Volume:6, Issue: 1

May. 1, 2014

The Global Media Literacy Imperative
Jolls, Tessa [about]

KEY WORDS: globalization, education, media, literacy, assessment, process, content, skills, local, global, village.

ABSTRACT. The increasing demand for human capital world wide has ignited a trend towards the globalization of education.  As nations compete to improve their standing on international assessments that focus primarily on students’ acquisition of content knowledge, we must ask:  are these assessments truly measuring what’s important to citizens and their countries?  Media literacy skills are central to contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge -- it is these skills that are imperative for being an educated and competent citizen in the 21st century.

The globalization of education marches on inexorably as the integration of economies has created complex webs of capital, trade, information, currencies, services, supply chains, capital markets, information technology grids and technology platforms that form a more intricate, multifaceted system than a model of simple economic competition among nations. The competition for industries to attract talent and for citizens to obtain high-skill, high wage jobs – as well as the need to cooperate on the most pressing issues of our time, such as terrorism, water shortages, environmental changes and pandemic diseases -- has moved beyond national boundaries, with stakes for success higher than ever (Stewart, 2014).

These new economic realities and rapid shifts in labor markets are fundamentally changing education systems around the world. Over the last two decades, countries around the globe have been focused on expanding education as the key to maximizing individual wellbeing, reducing poverty and increasing economic growth.  For example, more than 33 million children were added to school rolls in Sub-Sahara Africa between 2000 and 2008 (UNESCO, 2010).  Because of dramatic global education gains, high school graduation has now become the norm in most industrialized countries (Stewart, 2014).

Looking ahead to 2020, the United States’ (U.S.) proportion of the global talent pool will shrink even further as China and India, with their enormous populations, rapidly expand their secondary and higher education systems.  In the past, the U.S. has had the largest supply of highly qualified people in the adult labor force of any country in the world. This tremendous stock of highly educated human capital helped the U.S. to become the dominant economy in the world and to take advantage of the globalization and expansion of markets (Stewart, 2014).

Now, access to high quality education institutions at all levels – independent education organizations, primary and secondary schools, and universities – is globalizing. Cultural organizations such as the Cervantes Institute, Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, and the Confucius Institute provide widely recognized language certificates on a global basis.  The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) offers international secondary schools, begun in 1962 by the Geneva-based International Schools Association.  Currently, the IBO works with over 3,700 schools in 147 countries serving more than one million students (IBO, 2014). The College Board introduced the Advanced Placement International Diploma in 1995; Cambridge International Examinations administers International A or AS Level university entrance exams in any combination of 55 subjects, beginning in 1988 (Consortium for Media Literacy, 2014).

With the path open to global applicants for higher education, Sylvan Learning Systems, renamed Laureate Education Inc. in 1999, launched its Laureate International University Network with the acquisition of the Universidad de Europea de Madrid.  Since then, the Laureate network has grown to include 76 institutions in 30 countries, with combined online and on-campus enrollments of about 800,000 students (Laureate, 2014).  In Qatar’s Education City, just outside the capital city of Doha, U.S.-based colleges now offer degree programs:  Cornell University has opened a medical school and Georgetown University has opened a branch of its School of Foreign Service, while Texas A&M has opened an engineering school (Consortium for Media Literacy, 2014).

As a result of these efforts and labor force demands, the desire to measure education attainment globally has spawned international assessments such as TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA   (Stewart, 2014). The results of these tests provide a picture of how a nation’s elementary and secondary students are performing over time in various academic areas such as reading, math and science – but analysis of the assessments also raises questions about who is doing the testing, who is being tested, how students are being tested, what subjects students are being tested on, and whether needed knowledge, skills, and behaviors are being left out of the testing process altogether.

Employers are citing professionalism/work ethic, oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration and critical thinking/problem solving as the most important skills for workplace readiness (Lotto and Barrington, 2006). But do the current curricula and assessments provide for these skills?

Some think not:  “So far, all international test scores measure the extent to which an education system effectively transmits prescribed content. In this regard, the U.S. education system is a failure and has been one for a long time. But the successful transmission of prescribed content contributes little to economies that require creative and entrepreneurial individual talents and in fact can damage the creative and entrepreneurial spirit. Thus high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity,” said Yong Zhao, an assessment expert (Zhao, 2012).

Critical thinking, creativity and self-expression using technology tools are all hallmarks of media literacy education programs.  As education is increasingly globalized – online and off-line -- it is imperative to examine how media literacy education fits into the overall education picture that is emerging.

