Some unfashionable thoughts

Keith Perera, Advanced Skills Teacher, St Paul’s Catholic College, Burgess Hill, West Sussex

Some unfashionable thoughts

My main interest in media education has been from the perspective of a classroom teacher, a role I have fulfilled for over 15 years. However from different places (Head of Department, Advanced Skills Teacher and teacher training tutor) I can see that it is a highly contested space and now is as good a time as any to map out where we are and the possible future direction of the subject area.

It is true that the foundations of media education have been undermined by the increasing digitization of popular media. ‘Givens’ in the subject, for example our focus on the broadcast media, our conceptual frameworks (a loose but generally cohesive body of knowledge) and a broad vision of ‘empowering’ students to read and create media formed over a 30-year period seem to be increasingly subject to critique.

There are many others (e.g. Livingstone, 2002, Jenkins, 2006) who have more eloquently explored the impact that digitization and Web 2.0 has had on media production, distribution, exchange and consumption practices. Our focus has shifted to ‘new’ media (not that they are new to the children we teach mind): social networking, e-commerce, digital rights. Our well worn conceptual framework has come under criticism for not reflecting this new media ecology. From outside our subject area, the tools of our trade: computers, video editing, podcasting, DTP are now an accepted part of any teacher’s arsenal: a movie maker in History, a podcast in English, a Photoshop product in RE. Media education has crept into the curriculum via the media literacy initiative a cross-curricular or trans curricular project but with what seem relatively limited aims for a media educationalist with a long enough memory.

There are few media teachers who have not had to teach a topic that they had little prior knowledge but the issues facing new media teachers is much deeper rooted. I have delivered a GTP teacher training course at the University of Sussex which trains media graduates or those with media industry experience to gain their QTS in media. With good degrees or first hand experience in media they often feel ill equipped in the teenage classroom. Apart from the usual anxiety that goes hand in hand with a teacher training course, I have witnessed an increasing existential anxiety. Who am I? What am I trying to do? One can sense their discomfort. All those years studying the intricacies of Kurusowa is no use when you are teaching the long tail, those perfected Final Cut skills have no sway when your year 10 already has the mastered the program and has her own YouTube channel. In school, your expertise as a media teacher is mirrored as the maths students use Flip cameras for their investigations and the history students identify bias in a recent documentary. The only statutory media study in school is some form of media literacy. As Buckingham (2008) has identified, media literacy is an arm of regulation not education in neo-liberal public policy. At its bleakest, it doesn’t seem like such a good career move.

So what is the difference between the media education in its media studies sense and media literacy. Media studies needs to offer something distinctive. I agree with many of the participants in this debate that there is a need to pare down the aims of media education. Too often the subject has been saddled with lofty aims that are impossible to achieve, however laudable they may have been: student empowerment is the most problematic for me. We need to scale back what we do to what is definable and doable. My list may sound rather instrumental but teaching and learning requires tight objectives and I still think that the old fashioned set of key concepts still have some life left for them in the digital age.

• Students need to know about laws that relate to media practice.

• Students need to know about government policy that relate to media practice.

• Students need to know about the history of media organisations.

• Students need to know about the structure of various media industries.

• Students need to understand key theories/ideas that have informed study of the media.

• Students need to be able to use digital technology to create texts that can consciously follow industry practice and/or function as a more creative/aesthetic exercise.

• Students need to know why some media texts are ‘better’ (aesthetically, commercially, culturally, politically) than others – although the criteria need to be suitably varied.

• Students need to know that there is a world of alternative practice that emanates from networks beyond the mainstream

• Students need to know that the media, arguably, offer powerful representations of the world and some of these can come to define certain social groups, places and ideas

• Students need to know that media texts are complex and that there have been various studies/models that examine audience responses

The ‘radical’ that still exists within me hopes that within this framework children go far deeper in understanding the role that the media play in their own identity formation, the institutional domination that media transnationals have over them, the complex ways in which we, even with or in spite of this knowledge, have complex relationships with the texts we consume and that media representations can be debated on all sides with passion. Unfortunately, this is not the realm of formal media study. This is much more important than that and as such is not measureable and assessable in the crude terms required by the examinations system. These issues are far too toxic in the classroom where adolescence, classroom relations, examination specifications and the teacher’s individual position are unstable ingredients in the achievement of these open-ended outcomes relating to empowerment or (political?) engagement. Only those who believe naively that all these factors can be effaced in some form of ‘radical pedagogy’ can seriously sustain a belief in the transformative power of media study at such a deep level for all students. This is not to say that some students will take their learning and apply it meaningfully to their own lives, it is just that this will happen over such a period of time and in other environments far removed from my media classroom. For most students the course will just be like any other, a subject where they learn ‘stuff’ that generally attunes their critical faculties offers a creative outlet and provides new technical skills. With a somewhat heavy, but realistic, heart I think we need to retreat into areas with more manageable and tangible outcomes.

We continue to exist in a wider culture of mistrust of our subject and to some extent we do need to reconfigure the subject so that it is challenging, a technical, creative, analytic subject area in which courses reflect the importance of each area. A level Film Studies may be more analytic, BTEC Media Production may be more technical and A level Media Studies may be more creative. Each course would retain aspects of all three features but in different compositions to reflect the pathway that the student intends to follow.

