Blending the literacies – digital, critical, news literacies and online safety

Alongside the many benefits experienced in recent times, the online world continues to present a bewildering array of challenges to schools, families and individuals.

While technology, tools and platforms may change, fundamental human rights – which include children’s rights – should not. It’s great news and a welcome positive development that on 4 February 2021 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment No 25 which sets out how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child applies in the digital environment. You can read more in this Media@LSE blog from Professor Sonia Livingstone, and at the CLC we’ll be taking a keen interest in the implications this has, attending a celebratory conference later this month. We’ve previously mentioned the work of Baroness Beeban Kidron and the young people involved in the charitable 5Rights Foundation and you can read its recent statement here.   

This long overdue development sets the context for the interconnected array of activity in the fields of digital literacy, online safety, critical literacy (including news literacy). And that encompasses the formal teaching, informal learning, awareness raising, supporting families and young people locally, nationally and globally, to which all educators, including the team here, contribute as they can.

This week we’re delighted to have been able to participate and contribute to two national conferences. In one we’re speaking on the topic of the digital divide, which we’ve maintained is one of this period’s crucial conundrums, with ongoing severe impact on many children and their families. 

Two activities

In the other, we’re speaking around the interconnected topics of critical literacy, online safety and wider digital literacy. To emphasise that there are possibilities for classroom activity that draw on children’s and young people’s own experience, voice and creative imaginations, as well as their digital skills and knowledge, we’re briefly revisiting a couple of practical suggestions for teachers. These come as students return to school and the focus is on establishing what learning has been taking place, what individuals have experienced and what their needs for the future may be, including mental health and wellbeing. One suggestion might be longer term, the other might be a specific lesson or linked sequence of activity.

Idea number 1: a news literacy and current affairs focus (whatever the age)

Alongside the very specific focus on the detail of literacy, maths and other core subjects that is rightly being planned across all schools for the months to come, make time for students (in the recovery curriculum) to continue to build on the digital skills that many of them have had some chance to develop in recent months. 

Some in fortunate circumstances have also had time for extended periods of reading and writing, perhaps inspired by gaming experience, comics and many other individual motivations. Address the ongoing need for them to continue to process what they’ve experienced, to understand the news that will continue to bombard all of us over the coming months, and to be supported in engaging with this confidently and critically, rather than under a shadow of fear and misinformation. This can offer opportunities for social re-engagement with friends and peers, re-learning how to speak and listen to peers, family members, school staff and others (whether in person or online). 

Yes, with our focus at the CLC we would recommend that this incorporates a digital and blended element, such as through blogging or collaborative editorial work to combine a variety of viewpoints and ideas, to check sources and reliability. Or it might be interviewing and recording sound, or taking photos and publishing in a variety of formats for a range of audiences. 

The model behind our successful News Project, developed by Frances Bodger at the Institute of Education, UCL and Nic Smallshaw, head of education at First News, highlights four interrelated roles of a critically literate newspaper reader*, and all of this could be included in some form of classroom activity – find some pointers from this illustrated below.

A critically literate newspaper reader (and at the CLC we are including digital news reader or recipient) is:

  1. Part of a news reading community
    • I choose to read, discuss and share news every week
    • I discuss news stories to help me understand them
    • I have ideas on what I read and can justify my opinions
  2. A news decoder
    • I understand the structures, formats, terminology and traditions of news reports, newspapers and online news sources
  3. A news comprehender
    • I use my reading and comprehension skills to understand and think about news stories
    • I regularly read the news and build up my knowledge and understanding of topics in the news
  4. A news analyst
    • I know that journalists report news and I question their agenda
    • I question sources of news and recognise reliable and unreliable sources

*adapted from the Four Interrelated Roles of the Critical Reader (Janks, H (2014), based on earlier work Freebody and Luke (2007)

And if this currently seems like a tall order for very busy teachers, we once again recommend the excellent NewsWise resources and the News Literacy Network partner resources. For instance, at the moment the Economist Education Foundation is producing on a two weekly cycle highly topical packs of resources that teachers could draw upon in any way they might wish. Aimed at the 9-14 age range some of the topics could inspire simpler activity for younger age ranges.

Idea number 2: Seeing is believing, right? 

Remind students about keeping a sceptical and discerning approach to what they see online in terms of images and video, drawing on their own experiences in media viewing, perhaps including social media apps eg seeing photos that have been manipulated in various ways, for various reasons and motivations. Reinforce and explore what might be acceptable/unacceptable for them to do, perhaps through scenario-based discussion.

Recent news since Christmas has regularly featured what technology can now do, including deep fake technology applied to famous individuals. At the moment this is not so widespread that we need to feed a fear that any video can turn out to be fabricated.

If you have access to educational apps such as the Duck Duck Moose Chatterpix, photos can be made to speak.

Relevant news references since Christmas include:

  • Channel 4’s Alternative Queen’s message caused controversy (eg Guardian article and BBC article), but Channel 4 reported it had a specific point to make
  • Tik Tok Tom Cruise videos (eg Guardian article and BBC business section article )
  • myAncestry genealogy app that can ‘bring to life’ old photos of long-gone family members (think almost Harry Potter ‘Daily Prophet’). This, too, has caused controversy (see BBC article, Guardian article, and, on the service’s website,  Abraham Lincoln is brought to life to do a commercial in their publicity on YouTube) and in some cases upset. Potentially this would be a rich source for discussion, taking in PSHE/Citizenship/Online Safety/SEAL themes. 
  • Unilever’s recent announcement about Dove advertising and its ban on editing photos

And ever-useful reference point is the Education for a connected world framework version 2 2020

Please bear in mind that, as with all activity around online safety, teachers should be aware and prepared for potential disclosures from students so would be advised to consider this when planning.

If you like these classroom ideas, why not book for our upcoming virtual events, including our Humanities conference, Tues 27 April and Summer primary computing conference, Tues 8 June?

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