Some countries see the need for providing media literacy education.  Finland, long considered an education leader, now has adopted a national strategy for media literacy, issuing a call to action in 2013 (Finland Ministry of Education and Culture, 2013).  In 2009, the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport published the Digital Britain report, whose authors declared their ambition “To make the UK a world leader in research, innovation, technology and creativity, by inspiriting the next generation and creating the environment for digital talent to thrive” (OfCom, 2009). A supplemental Ofcom report addressed an educational expectation, arguing that media literacy skills must be embedded across primary, secondary and adult curricula.

The curricular frameworks of the IBO and the U.S.-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills both  include global citizenship and media literacy skills. UNESCO, the Saltsburg Academy for Media and Global Change, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and the Center for Media Literacy are all examples of independent organizations that provide media literacy programs on a world-wide basis.  Yet all of these efforts are small in scale and are not institutionally embedded in national or international education systems.

With the proliferation of information and media tools, media literacy is a necessity, not a luxury, for today’s students. According to Julie Evans (2010), chief executive officer, Project Tomorrow, “A growing chorus of students says they are required to step back in time when they enter the school building each morning, powering down the productivity, learning and connectedness tools they use outside of school and that many adults now take for granted.” Evans stated that this is true   “despite overwhelming agreement among parents, teachers and principals that the effective implementation of technology in schools is crucial to student success.” Furthermore, Evans said (2014),  “(Students) want a greater alignment between their out‐of‐school learning life and what they experience in the classroom.”

“ Yet just installing technology is not enough.  Throwing technology at our students is missing the point.  It’s like saying ‘Give them cars, and they will drive,’ about a non-driving population,” said William Badke (2010), an academic reference librarian with Trinity Western University.

It islearning to navigate this infinite amount of global information that is the biggest challenge for adults and children today.  Citizens need media literacy skills to be:

  • Efficient managers of information
  • Wise consumers
  • Responsible producers and
  • Active and effective participants in today’s global culture.

Citizens naturally turn to their schools and in the past, to their libraries (and now to search engines, the internet and social media) to gain access to the information and skills they need.  In the past, because information was presented physically through printed texts or face-to-face, people physically traversed to “temples” of learning and literacy. But because access to information in the past required physical contact, the focus of learning tended to be on content knowledge that could be imprinted and retained more than on the information process skills that facilitate learning in an era when content is infinitely available at the tip of one’s fingers.

Society continues to value access to content knowledge as being scarce, and has built its institutions and teaching to reflect that value (Jolls, 2010). Yet access to content knowledge is no longer scarce – it is plentiful.  Conversely, the process skills of media literacy are indeed scarce and scarcely being taught, but these skills are not yet valued as highly in education institutions as access to content knowledge. The current valuing of content knowledge at the expense of process skills creates a misalignment between citizens’ education attainment and outcomes and what is truly important, what is valued, and what is measured.

Today, meeting citizens’ information needs requires both content knowledge and information process skills – knowing how to learn and how to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with multi-media information -- to provide the support and context needed for making every-day choices.  These information process skills represent the classic definition of media literacy (Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute, 1992).  In thinking about the interplay between content knowledge and process skills, one must ask, “Who can separate the dancer from the dance? “ But embedding the formal teaching and learning of process skills into the education system takes new understanding, new modeling and an ongoing, high-level, determined commitment. 

This chart captures some of the major shifts that technology has brought to the education world – changes with media literacy implications that educators are still struggling to understand and adapt to in both their local village and in the global village initially envisioned by media pioneer Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, 1964).

Table 1. Comparisons between Local Village and Global


Past Today
Local Village Global Village
Adult Guidance Plentiful Adult Guidance Scarce
Local Representations         Global Branding
Information Access Scarce  Information Access Plentiful
Information Acquisition      Information Sorting
Content Knowledge Transmitted Process Skills Practiced and Applied
Granular Content Knowledge Research-based Framework Sorting
Isolated Content Silos Integrated Problem Solving
Production by Few Production by Many
Access to Best Teachers Scarce Access to Best Teachers Plentiful through Technology
Physical Location of Schools Virtual School Locations

 (Jolls, 2008)

Examining this table more closely, the present education systems were born in an era when:

