at the mother-tongue textbooks, you could see how stale the given data on media is; it is held back in time since the time of publication of the textbooks, and as such they are of no use whatsoever to children who are supposed to learn from them.”

Ibrahimović confirms that media culture in curricula and syllabi does not treat information, sources, inquiries, source checking, or development of news and use of social networks. Thus, should they desire to work with children in the area of media literacy, teachers need to be resourceful in different manners:

“I tackled media literacy with my students sporadically, sometimes taking time from regular classes of mother tongue, while sometimes using regular class meetings; we analyzed TV programme, counted up advertising minutes, treated public media service content, followed comments on portals, played with checking of the given facts, and production and publishing of photographs which bear some concrete piece of information …”

Our interviewee adds that such “resourcefulness” on part of teachers with the aim to tackle the topic of the area of information which students are surrounded with on everyday basis does not improve the process of education, although it does give an opportunity to individual students to think about media they use on everyday basis or occasionally, to check information they have read on their devices. An actual change would call for a systematic approach which would not depend on individual willingness of teachers.

“Improvement of the process of education would imply that some of these are included in binding teaching practices”, emphasizes Ibrahimović.

‘News is not a topic within the educational system at all’

Ibrahimović assesses that elementary school students are technologically literate, but not media literate, which is no wonder because nobody takes care about their media literacy:“

They are left to themselves and the industry which, using technology, sells its ideas and products, and in the course of that shapes the future population so that they do not think, do not check, and do not create their own quality content which could promote the society as a whole. News is not a part of the educational system at all. In the course of their elementary education, pupils mostly learn what teachers require them to learn, reading poorly written textbooks, reproducing such content and getting the highest grades from all courses; nothing of this is connected to their everyday life, largely determined by their friends’ posts on social networks, which shapes their positions and opinions, and has impact on their preoccupation.”

However, media literacy and critical thinking are prerequisites for sound education:

“The information which children learn about at school and out of it is not sufficient; it is important to teach them how information can be used, and how such knowledge may be put in function. Some media literacy programmes essentially involve critical thinking which forms future active citizens, interested in the setting in which they live, with the wish to exert influence on it and find a place where living is comfortable.“

Ibrahimović believes that media literacy should be taught since the age at which children encounter information, which in a compulsory educational system means since the first grade of elementary school.

“Media is everywhere around children; nowadays children spend more time in front of a monitor than earlier generations, while the absence of any education in relation to media implies consequences which we, as a society, are not even aware of.”

Nenad Veličković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, writer and editor-in-chief of Školegijum, magazine for just education, which deals with shortcomings of the educational system in BiH, believes that media literacy would have to be more comprehensively included in the educational system, as he says, from the age suited for catechism:

“Media literacy in schools should be present in a cross-curricular form, which is possible only if the existing division to numerous courses is radically reformed. As it is not realistic to expect this to happen fast, then this should be done within mother tongue courses, which would also have to be changed radically. As this is also impossible, this should be done through optional courses, or through extra-curricular activities, or through activities of the NGO sector.”

Veličković also emphasizes that introduction of the subject of media literacy in the BiH education system as it is at the moment would contribute nothing or little to it, as, he says, it would be drowned in the poor context. “But anything would be better than nothing, as it is at the moment”, he concludes.

Radmila Rangelov Jusović, executive manager of Centre for educational initiatives Step by step which supports innovative education, agrees with Veličković:

“Media literacy is one of key competences of the present time and we think it is not sufficient to have it only as an optional course in schools. Such competences need to be incorporated in curricula of all courses because there is no knowledge area in which they are not involved, one way or another”, she assesses.

‘Rest’ from traditional schools and teaching

Unlike Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro is the leader in the region by the fact that it made the first step towards systematic improvement of media literacy in pre-university education more than ten years ago. The optional course ‘Media literacy’ was introduced in the Montenegrin educational system in 2007, in the same year when UNESCO adopted the Paris Agenda on Information and Media Literacy.

