As technology and media become more and more integrated into our everyday lives, the appropriateness and ideal timing of introducing computers and teaching media literacy as a part of a well-rounded curriculum have become the subject of much debate.
Many parents and educators are worried about the distracting nature of apps and gadgets and their potential impact on the development of children and teenagers. However, knowing that students will encounter such devices sooner rather than later, it’s important that educators look for constructive ways to implement technology and develop media literacy with their students. A multifaceted approach may help students use such tools effectively to learn more about themselves and the world around them.
How can we identify the right time to introduce technological applications into education? How can we contextualize students’ interactions with media appropriately? What tools should be available at various grade levels? And how do we protect students from the downsides of technology and media consumption? We asked Dr. Paul Gansky, Ross School’s Dean of Media Studies and Technology, to share his insights on these and related topics.
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When it comes to technology and media studies in the classroom, Paul has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, grade level by grade level. His first caveat is that we should refrain from defining working with technology solely as computer usage. Technology implementation considerations should also address such tools as books, photography, radio, and social media.
Students should be aware of the broad scope of technology, understanding that the term can include all manner of devices—not just computers, video games, and the like. For example, they should spend more time with books, which Paul “definitely considers to be technology.” Hands-on learning experiences, like assembling simple radios from electronic components, are also essential. Seeing how gadgets work can deepen students’ understanding of technology and its functions.
In addition, it’s important to be mindful of students’ developmental stages when exposing them to and discussing various forms of media consumption. From an early age, children encounter messages in the media; media literacy, then, consists of helping students contextualize those messages and understand the motivations behind them in age-appropriate ways.
The Importance of Narrative
Paul’s approach to media studies and technology in the classroom focuses on using various media and technological tools to tell stories. He explains, “When students are studying media, I feel that they need to consider the following questions: what are the work’s social effects, what are its psychological effects, and how does it create a sense of lived experience in a given nation-state or culture? Mastering narrative is more important than mastering technical skills.”
Focusing instruction on helping students develop their ability to tell a story using technology does not necessarily supplant teaching programming languages or videography techniques. But Paul has noticed that students often find extracurricular paths for learning those skills: “They find communities off- and online, for example, or they’re following somebody on YouTube who is programming their house using a programming language.”
A timeline for introducing technology and media skills
Acknowledging the value in foregrounding the development of students’ narrative skills, the question arises as to when to introduce various tools and topics of discussion. Taking into consideration children’s physical and psychological developmental milestones as they progress through the grades, Paul offers the following guidelines.
Grades 3–4: Understanding Storytelling
As third graders begin to more firmly grasp the concepts of past, present, and future, as well as consequential events, they become more effective at intentionally crafting a narrative. “They can now begin to build relationships with other people,” Paul says. “They understand what’s funny and what’s scary, and what’s dramatic and what isn’t. They have this meaning-making mechanism.”
Paul recommends cameras—digital or film—as appropriate technologies for elementary students to experiment with: “Anything that relates to reading and writing, and anything that relates to picture taking, really supports the narrative capacity for a student in third grade. Kids at that age have the ability to work with more detailed things. They also have a little bit more of an aesthetic sensibility.” Third and fourth graders are also capable of building radios or other simple technological devices, especially with adult guidance.
Grade 5: Understanding the World
Older elementary students are beginning to make connections with the outside world, and those relationships should be acknowledged in media and technology education. Some students are using the Internet or engaging with social media platforms—possibly on a limited basis, but possibly not. “That’s the point in time in which I think you can introduce that idea of politics, race, gender, or class, and they’ll be able to work with it,” says Paul. At this stage, teachers can provide context for students to discuss the media they encounter (such as news articles, online posts, TV shows, or movies) and help them understand how those messages are being framed for their consumption.
