Literacy in the 21st Century: Integrating Digital World of Film, Music and Video Games into the Classroom


There's no denying that kids today are plugged in. With earbuds in their ears, laptops flipped open to MySpace pages on the Web and a summer of blockbuster movies to anticipate, media are part of their everyday lives.

When they go to school, however, they're generally required to check those things at the door. Kathleen Tyner would like to see that change.

Tyner, assistant professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film (RTF), is an expert in media education and author of several books, including "Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information." She argues that being literate in the 21st century is not simply a matter of mastering the "three r's" of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Professor Kathleen Tyner
Professor Kathleen Tyner helps develop media education programs for school districts, museums and international organizations.

"We want people to have all intellectual tools at their disposal," she says. "It goes way beyond simple access to media. We also want students to think critically about media.

"In a digital world, media savvy is important to jobs, recreation and social engagement. If you believe that literacy is a cornerstone of a society, then we need to expand the way we understand and manage information."

Children are often called natives to media technology because for this generation it's always been part of their lives. Yet their school experience has not generally capitalized on their technological fluency. Media in the classroom has traditionally meant teaching through media. For example, a language arts teacher may teach the play "Romeo and Juliet" and then follow up with students by showing a film version of "Romeo and Juliet."

Media education goes far beyond that. Rather than teaching through media, it teaches about media. Students analyze the very media they see and use outside the classroom.

"The problem is that you can see kids in the classroom who don't read … but if you follow them home, they're online, they're video gaming with large networks where they're writing long essays to other gamers or online reading for hours,"

It also means finding a way to access the learning potential of those media, even those that are sometimes easily dismissed, such as video games.

"The problem is that you can see kids in the classroom who don't read, don't respond and are doing poorly, but if you follow them home, they're online, they're video gaming with large networks where they're writing long essays to other gamers or online reading for hours," she says. "Or they read complex software manuals. So it's not that they can't perform. It's about how to use this to engage them.

"The question is how to take the best part of the games and integrate them authentically into the classroom for learning purposes. That's the hard part."

And that's the task that those who are trying to create curriculum for 21st century literacy have taken on.

Tyner is a veteran in the field. For years she ran a nonprofit dedicated to developing media literacy curricula, and she has worked with universities and school districts across the country to help them integrate media education into their classrooms. Although they've been thinking about media education since the 1970s, when it was clear that students were spending as much time with the television as with written information, educators have been slow to change.

"Even today, the departments of education in every state would be hard pressed to tell you what kind of media education or digital literacy programs they have," Tyner says. "It's an emerging area and we're trying to find the best practices for the uses of media in the classroom."

Those exploring the new literacy also face the challenge of separating their work from the oft-posited belief that the only appropriate way to deal with media and children is to try to curb media use. To Tyner, that approach denies the fact that media have their uses to enhance and create knowledge, but it's a familiar stance.

"Any time you have an introduction of new technology, you have ideas not only about how to use them for the skills," she says, "but how to integrate them into the culture."

Tyner looks back nearly 500 years to the same challenge faced by Johann Gutenberg, who revolutionized book making by inventing the first press to use moveable type and printing what became known as the Gutenberg Bible. She takes her students each semester to study the Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center.

"Many people may not know that Gutenberg was sort of like a dot-commer," Tyner says. "He used venture capital. One of his partners sued him. And he adapted the technology of the time, like the wine press and his techniques in mirror making, to create his Bible."

Gutenberg's Bible represented a radical advance in technology that was then picked up by Martin Luther, who declared that every man could have a Bible for himself. Bypassing the church hierarchy of the time resulted in unrest throughout Europe and riots in the south of France.

"So you can look back at the introduction of any technology and the response to it," Tyner says. "Oftentimes it's about the technology, but more often it's about who gate-keeps the information that's delivered with the technology."

One key is to engage students not just in the study of media, but also in the production of it.

A program in media education doesn't seek to act as gatekeeper, but rather to teach students how to analyze media and think critically about them. Armed with those tools, they can make their own choices about the media presented to them.

One key is to engage students not just in the study of media, but also in the production of it. In the same way that students learn not only how to read, but how to write, they now learn not only how to consume media, but how to produce it. The act, for example, of making a film offers students a better idea of how to respond to and analyze films they see.

That's part of the idea behind Cinemakids, a film program for children run by Tyner's colleague, Dr. Mary Celeste Kearney, also an assistant professor in RTF. Kearney is faculty adviser for the annual Cinematexas International Short Film Festival at the university and has been running filmmaking workshops for kids as a component of the festival since 2001. The workshops are wildly popular.

"I always get a really great response from kids and parents," Kearney says. "We do this with the hope that through the processes of getting their hands on a camera, kids will be more engaged in media analysis. We're not just giving them tools to decode things, but empowering them to make their own media."

Tyner hopes to see this kind of work in classrooms across the country. The University of Texas at Austin moved to the cutting edge when it instituted a media education requirement into the curriculum for students preparing to be secondary education teachers in the language and liberal arts.

Cinemakids is a film program for children run by Dr. Mary Celeste Kearney, an assistant professor in RTF. This still comes from a 2004 youth-produced movie "8:30 AM: CLASSROOM REVELATIONS" at Global Action Project in New York, N.Y.

Spurred by the English, Language Arts and Reading section of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards for viewing and representing media, the College of Liberal Arts' UTeach Program and RTF collaborated to create a class to train new teachers to teach about media in the classroom. The result was Media Education for Prospective Teachers, a groundbreaking class Tyner has taught since coming to the university in 2004.

In the class students learn to locate and use source materials from online digital archives, create detailed lesson plans for critical analysis of media across the curriculum and create short video pieces that can be made in a typical classroom. They even write a screenplay.

"This is pioneering," Tyner says. "People call me from all over the country wondering how we did it, why we did it and how it's interdisciplinary between colleges. It's amazing."

Tyner also works with museums and organizations such as the European Observatory of Chidren's Television. She teaches a course on how to read a film to teachers at the University of California, Berkeley each summer. She is also part of a team working with the Los Angeles Unified School District Arts Education Branch to come up with a set of graduate requirements for students in the media arts.

"It's particularly interesting because Los Angeles has a huge school district, but they're also the heart of the movie industry," she says. "They understand that if their homegrown students don't have the opportunity to learn 21st century literacy skills, the work will just be outsourced to other places. They know that their workforce needs to be trained."

Media education is clearly gaining speed, and none too soon. As younger teachers, who are more comfortable with new media, replace retiring teachers, they'll demand tools to integrate media into the classroom. Doing so acknowledges that the media that are part of our world may change and advance, but they aren't going away. Understanding how to use them will be part of being well educated.

"There's a recognition that to give your kids a leg up, they have to know something about these other kinds of literacies," Tyner says. "The literacies are really just tools. They're ways of reading a variety of texts, and the purposes are the same with other literacies. They enable people to strategically use what they need to really participate in society."

For more information, contact: Lauren Phillips, 512-471-2182 or Nick Hundley, 512-471-7209