Božena Jelušić, co-author of the curriculum for media literacy for Montenegrin secondary schools and teacher of this optional course over the last ten years emphasizes that this was true refreshment in her working years, a challenge and opportunity to gain new knowledge:

“Youngsters we teach were ‘born digital’, while us, their teachers, are mostly ‘intruders’ in this world. This is why students feel at home at media literacy classes, and this is important to exploit in the best possible manner. Authority is established through unobtrusive leadership and cooperation with students whose specificities you recognize, acknowledge, and assess. Once they master the skill of critical posing of questions, a whole new world of opportunity opens up before them. Cooperative relations, discussion, and freedom in expressing opinions contributed to the fact that I have hardly ever been in the position to grade someone poorly. It might sound rough, but for me this course has been a ‘creative rest’ from traditional school and teaching.”

Along with generally dealing with the issues of authorship, media language, message reception, its ideology and purpose, thus developing healthy skepticism in users, Media Literacy as a school course separately treats the issues of ethics in the media, Code of Journalists, public broadcasting service, and commercial media outlets and their regulation, which is important in relation to issues concerning trustworthiness and freedom of media. Jelušić emphasizes that the course is ideal for group projects and development of non-linear, ‘radial’ thinking, specific for experiences of digital generations, while it also strengthens associative and poly-perspective approach to different contents.

“It is also necessary to remember that since the U.S. elections in 2016, the phenomenon of fake news has been marked as the global challenge for democratic societies; thus, the European Commission emphasized the key role of media literacy in training citizens in critical thinking, while media literacy has been included in the list of competences necessary for the 21st century. In essence, media literacy is a good tool against fake news, as it is inseparable from critical thinking and the ability to question something served to us as given, unquestionable truth, especially when it comes from positions of power aimed at manipulating information”, adds Jelušić.

Good idea in a black hole of bureaucratized system

Despite the advantages, the ten-year existence of one optional course does not mean that nowadays media literacy in Montenegro is at a high level, which is also indicated by the already mentioned Index of Media Literacy which positions this country right beside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jelušić explains that this is due to the disruption of an important stage of decentralization of Montenegrin educational system, which lasted until 2011.

“Rather than extending the reach of the course to all secondary school students or introducing it as a compulsory course, school administrations are left free will to decide whether to offer it or not. In the end, everything got down to supplementing of the number of classes (with this course) for teachers who had not had full-time number of classes. Thus, the number of students taking this course was almost halved. This is a good indicator of how even an excellent idea might fall in the ‘black hole’ of bureaucratized perception of educational goals.”

Still, there is an encouraging fact that a large number of teachers of all courses in Montenegro opt for the training course in media literacy when it is offered by the Educational Institute, obviously believing that this can help them in their work with young people, while the subject also turned out to be useful for continuation of education of students who were attending it in secondary schools.

“According to their statements, media literacy turned out to be an initial advantage for them with different university departments, mainly because they had mastered the manner of work where the emphasis is placed on questioning/deconstruction skills which are later used to gain other knowledge”, emphasizes Jelušić, adding that a greater share of school courses devised in the same manner could also improve the results of PISA testing which currently indicate that the region is lagging back in education.

Strategic consideration of media literacy

The Montenegrin example was followed by Serbia; thus, the course ‘Language, Media and Culture’ was introduced as of the school year 2018/2019 in grammar schools and some other professional schools in Serbia. Maja Zarić, Head of the Group for Euro-integrations, international cooperation, programming, and implementation of programs and projects financed from international funds in the area of public information by the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Information believes that every step ahead in making it possible for children and young people to acquire knowledge and skills in the area of media literacy is exceptionally important.

“For the time being, we have learned that school children opt for this subject frequently and gladly, which speaks about their awareness and the need to systematize and promote all their knowledge, experience and skills adopted so far”, she emphasizes.

With the experience of work on the Strategy of development of the public information system which includes the improvement of media literacy in Serbia, a document that this country has been working on since 2011, Zarić adds that strategic work on increasing media literacy among children implies a multi-disciplinary approach and inter-sectoral cooperation:

“Strategic consideration of increasing media literacy among children and young people implies solid knowledge of the international legal framework, standards and good practices, while development of a quality analysis of the state of affairs in this domain, setting of goals after the SMART model, and careful planning of activities, measures and indicators calls for an inclusive approach in involving interested parties in the development of the document.”

The article was translated from Mediacentar_Online, website of the SEENPM partner, where it was originally published on 10/1/2019.