People sometimes announce that we have entered the information age as if information did not exist in other times. I think that every age was an age of information, each in its own way and according to the available media

Robert Darnton

How is media and information literacy defined today?

Like digital citizenship, media and information literacy has been explained by a range of definitions and different terminologies. Whether we use digital media literacy, information literacy, internet literacy or any of the other different expressions, the main idea is that literacy encompasses the ability to engage meaningfully with media and information channels.

Media, information channels and the ubiquity of the internet may leave the impression that the digital age has turned everyone into media users and that the digital can be found everywhere, including in schools. This impression is false and, moreover, schools are the notable exception. School is the one place where it is absolutely crucial to train future citizens to understand, to criticise and to create information. It is in schools that the digital citizen must begin and maintain constant critical thinking in order to attain meaningful participation in his or her community.

Media and information literacy is an ambitious goal in the 21st century because of the challenge of teaching users to critically judge, reflect and use the extremely broad range of available media. Not only must users become media literate with respect to traditional media and the representation of image, users now must become media literate with respect to the wealth of new technology available and the development of applications allowing entirely new ways of transmitting information.

Without media and information literacy, across the varied types of media now available, our children cannot act as responsible citizens, digital or otherwise, and the question of who will teach this to our children has not yet been established.

Generally speaking, if schools are the training grounds for critical thinking, analysis and judgment making, is it not logical that media and information literacy become cornerstones of the educational curricula?
 

What are some of the dimensions of media and information literacy?

Media and information literacy (MIL) is an umbrella concept that covers three often clearly distinguished dimensions: information literacy, media literacy and ICT/ digital literacy. As UNESCO highlights, MIL brings together stakeholders including individuals, communities and nations to contribute to the information society. Not only does MIL act as an umbrella, it also encompasses a full range of competences that must be used effectively in order to critically evaluate the different facets of MIL.
 

What will media and information literacy mean to our children?

Children and young people today are particularly savvy when it comes to finding and using media for entertainment and recreation. But how many of those children can use those same devices to find meaningful answers, conduct evidence-based research, spark a debate or follow the news?

Children and young people are confronted with all types of content and they should, indeed they must, be able to discern what is of value and what is not; what is real and what is not. Discernment goes beyond fake news and relates to their ability to process and interpret information.

Research is under way to investigate the learning potential of existing and emerging communicative technologies for children aged 0-8 years old. The DigiLitEY project specifically rests on the premise that “the early years provide crucial foundations for lifelong literacy learning, therefore it is important to ensure early education policy and practice across (all) countries are developed in order to equip our youngest citizens with the skills and knowledge needed in a digitally-mediated era”. Initiatives such as DigiLitEY and the Joint Research Commission project on 0-8-year-old children and digital technology should provide interesting conclusions and guidelines on media and information literacy in the near future.

Whether children are playing online games or watching endless videos, the ability to understand the stakes within the medium and potential implications beyond would serve our children well. They need to be able to process, analyse and make good decisions on their own, and media and information literacy can help children develop those skills.
 

Confusion between media and information literacy and digital citizenship

Figure 9: Four steps underpinning the process of inclusionOften digital citizenship is confused with media and information literacy in that one of the nuances of digital citizenship is the ability to critically evaluate media and online technology, tools and information. While media and information literacy (MIL) is how we think (critical thinking) about all of the media around us, digital citizenship refers to how we live and how we engage with all of the technology around us. Media, like technology, can come in many different forms and can blend into a single form.

Rather than simply using cognitive, emotional and social competences as the basis of MIL, it is useful to apply some of the other media-related competences from the Council of Europe’s “butterfly” competence framework to the concept of media and information literacy (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Four steps underpinning the process of inclusion

How does it work?

Media and information literacy provides the backbone to understanding media and the role of media in our society. MIL also provides some of the essential skills necessary for critical thinking, analysis, self-expression and creativity – all necessary skills for citizens in a democratic society.

Citizens are able to access, analyse, create and consume media and information in various formats from print to radio, from video to the internet. Learning how to use a search engine properly is an important skill for the digital citizen and once the information is acquired, it is then necessary to apply transversal skills such as critical thinking by searching for and comparing divergent sources online. The ability to critically analyse, then classify and retain the pertinent information can aid digital citizens in the acquisition of knowledge on a wide array of topics.
 

Educational and citizenship value

Critical thinking is invaluable for citizens and especially for young learners, who also need to be able to solve problems, find information, form opinions, evaluate sources and more. Given the amount of data and truthful and erroneous information that is available online, MIL is a crucial skill.

A message can go viral in less than one hour and what is false can be repeated until people believe that it is true. With the speed of dissemination, those with adequate MIL skills will be better able to discern what is true and will be able to ask questions and search for answers amid the flotsam online.

Search engines have revolutionised the way people search for content online, and digital skills should also include the ability to understand that algorithms may not always be neutral. Search engines can and have been manipulated for political and other reasons and, as such, users should have a healthy appreciation for lower-ranked results as well as the highest-ranked result. With regard to information and especially world news, the key is diversity. Algorithms should be configured in such a manner as to always display different points of view about similar events.

Finally, children and, more broadly, all citizens may be misled into believing that if there is “fake” news there must be “real” news. Even news which is factually correct results from an editorial filter which selects one event among the otherwise infinite events happening all around the world. As media outlets struggle to attract viewers, the news has to be “catchy”, sensationalist and simple, gradually transforming into “infotainment”. Instead of covering a heart-warming story of solidarity and fraternity, news outlets will prefer devastating accidents, death and violence. The questions that must be asked, beyond the “factual accuracy”, is rather: why does the media focus on stories of catastrophes? Is there something to gain from keeping people in a state of perpetual fear for their life? How does this influence political opinions? What ideological message underpins the otherwise factually correct news article or story?