Media Lit Seminar: Kindling the Media Literacy Flame in Secondary School Educators

By Annelene Timmermans

The activities described in this article took place before the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Temporary Pause of International Exchange Programs Due to COVID-19.

Since September 1, 2019, secondary school teachers in Flanders, located in the northern federated state of Belgium, have been implementing new curricula designed by the government. One of the focal points of this curricula modernization is media literacy education. The goal of the media literacy curriculum is for all Flemish pupils, aged 12 and above, to understand the effects of digital communication on their society and themselves, apply privacy rules correctly in the digital world, and assess possible risks that their online behavior has on themselves and others. The question, however, is: how can teachers achieve these goals and increase their students’ media literacy?

In Belgium, not every teacher has media literacy training experience nor are there many comprehensive training programs. For this reason, I developed the Media Lit Seminar in collaboration with my project team member Christiana Varda, who I met at the Alumni TIES seminar in Kyiv, Ukraine on “Alumni Educators in Action: Media Literacy and Critical Thinking in the Digital Age.” The Media Lit seminar is a two-day event and was funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State. The Media Lit Seminar took place on February 20–21, 2020 at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels and consisted of presentations and workshops by international media literacy experts. Participants received hands-on training and practical classroom activities as well as opportunities for networking and sharing good practices. The seminar’s goal was to enhance teachers’ own media literacy knowledge and skills, and provide them with inspirational classroom ideas based on current media literacy teaching techniques and methodology.

Project team members Christiana Varda (left) and Annelene Timmermans (right) conduct the Media Lit Seminar.

The seminar brought together an international group of experts and participants from 16 different countries, Belgium, Ghana, the United States, France, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Sweden, Cyprus, Finland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Italy, Chile, and Germany. This seminar was attended by 53 participants, representing educators in secondary schools, college students, Ph.D. researchers, teacher trainers, educational advisers, professionals from NGO’s, and other stakeholders (e.g. Facebook). The speakers were university professors, researchers, professionals from NGOs, and even the Flemish Minister for Media, Youth and Brussels. The agenda consisted of two training days, each with a different focus: day one offered a broad approach to the concept of media literacy, whereas day two focused on disinformation and media literacy school policies. Most of the presentations and workshops were based on recent academic research, demonstrating that the Media Lit Seminar conveyed the newest methodology and insights in the field of media literacy.

Enthusiastic participants and experts at the Media Lit Seminar.

After conducting this seminar, it became clear that in a digital world full of technopanics, fake news, and the zombiefication of teenagers, it is difficult not to see the importance of media literacy. In a global society where “video is king” and teenagers are flooded with visual stimuli and information, critical thinking and media literacy competencies have become crucial survival skills. Parents, the government, and companies such as Facebook all look to educators to train teenagers to become more media literate, and according to key-note speaker Paolo Celot (EAVI), “to be the drivers of their own media literacy car, instead of being stuck on society’s media literacy bus.” “Young people often ‘speak media,’ but do not always know how to ‘read media’” as explained by project team partner, Christiana Varda (Media What). Therefore, organizations such as EAVI and Lie Detectors suggest that education should focus on stretching the critical thinking muscles of youth and train citizens who are flexible enough to cope with what the future may bring.

Participants take part in an interactive workshop at the Media Lit Seminar, “Tackling Disinformation in the Classroom” by Lie Detectors.

Flemish Minister for Brussels, Media and Youth, Benjamin Dalle stated that over time, educators can become the “real influencers” as they incorporate media literacy education into their curricula. In 2019, research by the European media literacy organization, Lie Detectors contended that 80% of teachers agree that media literacy education is important, but only 44% of them have actually taught it. As a response, some schools have banned smartphones in their classrooms altogether, as some teachers are fearful of the technological changes in today’s society. This often results in teachers (and parents) warning young people of the dangers that adults see, restricting young people’s use of digital devices. However, should teachers not move away from this adult-centered understanding of media to a youth-centered approach? Experts, such as Tom De Leyn from Ghent University, suggest that media literacy education could be more effective when teachers become moderators in open-ended classroom discussions, asking pupils what they need and what they would like to learn, instead of imposing the teachers’ perspective and warning youth of possible dangers. For this purpose, Lyubov Vasylchuk (IREX) states that it is not necessary to create a new school subject but to embed media literacy education in existing courses. This framework ensures that all teachers engage in media literacy education and creates an active media literacy community in every school.

Educators who took part in the seminar showcase their roles as the “real influencers.”

Media Lit Seminar is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.