  • Children’s face-to-face contact with adults in the local village was intense on a daily basis, providing children with guidance and filters on the information and people they came in contact with.  Now, in the global village, such contact with adults is scarce. Children need internalized filtering systems based on media literacy.
  • Businesses and organizations in the local village were known individually. Today, businesses and organizations – and even individuals -- are often branded globally for instant recognition.
  • Information and access to printed information was scarce.  Now, information access is plentiful and can be overwhelming.
  • Content knowledge was passed down through individual teachers and printed information was often hard to obtain.  Now, sorting through and validating information are the priorities, using research-based frameworks grounded in information process skills. 
  • Content silos developed as ways to specialize and share scarce knowledge and scarce access; today, deep knowledge is readily documented and available while problem solving across disciplines, using specialized knowledge from various resources, is needed.
  • Production of media was controlled by a few; today, everyone is a media producer using digital tools.
  • Access to the best teachers was limited to physical proximity.  Today, everyone can have access to the best teachers through the global village. 
  • Students had to be physically present in school to progress; today, students are free from time, space and a lock-step pace. 
  • Learning to play together, to work in teams cooperatively, was confined to physical interaction.  Now, students can also learn teamwork through activities such as social media, media production or online sports and games. 
  • Students were more physically active because their world was more physical, with no online world available.  Today, students are less physically active, creating poor environments for physical health and wellbeing.  

With these changed conditions of the 21st Century life and the imperatives of globalization, it is important to ask:

If media literacy skills are central to being an educated citizen, why are media literacy skills not clearly defined and articulated through educational frameworks?  Why are these media literacy skills not the focal point for learning and acquiring content knowledge?

This is not to say that content knowledge is unimportant – quite the contrary – but media literacy skills in the global village are needed as the central tools through which to contextualize, acquire and apply content knowledge.  Media literacy skills are “constants” used in deconstructing and constructing communication through a process of inquiry. Content knowledge is “variable,” with an infinite number of subjects. Having media literacy – a consistent process of inquiry that is internalized -- enhances the ability to communicate and to share ideas through a common vocabulary that transcends subject areas as well as geographic boundaries. Thus, there are no “silos” with this method for teaching critical thinking because the media literacy skills are cross-curricular and common to all. It is through this process of inquiry that students acquire and master content knowledge, but both media literacy skills and content knowledge rest on a continuum of knowledge that can always be expanded and deepened.

This means that media literacy skills must be valued, articulated and taught systematically, in ways that are consistent, replicable, measurable and scalable globally (Jolls, 2012).  So while technology offers limitless information options, humans need filters and frameworks through which to negotiate meaning. John Naisbitt (1988) said, “Society is drowning in information and starved for knowledge;” that remains the case.  Beginning at birth, children need to learn media literacy skills to gain knowledge and to make wise choices.  Like learning to swim or to row, using these skills and internalizing them takes practice over time. Reinforcement and discussion with adults help children through the thickets while the adults learn too.

This adult interaction is essential since humans have “social” brains (Goswami, 2008), which acquire knowledge incrementally through cultural experience and social context. But children also need technical skills and equipment to thrive in the technological world. 

Increasingly, technology affords the necessary tools for curricular integration and a constructivist approach to education, in contrast to the traditional content silo approach that lacks little if any connection to the world outside the classroom.  These content silos, which define traditional academic subject areas such as language arts, mathematics, history and science, are rich in tradition and knowledge. However, silos also discourage sharing of knowledge, since content silos represent discreet and often impervious subject areas separated by their own unique vocabularies and views  (Hobbs, 2011). The silos provide endless opportunities to “drill down” deeper into a particular content area, but often at the expense of a broader perspective that contributes to real-world problem solving.

Reacting to pressure to increase performance (valued and defined as mastery of content knowledge), schools have mistakenly emphasized “more more more” content knowledge, and “more more more” testing of that content knowledge, at the expense of valuing process skills and explicitly labeling and teaching media literacy skills to enhance critical thinking and learning skills (Thoman and Jolls, 2004).  With access to caring adults scarce in the global village, children need internalized frameworks and process skills – media literacy -- now more than ever, to navigate the global media world on a lifelong basis.

Media literacy has yet to be taught systematically in today’s classrooms; however, initial research on the effectiveness of media literacy in impacting knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in classrooms is promising (Fingar and Jolls, 2013).   Globally, a new set of 3 R’s is needed:  to Re-examine, Re-value and Re-imagine the ingredients each school day offers students; how administrators and teachers meet student needs; and how the world chooses to value and assess students’ learning.  The nations who succeed in aligning their education systems with the new imperative for media literacy will be preparing their citizens for active and full participation in both their local and global villages.


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