WHAT DOES MEDIA LITERACY MEAN FOR YOUNG DEMOCRACIES?
The Brazilian experience
In Brazil media literacy is taken as a core resource to strengthen our relatively young democracy, which is definitely not something trivial
If one has a look at the relationship between media and politics in Brazil some very particular things will stand out: in our country, politicians can surprisingly have TV and radio licenses; our broadcast law has remained the same since 1964 (when TV was black & white and the political system was a dictatorship); there is absolutely no regulation on ownership and media concentration. Since 1988 politicians connected to labour movements are trying to review the communications regulatory framework, but more conservative party members intend to keep the power over the media.
On the other hand, many NGOs have been engaged in projects related to media access since 1985, when the new constitutional law was written and approved. We have, for instance, the National Forum on Media Democratization, the Community Radio Movement, the “Intervozes” (Inter Voices) Project, the National Network of Media Observatories. All of those groups work in several initiatives such as organizing and publishing data about media concentration, licensing processes, monitoring parliamentary actions, monitoring media content etc.
Amongst those groups there is the general public as a whole, who have the right to freedom of expression (which “includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but they are not aware of the rights taken away from them.
Hence, in our country, media literacy is being called to bridge the gap between politics and public demands on communications.
Personally, I believe that schools have a central role in this field, and my personal beliefs make me work hard to insert media education within the curriculum of teaching degree at the Federal University of Triângulo Mineiro, where I am a lecturer.
Media institutions, language and representation are particularly relevant subjects for us, because of the problems with concentration, whose side effect is the lack of diversity, plurality, and balance on media content. We have several studies on those side effects, but we barely have teaching materials which adapt those data to educational spaces.
Perhaps we can explain our lack of experience with media education because, during the 60s and 70s (an important period for the development of the media education in an international level), we lived under a dictatorship which controlled freedom of expression, and, consequently, media content, schools’ curriculum and its teaching materials. Now we have to develop our expertise in a short space of time.
Our advantage is that we can learn with other countries’ experiences and share our findings with international partners. Our very particular case could be useful to test the universal importance of the potential of media literacy to develop critical thinking and civic engagement.
Significance of MIL research as a knowledge-gathering mechanism for sound policy development
(This is the talk I gave at UNESCO Global MIL Week in São Paulo, 2016)
My collaboration in this round table is based on a tiny and particular context: the public schools and the teacher training courses in a single city of Minas Gerais State.
However, if you can accept the concept of fractal as a tiny part which potentially contains the characteristics of the whole thing, then the fragment I know well represents a greater reality, with relevance to the great whole.
The context within which I would like to focus is the public schools under pressure to make progress in the assessment rankings, and to integrate digital media into their teaching and learning practices. However, the conditions to succeed in these areas have not been provided, in a clear and structured way, by the relevant authorities.
Let’s see what happens in my village
The Federal University of Triangulo Mineiro’s teacher training courses were created in 2009, under the scope of a massive program to expand and re-invigorate the federal system of higher education.
In the first semester, students are required to undertake a module in “Communication, Education, and Technology.” I’ve been teaching that module since then, with a specific focus on media and information literacy.
Up to now, our university does not have enough computers to meet the demands of teaching and learning. But we are still asked to undertake media education. And we do it.
A reasonable solution to our deprived conditions came with a set of research projects, which integrated teaching, scholarship, advocacy and outreach. In six years, we have carried out five projects that connect different disciplines, while having media literacy as a common denominator.
What kind of media literacy initiatives has been possible in my village?
Those are our main projects, which involved teachers, undergrads, and graduate students.
And we have evidence that those projects brought a contribution to our partner schools.
The project “Media, do you want study this subject?” was developed in our lab, with 16 students and eight teachers from two Secondary schools, and produced a teaching resource for teachers who want to promote critical reading and creative content production in schools.
The “Redeci – Engaging Youth through media education” used the same material of the previous project to teach young people how to gather and share information on citizenship rights and their relation to public services provided by the State in the areas of education, health and culture. By mastering basic techniques of multimodal content production, our youth developed a map of the city with information about services provided by the government at the national, state and local levels.
The “Media-education for sustainability” project used the production of pocket videos, photo-stories and radio podcast as tools to identify community environmental problems, investigate causes and propose local solutions to them.
The “Portuguese and Media in Secondary School” produced an innovative approach in which canons of the Brazilian literature are studied along with contemporary media texts, concerning how they represent social issues. Activities included multimodal reading and content production, and remixes that challenged the classics of literature.
The Project “Hydrocitizenship and media education” deal with ideological campaigns about the reasons for water shortage, by introducing the concept of virtual water. Using surreal art and digital storytelling, we hope to awaken a closer look at the water that comes embedded in our consumption habits prompted by advertising.
All of those projects were evaluated by academic peers, and received funds from research agencies. They all took practical solutions to the partner schools. In return, the teachers and students gave us a bright sense of reality.
