Media Literacy: the biggest enemy of UK ‘digital literacy’ initiatives?

This is my (very) first draft of the UK element to a chapter of my Ed.D. thesis where I’m looking at government policy in relation to ‘literacies of the digital’. I’ll also be looking at the Norway and the EU more generally, Singapore and North America (US/Canada). I really hope I’ve missed the point with what follows and that there’s massive UK government interest and funding for proper digital literacy-type initiatives…

Whilst pockets of discussion about ‘digital literacy’ exist both in official reports and online, the main focus around ‘literacies of the digital’ in the UK is upon ‘media literacy’. Initiatives in this area include bodies such as the BBC, Ofcom, UK Film and the British Library. Bodies such as Futurelab mention digital literacy often in their publications but, as is the issue with all externally-funded bodies, the money follows government pronouncements and policies.

Following the Digital Britain report (DCMS & BIS, 2009) the aim of the UK government was to promote ‘digital participation’. The follow-up plan was to encompass ‘three distinct but interdependent strands’: digital inclusion, digital life skills, and digital media literacy – with the latter defined as “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” (DCMS & BIS, 2010). However, the National Plan for Digital Participation [PDF] was ill-fated, launched only a few months before a General Election saw a change of government. The Digital Participation website, set up alongside the National Plan, now states:

As part of the major review of public expenditure, the Government has re-scoped the digital participation programme. The limited funding which is now available will be focused on supporting the activities to encourage people to go online and led by the UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.” (accessed November 2010)

The institutions mentioned above have staked their claim in the arena of literacies of the digital. Media literacy, the promotion of which since 2003 has been the responsibility of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is considered separately from ‘digital participation’. The latter, more narrowly defined since the advent of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government, is concerned with connecting all homes with broadband by 2012. The Race Online 2012 website sets out a manifesto with two key aims, “no one should retire without web skills” and “everyone of working age should be online”. Curiously, the ‘manifesto’ makes no commitments by the government, rather seeking to ‘challenge’ individuals and organizations in the UK to meet these targets. Some may call this empty rhetoric.

Evidence of the UK government’s low-level basic skills definition of ‘digital literacy’ can be found in the pronouncement within the Race Online 2012 manifesto:

Digital literacy is a great enabler of social mobility. It is a way for those who have had bad experiences of institutions to re-engage in learning. And it can break down feelings of social isolation. It is a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. (Rt. Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Department, Work and Pensions)

‘Using a computer connected to the internet’ and ‘digital literacy’ are seen as synonymous not only in this manifesto, but in wider publications by the government. The critical element of literacies of the digital is served by discussion of ‘media literacy’ with ‘digital literacy’ reserved for basic skills:

‘Get Digital’ will work with residents, scheme staff, RSLs and the wider community including local schools, as well as DWP, to promote, deliver and sustain digital literacy skills for older residents in sheltered housing. (DCMS & BIS, 2010, p.43)

In 2004, after a Communications Bill that would lead to Ofcom, the UK Film Council and Channel 4 organised a seminar entitled Inform and Empower: Media Literacy in the 21st Century. This seminar, attended by two hundred delegates including representatives from the BBC, the British Film Institute, “government, Ofcom, industry, education, [and] media arts organisations” (UK Film Council, 2004:2) was addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Whilst the introduction by the Chair of the UK Film Council espouses a standard definition of media literacy (“learn[ing] about the power and influence of moving images” – UK Film Council, 2004:3) the report of the Secretary of State’s address states shows signs of the basic skills definition the UK government later settled upon implicitly for ‘digital literacy’: “It is the content delivered to people that matters” (UK Film Council, 2004:8)

This seminar led to the creation of a Media Literacy Task Force (MLTF) with membership comprising the BBC, the British Board of Film Classification, the British Film Institute, Channel 4, ITV, the Media Education Association, the UK Film Council and Skillset. The MLTF came up with the following wide-ranging definition of media literacy:

A media literate society is… not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons – as we try to make sense of a sea of Reality TV, iPod downloads and streaming video on the Internet.

This is what encouraging media literacy is really all about: giving people the choice to communicate, create and participate fully in today’s fast-moving world.  And this will help create a society in which everyone is enfranchised – whatever their economic, social and ethnic background – and in which the UK’s creative and knowledge economies are able to draw upon the widest possible bank of creators and producers.” (http://www.medialiteracy.org.uk/medialiteracy)

It is arguably this all-encompassing, ‘umbrella’ definition of media literacy and its subsequent formalisation and dissemination through the form of a charter that has marginalised the kind of ‘digital literacy’ initiatives seen elsewhere in the world. The MLTF, disbanded as of December 2009, promulgated the charter to other EU member countries with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden becoming also becoming signatories to the identical European Charter for Media Literacy.

Given that the MLTF no longer exists and digital literacy in anything other than a ‘basic skills’ sense is not currently part of the UK government’s financially-crippled ‘digital participation’ plan, it is difficult to see from where the critical element of ‘literacies of the digital’ will come from. Whilst some work by JISC (2009) and more informally by Josie Fraser (2009) has pointed the way in the educational sphere, the momentum, interest and willingness of other nations who have embraced digital literacy is lacking. Initiatives, reports and resources such as Film: 21st Century Literacy by the UK Film Council have meant that the room for discussion about digital literacy and its relation to media literacy, remains small.

The bibliography for my whole Ed.D. thesis as it currently stands can be found here.

Unlike the rest of this blog, this post (because it relates to my unpublished thesis) is Copyright, All Rights Reserved.

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