Grades 6–7: Understanding Narrative Construction
In sixth and seventh grade, Paul introduces students to the ways narrative is constructed. “I give them simple stuff like a five-act structure,” he says, “and we watch a series of films while pointing out these structures.” With some practice, students are able to internalize the commonality of such storytelling techniques and can apply them not only to media presented by others, but also to media they craft themselves. Paul continues, “Then you can start to give them much more ambiguous assignments, where you give them a photograph of a person and say, ‘Tell me Act I of this person’s life in a film. Tell me what Act III is. Tell me the climax of this character’s life.’ And they can start to build that in much greater detail. And, ideally, by the end of seventh grade, they should be able to make their very first short film.” It is in the practice of creating this short film that students learn the details of how to use supporting technologies, such as recording sound and capturing video images.
Late elementary/early middle school is also a good time to begin laying the groundwork for later instruction in computer programming. Scratch, a block-based computer language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to introduce children to the concepts of programming, is particularly effective with fifth and sixth graders, says Paul. “That also seems to be the time when they can start using Arduino or some other kind of robotics in class,” he adds. “I think those two things set students up pretty well for programming at a later stage.”
8th Grade: Understanding Identity
“By eighth grade, I think you can go a little bit deeper and ask students to create not just fictional films but also documentaries,” Paul says. Documenting the world around them using sound, photography, or videography can be a means of identity construction for students: observing and reacting to others helps them understand what they themselves value.
Eighth grade is also an optimal time to introduce computers into the classroom in greater detail, according to Paul. By this point, students are most likely interacting with the Internet using various social media platforms and are familiar with online tools and technologies. Reinforcing the concept of harnessing technology for serious work, not just entertainment, teachers can guide students through researching and responding on Google forums, working on creative projects, or presenting their artwork on Instagram.
In addition, eighth graders are beginning to exhibit the maturity necessary to master the time-intensive and detail-oriented work of learning programming languages such as HTML or Java, as well as the perseverance needed to make use of more complicated software packages like Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Paul also recommends that students become familiar with noncomputer technology: “They should know their way around at least one model of DSLR camera, whether Canon or Sony or whatever, just so they understand the basics of how a camera functions.”
9th Grade and Beyond: Understanding Broader Impact
In high school, students are negotiating their own identities and their place in the world, which sparks frequent opportunities for guided discussions of the impact media and technology have on them and in their community. “Ninth grade should really be the point at which you bring up discussions like, ‘Hey, is the person that you’re following on Instagram actually promoting problematic eating behaviors, and is that a healthy lifestyle?’ or ‘Is this particular website sharing racist content that is damaging to somebody?’” Paul explains. He recommends that teachers and parents search out resources like Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog group that supports adults in their quest to make sure children are safely accessing media and technology. “Common Sense Media handles social and political topics really well, and there are also a wealth of resources in terms of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics],” he adds.
Paul cautions that parents and educators need to remain vigilant about the motivations driving technology developers and media producers—and teach that vigilance to their students.
“For example,” he says, “app developers in Silicon Valley are trained to create ‘sticky’ experiences. It’s their aim to create the most addictive experience possible, because it really drives up their value.” He suggests that parents do research to evaluate the software, apps, websites, and social media platform their children are interacting with, adding, “I think the main thing is looking under the hood for any given platform that your kid might be using, and seeing who actually developed it, in the same way that you would screen TV shows or movies and figure out the author’s intentions in making that particular piece of media.” For further information on the negative side to technology interaction, Paul suggests reading Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll.
Older high school students are ready to approach the more complex angles of technology and media literacy. Paul currently teaches elective courses titled Film History and ECommerce, both of which encompass the economics of our society’s relationship to technology. “I get kids to recognize that this stuff is big business, and to recognize how that business functions. ECommerce is an advanced, deep dive into Silicon Valley, looking at IPOs [initial public offerings, or stock market launches], and antitrust laws, for example.” Exploring the broader impact of media and tech further gives students an even deeper understanding of the role they play in our everyday lives.
Although they are more recent additions to the standard curricular fare, technology education and media literacy should not be regarded as supplemental, standalone lessons. Instead, teaching students about technology and critical media consumption demands thoughtful, deliberate integration and implementation on the part of educational leaders. Students benefit in myriad ways from this structured approach to developing such critical thinking skills in the 21st century.