Teaching in/and Media Education

Michael Hoechsmann. Chair of Education Programs at Lakehead University, Orillia.

If we were to strip away the media from media education, what would we be left with? A reflective and reflexive approach to teaching and learning, that’s what, a pedagogy that is – and has been – 2.0 ‘avant la lettre.’ In general, media education is borne from, and productive of, pretty good pedagogy. One of the advantages of working in media education is that many of the best arguments in favour of one specific approach or another are also invocations of what might be considered “best practices” in education in general. These features are well known to media educators who allow and enable some combination of a participatory, dialogic, critical, analytical, productive, historically contemporary and socially and culturally relevant pedagogy into their classes or community settings.

Such approaches to teaching are not new to media education, and whether they were drawn from Paulo Freire’s conceptualization of education as dialogue, or from other sources, they have long been the hallmark of media education where the teacher is always cast as a learner and has to concede expertise over much specific media subject matter to students. What has changed today, however, with the low costs of media production and the easy access and capacity for distribution, is that media education has become much more production-centered. This is cause for great excitement – a marvellous development – but it has opened up some new quandaries, and a new “talent gap” between many media educators and also between media educators and their students.

Over the years, some media educators became proficient producers of media content, and others came to the field of media education already adept at production with backgrounds in the media industries or with personal experience as media makers. But others among us stayed primarily in the trenches of semiological guerrilla warfare, deftly working the crafts of highly attenuated, subtle critiques of media representation and media industries that gave space for pleasure, agency, empowered audiences and often edgy youth practices and resistances. A problem many with well-honed skills in the ideological skirmishes of negotiated readings, guilty pleasures and counter hegemonic strategies encounter today in the era of productive media literacies is finding ourselves behind a big, fat learning curve, trying to catch up to the technical expertise of other media educators, and, perhaps more significantly, our own students.

At the center of discussions about young peoples’ learning in relation to contemporary media cultures are ideas about digital natives who are like ‘aliens in the classroom.’ In an article with that very same title written almost two decades ago, Bill Green and Chris Bigum (1993) raised the question as to whether educators need to adapt to new types of students whose coming of age corresponded with the birth of a digital culture. In response, Green and Bigum proposed that teachers should adapt to young people, who are in some ways fundamentally different from previous generations. The intervention made by Green and Bigum was intended to challenge the traditional skill-and-drill and sage-on-the-stage models of education at a time when students’ out-of-school experiences in and with new technologies were already setting up a profoundly different engagement with learning. The questions raised by Green and Bigum were not intended as a critique of media educators, and can instead be seen as in support of positions long held in media education.

What Green and Bigum tentatively raised as questions, however, hardened in Mark Prensky’s (2001) formulation about the differences between digital natives and digital immigrants. Prensky’s terms have caught on like wildfire in the public imaginary and surface frequently in the practitioner discourses of educational policy makers and molders (the latter category referring to school administrators, school board consultants, teacher educators, and others who closely influence classroom practice). In Prensky’s casting it often seems like students can learn nothing in contemporary classrooms. Says Prensky: “Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (emphasis by Prensky, 2001, pp. 1-2). Prensky goes on to argue that those raised with the new tools have more than simply a new engagement with learning; he argues they also have entirely new brain structures and wiring.

Whatever one makes of this claim – and the validity of Prensky’s brain research has been called into question (McKenzie, 2007) – the more important point is the uncritical manner in which this distinction between educators and learners is posed. The problem with the discourse on newly wired digital natives (i.e., students) versus digital immigrants stuck forever with an accent (i.e., teachers), is that it upsets the educational apple cart. If the immigrants can never catch up with the natives, how can they/we be presumptuous enough to teach them new literacies and practices associated with digital technologies?
Fortunately, media educators have long ago crossed this threshold. The recognition that the media educator can never know everything about evolving media discourses and practices is a central truism in the field. To teach media is to adopt the necessary humility of a Freirean educator who is willing to teach in order to learn. The media educator thus needs to bring strategies, concepts, and frames to the teaching context, but with an open mind towards media production practices that may be better known by young learners. Ironically, Prensky’s formulation seems to ignore this possibility and the history of practices that allow educators to operate at the junction point between new media developments and change in older educational contexts.

In this era of gleaming machines that facilitate the creation, distribution and discovery of multimodal texts, we are easily tempted to confuse certain surface changes for much more substantial shifts in our social and cultural realities. Of course, despite a strong dose of hyperbole that pervades some discussions around new technologies and digital literacies, it is undeniable that they have changed the way we act and interact, particularly in relation to how we communicate with one another and how we access knowledge. Finding a way to adapt to the potentials occasioned by increased access to, and ease of, new production tools and distribution platforms is a nice challenge to be facing, but it is also the case that we need to continue to seek space, now within discourses of new and digital literacies, for media education’s rich legacy as an area of critical, grounded critique of media representations, audiences and institutions.


Green, B. and Bigum, C. (1993). Aliens in the classroom. Australian Journal of Education, 37(2), pp. 119–41.
McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism, digital delusions and digital deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Retrieved July 13, 2011 from http://fno.org/nov07/nativism.html.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. Retrieved July 13, 2011 from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.