Teaching MIL and learning yourself: keep calm and stay open
Evaldas Rupkus, author, trainer, and project manager, provides his perspective on the intersection of MIL and youth information work. Evaldas has been one of the pioneers of youth information and counselling services in Lithuania and now works in the field of MIL for a German organisation active in the region of Asia and Europe.
Some decades ago, the concepts of Media Literacy and Information Literacy were seen as separate. Different researchers representing different schools had differing perspectives on the subject, as always. There are still some institutions that only use one or the other of the terms, either for historical reasons or as a synonym. Media and Information Literacy is now the preferred term, especially since UNESCO has introduced a more universal definition embodied in the Composite Concept of MIL.
The Composite Concept is a very broad one, and includes a variety of literacies, including Information Literacy and Media Literacy as specific areas. However, it encompasses an even broader field, enough so to be of significant interest for all those working in the field of youth. UNESCO also views basic, digital, news, and library literacy, as well as cultural diversity, as indispensable to a comprehensive definition of MIL. Hence, the definition is embedded in the context of human rights. In practical terms, MIL enables citizens to exercise their right to access information and their freedom of expression.
As with any form of literacy, at its core MIL is about competencies, including knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Since the Composite Concept by UNESCO is very broad one, one media development organisation – the DW Akademie – has elaborated a model of five core competencies, which it views as crucial to any educational MIL activity. It all begins with Access – to information sources or media content, and continues with Analyze – taking one media product and questioning it. Create – stands at the core, since experiential learning is one of the most effective forms of learning – creating your own media messages or content and seeing how easy it is to manipulate it and how hard it is to create balanced, unbiased, and fact-checked content. Reflect – what impact does media have on its users and what rights and obligations do media creators have? This is particularly necessary and timely in the latest “infodemic” we still find ourselves in.
Most important among these is to Act – to responsibly create media messages for a positive change. This should make it clear that MIL is not just an end in itself, but a tool enabling people to engage with the public sphere. Active participation is also one of the key values and goals for youth work in general. Therefore there is a direct link between MIL and public participation and as long as our focus is on young people – a direct connection with youth work.
One of the challenges in the field of MIL is its broadness and the inherent difficulty of explaining it in one sentence. One of the possible ways to define it is that MIL enables people to understand and use media. This would, however, leave untouched a variety of issues also addressed by MIL – including extremism and polarisation, propaganda and disinformation, cyber-violence and sextortion, inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, and many more. In any case, using the Composite Concept of MIL gives us an idea of the breadth of issues in media and information consumption beyond just “fake news” – an example of an issue that may be a political hot button, but for young people, just one question among many that may not be of the most relevant for their daily lives. That is why MIL must be approached while paying careful attention to its diverse aspects.
Youth information workers, standing between MIL and young people, and taking advantage of many great innovative practices in their work, have the ability to help the field make itself more easily understood without delving into the complex UNESCO concept. Breaking it down to a set of more concrete questions that can be employed even as a youth information worker is searching for information together with a young person might help.
The Center for Media Literacy has elaborated five key questions, accompanied by core concepts behind them, to help us understand one of the crucial aspects of critical thinking. For any piece of information, and particularly media content, we should start by asking ourselves: Who has created this message? Paying attention to the creative techniques used and the possible different interpretations or points of view represented helps in analysing the piece in a greater detail. Ultimately, asking ourselves why this message is being sent (and why to me in particular – considering we live in the time of algorithms...) might help many of us get things straight. A simple and effective way to see these key questions in action is to take an advertisement and go through this list of questions with a group of young people.
Most probably, youth information workers already use the previous exercise or some variation of it when working with young people on their inquiries. The European Youth Information Charter highlights accessibility, inclusion, validation, quality information, empowerment, and participation. These are also guiding principles of MIL. Youth information workers are closing the gaps in MIL through their engagement by helping to navigate information overload and encouraging fact-checking. Some already ongoing projects to promote MIL include the peer-to-peer engagement of MIL ambassadors, programmes for young journalists, and discussion clubs to debunk conspiracy-mongering.
However, in many countries, the integration of MIL into formal education curricula remains a hope rather than a reality. In the field of non-formal education, youth information services could be a natural stakeholder on this ever-more important topic. Most of the existing actors in the field are either very scattered or focused on a specific aspect. A holistic approach, already part of the DNA of youth information providers, and a broad reach-out structure and channels, which youth information workers already have, are both needed to make a real difference.