I am aware of the Media Studies 2.0 thesis (Gauntlett, 2007, Merrin, 2009) that has been proposed and in many ways, it seems as though I am retreating into what has been labeled Media Studies 1.0. As Dovey and Lister (2009) maintain, this rather caricatured characterisation of the subject is simplistic and masks the enormous variation that the old conceptual framework offered. That said, the over reliance of textual analysis predicated on some kind of dominant reading position was perhaps given too much weight. Conversely, there is a problem with some of the Media Studies 2.0 perspective which takes us to another unhelpful extreme where, instead of the critic, inventing meaning through semiotic gymnastics we now have the academic who sees ‘activity’ ‘participation’ and ‘connection’ using their learned eyes. I wonder if participants in this research are as aware of all the complex ways their media consumption (and production) can be understood.

As we are speaking amongst friends, my greatest anxiety is when I have my own crisis. Could the Daily Mail actually be right? Have I spent most of my adult life developing a low status subject with little tangible academic or vocational worth? Was it all one big wheeze, a sop to all the unfulfilled dreams of a post 1968 generation caught on an anti-Thatcherist wave? Was this frustration channeled to mollify ourselves that we were fighting the system from within or at least from the margins? Maybe…

Now might be a good time for media studies to make a distinction between what students study and how they demonstrate their understanding. I think media students should be encouraged to use digital technology for specialist purposes to demonstrate creative skills using industry standard equipment. In this was we give them something different to what they can use as a ‘regular’ user of media technology. Teachers need to up skill or use outside expertise to inform students of industry practice. This offers some qualitatively higher knowledge for students. In the same way our job is to give students knowledge but knowledge in quite a traditional sense. It cannot be right there isn’t a broad body of knowledge that all media students have access to. I know this sounds a little Govian but it is little embarrassing when A level media students don’t know who the Director of the BBC is or who owns BSkyB (even this week!!!) It does us no favours that an A* grade requires the teachers list of theory rather than some accepted body of knowledge from the examination board. It just doesn’t help our cause for legitimacy.

And so it is to the classroom I return. I still see innate value in a progressive form of specialized media study. I still feel the need to call for legitimacy within the curriculum, however forlorn that might be. I think media/film studies, not media literacy, can offer something distinctive that functions either as another humanity subject or as a truly vocational subject which can be fashioned into a number of appropriate courses (GCSE, A level, Nationals). Whatever its form, it must be rooted in tangible knowledge and skills. For too often we have tried to do too much to do with what can broadly be called ‘identity’. I think we bit off more than we could chew!


Buckingham, D. (2008) The future of media literacy in the digital age: some challenges for policy and practice in Media literacy in Europe Controversies, Challenges and perspectives. (Accessed 9 December 2010).
Dovey, J. and Lister, M. (2009) Straw men or cyborgs? in Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture Volume 1 Number 1
Gauntlett, D. (2007) Media Studies 2.0. (Accessed 26 October 2010)
Jenkins, H. (2006) Fans, bloggers and gamers: exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.

Livingstone, S, (2002) Young People and New Media. London: Sage.
Merrin, W. (2009) Media Studies 2.0: upgrading and open-sourcing the discipline in Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture Volume 1 Number 1


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  1. A former Media Studies studentf says:

    I think the issue that you touch on, the idea that Media Studies is essentially having (and has since it’s inception?) an identity crisis, is spot on. It doesn’t know what to focus on, it has little direction, and as a result appears to be of little use, perhaps even stagnant.

    I don’t have any answers myself, it is something I have spent little time thinking about as I am neither involved in the industry or education of the subject, but it appears that there is a need to splinter the subject and divide it into two or more specialised directions. One could be heavily focused on theory while the other on application. This would definitely help add a little bit of legitimacy to the subject(s).

    Is there a need for a cameraman or UX designer to have in-depth knowledge of the theories and context behind the content they are helping to create? On the other hand, does a writer, journalist or director require to have perfected the practical sides of making their creations come to life? I guess you could argue either way, some knowledge outside of their specialism is probably a good thing, but I feel that in trying to satisfy both areas in one course, one syllabus, is doing more harm than good to students, ultimately leaving them with a little bit of an identity crisis of their own.

    Finally, why do you believe that it is important for students to know who owns or runs what? Is it for them to be able to identify trends, and perhaps bias, in their productions? Surely this is easily gleamed by simply analysing the content itself? Perhaps students should be taught to be a little skeptical, maybe their should be more of a focus on current events and modern media instead of historial analysis. The media world is a dynamic and ever changing landscape; maybe it’s time for education to emulate it–how you would implement this in an objective and measurable syllabus is another thing entirely…

    I suspect I fell foul to a little bit of verbal incontinence here, I only intended to write a sentence or two, but hopefully what I have written adds positively to the overall discourse, even if it only sparks a thought or two in peoples minds.

    Anyway, it’s good to see you still have a passion for your subject, even if you are questioning your faith. You were one of the few teachers who seemed to have a genuine interest in what you were teaching, not simply regurgitating information in order for your students to pass a test or tick boxes.

  2. Liam French says:

    I think that your manifesto is interesting and I absolutely agree with you on the point about MS2.0 – there are some major problems with it (and on a number of levels).

    As for the Daily Mail moments, I think that we all have those once in a while which, I guess, illustrates perfectly the nature of the beast.

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