It was not an easy task. Most of the time, we were prohibited from trying to collect information of public interest. We were invited to vacate the public library, just because it was forbidden to shoot videos there.
Our students learned a valuable lesson: at least in the local context, facilitating access to information does not seem to be a priority for our public authorities.
By conducting those research projects applied to basic education, we provided a very relevant experience to our teachers in training. But there was a problem: we teach during the evenings for part-time students who generally work during the day, and thus, few people have free time to engage on a project in the afternoon.
For most, the chance to learn about media comes from a single class , which is taught over just one semester, in a conventional classroom.
Second problem. In 2013, we had already developed our approach in media and information literacy that seemed to be working very well, under ideal conditions of a laboratory.
Our approach got students engagement, and we collect evidence which enabled us to say that the students were capable of applying the critical knowledge developed within classroom settings in newer situations.
So, we decided to take our proposal into a “real classroom.”
We thus created that “Portuguese and Media” project, granted by the Research Foundation of the Minas Gerais State.
Comrades, there is nothing like a reality check!
That was all we found to work there. This is a typical public school classroom in Brazil. There are better, and there are worse classes. But, those who know the reality closely, like me, realize that this is a typical classroom.
According to a national survey by the Internet Steering Committee in Brazil, around 85% of urban schools have computer labs, while only 4% have computers in the classroom.
Our personal experience involved managing with an average of 15 old computers to meet the needs of 40 students in the lab. These conditions are what an average teacher has to contend with in their day-to-day work.
The relevant question here is “what kind of media education is possible in a place like that?”. For sure something is possible, it always is. But it is also true that, under these conditions, teachers will not be able to meet the standards as specified by the official of media and information literacy competencies. In addition to the poor school infrastructure, we must consider the teacher’s schedule problems.
Let me show you a clip from a conversation I had with a teacher who we will call Laura, a “fractal-teacher”:
“I wake up at 5:15 AM to prepare my two boys to take the bus to school. Then I go to my school, where I start classes at 7:10 AM. My schedule is kind of ‘loose classes,’ because I teach in three different schools to get a full position. In the morning and some evenings I teach for the public school, in the afternoons, I teach for a private school. It’s always a rush, but the hardest day for me is Thursday morning, because I have the first classes in one school and the last classes in another. Then, at coffee break, I need to leave in a hurry, because the second school is eight kilometers away, and there was no way to change the schedule. On Thursdays, I do not have time even to go to the loo. Another difficult thing is to teach in a school until late at night and to wake up very early next morning to teach again.”
For the majority of fractal-teachers who are in service, Media and Information Literacy is something relevant, but alien to their initial training. And today, most of them do not have conditions to learn, because of their schedule.
It might be different if Laura, our fractal-teacher, had a full schedule in just one school with a decent income which included paid hours of study and class preparation, as it happens to the university professor and the majority of teachers in advanced economies.
Unfortunately, the reality gives us a slap in the face. Brazilian teachers are among the lowest-paid of studied countries for elementary education within the OECD.
This scenario leads us to ask what is the impact of our efforts to train qualified teachers, which includes preparing them to be literate in media and information, if the educational system is not able to properly support and retain qualified and competent professionals.
According to the document “Global Media and Information Literacy Assessment Framework,” which UNESCO is disseminating in this event, teachers are the key stakeholders for media literacy policy development, because they play a central role in promoting fundamental skills in media and information, which could shape the next generations of citizens.
But we should consider that, at least in the Brazilian case, the country is a federation, and the basic education is governed by State and local authority levels. Those three levels rarely talk to each other when designing public policies. But one aspect they do have in common is that they never consult teachers, those that UNESCO calls ‘key players’.
Recently, we had in Brazil a grotesque example of how the public education management works, when the current president tried to impose a reform of Secondary School curriculum through a provisional act!
In practice, if Brazil conforms to media and information literacy policy as a priority to basic education, but keeps the same modus operandi, the result would be additional pressure on our teachers. And this situation would make teacher’s work even more precarious and demanding.
I apologize if my story sounds gloomy and pessimistic, but it was important to scaffold my last point before concluding this presentation. I mean, despite all of the problems, we keep practicing media and information literacy.
My point is: while there are inadequate material conditions for schools, and while teachers have no qualifications in media and information along with a corresponded career, our techniques, and educational resources will be nothing but a plausible utopia.
Despite all the barriers, there is an inner sense of truth that moves us, particularly when statements like this reach us:
“In this course, I learnt more about my rights and duties as a citizen; I learnt how I can fight for them. I’m taking a lot of content to my family and colleagues. I wish everyone could learn from great people like you. I will not forget you, the changes that you brought for me and the girls. I’m sure you delivered the best content and information to us, people who have not had opportunities like this.”
If my fractal-story makes sense to you, and if you have found yourselves at some point here, then I will invite you to support a campaign which we have long defended in our media-education lab at the Federal University of Triângulo Mineiro.
The slogan of this campaign is: policy makers, listen to the teachers!