Media education is a basic entitlement for all children and young people. At least that’s what the Australian government recently decided by choosing to include Media as one of the five Arts forms for inclusion in the new Australian (National) Curriculum. I’m not sure the federal government meant to make that decision, but in effect that is what happened. Media education in the Australia Curriculum is to be called Media Arts (more on that later) and will be mandatory for all Australian children from preschool to year 8. A curriculum will also be written for years 9 to 12 for those schools that choose to implement it. The Media Arts curriculum will be familiar to most media educators; underpinned by key areas of knowledge around media languages, representations, institutions, audiences and technologies. It will be completely unfamiliar to most primary school teachers and many lower secondary teachers who will be required to implement it; and that poses some significant challenges for implementation.
As an advisor to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, I am in the privileged position of having direct input into what the Media Arts curriculum will include. This has required me to go back to answering some of the basic questions about what I believe are the reasons for including media education as a mandatory requirement for all children and young people, and what a media education should ‘look like’ from pre-school to senior secondary school. The thoughts outlined below sit behind a number of decisions that are currently being made about the shape of the Media Arts curriculum. They will not appear as curriculum policy, but they are my thoughts as an advocate for media education for over twenty years. Several of my claims are based on assumptions that probably need to be worked through via solid classroom based research. But as this is a manifesto, for now I’m putting aside my researcher’s anxiety of taking a solid position.
Why should media education be mandatory for all children and young people?
Australian society should aim for media education that leads to high levels of participation in digital cultures because it is good for democracy. By high level participation, I mean the ability to produce short videos, create podcasts and other digital content that provides alternatives to alphabetic literacy for communicating ideas. In societies in which video can be shot on mobile devices and edited on personal computers, why shouldn’t we expect people to communicate ideas through recording, editing and sharing video and audio and other digital forms? I am enough of a Foucauldian to believe that the greater the number of people who have to ability to produce media, the better our societies and communities are likely to be. Pluralism is superior to homogeneity and genuine participation in digital culture by more people will lead to greater cultural pluralism.
Some young people successfully participate in digital culture without formal education. Of course, many do not. A quick (unscientific) scan of the skills and knowledge of young people coming into the teacher education courses at my University suggests that while most students can use computer hardware and software to undertake everyday activities like communicate with email, use social networks and access online videos, few produce media content in the form of videos or podcasts. I believe that’s because they do not know how to produce videos efficiently and effectively – it is not because they are uninterested or unwilling. The creation of meaningful media products relies on a range of complex skills and knowledge that should be developed over several years and that is most likely to occur through the formal education system. This is also true of children and young people’s ability to think about the reasons for media production and the consequences of its consumption. There continues to be a role for media analysis of both media texts and contexts and this should be taught and practiced over several years of schooling.
What is the distinction between media education as a form of Arts education and as an aspect of English curriculum or literacy learning?
Media education more ‘naturally’ belongs in the Arts than in English curriculum or as an aspect of literacy education. Actually, I don’t really believe that to be entirely true. Of course it depends on the type of media education to be implemented and the purpose for its implementation. However, media education needs to have a ‘home’ in the curriculum if it is to be treated seriously by teachers, parents and students. Cross curricular approaches to media education only seem to work where dedicated enthusiasts ensure that their schools build media education objectives into other curriculum areas – and this occurs too infrequently. A home curriculum, with a detailed set of learning objectives provided for various stages of schooling, is required to ensure that teachers feel supported in their implementation of any curriculum. This is particularly the case if it is a curriculum that is likely to be unfamiliar to them if they are working in primary school contexts. The Arts provides a more logical fit for media education than English because media education is most successful when it involves creative media production.
Of course, there is a convincing argument that English curriculum should include media production, but the reality is that media production is not a priority for most English teachers (in Australia, creative writing is not a priority for many English teachers). Media is being called Media Arts in the Australia Curriculum because the curriculum authority does not want to confuse teachers, parents and students with the existence of Media in both English and the Arts. In some jurisdictions, like New South Wales, media education mostly occurs through the English curriculum. In other States like Queensland and Victoria, Media has been offered through both English and the Arts since at least the early 1990s. Until Buckingham’s suggestion in Beyond Technology (2007) that we reconceptualise media, English, technology and literacy education into a broad curriculum focus called something like ‘cultural studies’ becomes a reality, I believe the Arts is the best place to locate media education.
What is achievable in schools suffering from ‘crowded curriculum’ syndrome and where there are few media specialists?
The reality in most Australian primary schools is that media education is poorly understood and that it exists in small pockets of activity where enthusiasts implement it. Making media education an entitlement for all children in this context is challenging and a long way off being achieved. It is a good thing that the Australian Curriculum is being touted as ‘aspirational’. The current situation in Australian primary schools, where high stakes testing, accountability measures, and multiple competing priorities are a reality, makes media education a low priority. The Australian Curriculum will make it mandatory for all students from pre-school to year eight to have achievement reported against Media Arts standards – most likely in two year intervals.
The curriculum will need to be written in such a way that is able to be understood and implemented by non specialist teachers. This means that it will be outlined quite differently to a specialist secondary school Media Studies curriculum. There will be more emphasis on the Arts practice aspects of media education and less on “theory” although key conceptual questions will still underpin all aspects of the curriculum. This has already caused some concern amongst specialist media educators as they have provided feedback on the draft shaping papers. Some have suggested it is not enough like ‘Media’ as we know it. Some have objected to the name ‘Media Arts’ and others have argued that it is too focused on the ‘cultural studies’ aspects at the expense of ‘aesthetic’ knowledge – meaning there is too much focus on concepts like representations and institutions.
Some final thoughts
In my opinion, a manifesto for media education must call for media education to be an entitlement for all. But I believe media education should continue to evolve to meet the needs of today’s children and young people who have different relationships with media than the kinds of relationships children and young people had with media in the 1970s and 1980s– when media education was initially established as a field. It must also evolve to be relevant and practical to all educators, not just specialist media educators. There are some basic principles that continue to be important to me as a media educator – such as the belief that universal media education should be our goal, because high levels of participation in media cultures by many is more desirable than participation by few. It is also desirable that young people graduating from upper secondary school should be able to think critically about media texts and the contexts in which they are produced and used. Beyond that, I think media educators should be careful to avoid being weighed down by past practices and beliefs. In other words, a manifesto for media education should ne non normative, open to interpretation and adaptable to multiple contexts.