Media Fluency is for Girls

In my first post for Gal’s Guide, I made the case for visual communication as something of a language unto itself. I argued that we need to rethink how we approach literacy, because video is quickly replacing text as the dominant symbol system in our culture. I’m not suggesting that text will ever go away, but in that post I did propose that our definition of literacy needs an overhaul.

In this age of digital interconnectedness, individuals who have the skills to decode and encode messages via cartoons, internet memes, video, animation, and other digital visual forms are said to be media fluent. These are skills that every child today – indeed, every adult – needs in order to interact with the world, not as it will be sometime in the near future but as it is now.

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Media fluency is generally understood as encompassing two skill sets. The first, which we might call media comprehension, enables media consumers to decode, analyze, and break down mediated messages into their constituent parts. The other, known as media production, involves successfully encoding some kind of meaning into a mediated message. Both are needed for successful participation in today’s media-rich landscape.

Everyday people are increasingly expected to produce visual media content  for various personal and professional reasons. Whether it’s a crowdfunder for a new travel venture or an internet promo for a small business, untold millions of people are now finding themselves in need of the ability to convey some sort of message through moving images and sound. I’m also told that employers are now asking for video resumes, something that wasn’t even technically possible just a few years ago. So it isn’t a stretch to say that everyone needs to become media fluent as quickly as possible, or that those who don’t will be left behind.

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The situation is similar to the “digital divide” we saw happening in the 90s; people without computers or access to the internet suddenly found themselves at a considerable disadvantage because everything was becoming digital so fast. One major difference between then and now is that with that issue, there was a lot of noise made well in advance of its onset. People were able to see the digital divide coming in ways that, perhaps, a lot of experts didn’t anticipate this eventuality. Maybe that’s because it’s been happening too fast. Or maybe it’s because you’d have to be both a media person and a technology person to have seen it coming.

As it happens, I have been both. IT folks told us in the late 90s that the bandwidth would soon support video. And once it did, it was pretty obvious that almost everything that could shift to video would – and fast. Visual communication is just so much more natural for us, and more effective, too – since some 60-90% of our communication is nonverbal. So, just as email supplanted letter writing almost overnight, it seemed like a good bet that video would soon replace email as well as much of our online content, as soon as the technical capacity was there.

And it has.

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Today we find ourselves surrounded by mediated messages everywhere we go. We live in a media-saturated environment, where moving images and text that “crawls” or otherwise moves, plus graphics, animation, music, and sound effects are packaged for our consumption. And yet we don’t know instinctively how to produce these messages ourselves. We need media education in order to connect with what we already know about the language of visual communication.

My media arts students learn to tap into this unconscious knowledge when we cover storytelling conventions and cinematic codes. These are the grammar and syntax of any visual platform, and studying them seems to awaken something in all of us. Call it the mother tongue of nonverbal communication, full of symbols and color and shape and style, that resides far in the backs of our minds. These symbols and signifiers descend from traditions that have been handed down from television, film, photography, vaudeville and other forms of live entertainment, as well as classic painting, sculpture, traveling bards, and every other form of storytelling or visual art going back to the beginnings of human culture. All we need is a little nudge to help us connect with that deep knowledge as well as the technical capacity to implement our ideas.

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These storytelling and production skills – collectively known as media fluency – are just as necessary in the 21st century as the language arts we’ve been teaching at every grade level in our schools for the past… forever. However, media arts are getting almost no coverage in our schools. The education system seems to have done a great job of embracing technology to combat the digital divide, but they’ve struggled to provide adequate media education to all students. It’s been seen for too long as a specialty subject that interests only a portion of the population and mirrors the broadcast model of the past, in which information was disseminated by a few to the masses. However, our daily environment has quickly become media-saturated. We no longer rely solely or even mainly on the broadcast model of media; instead we are becoming a pro-sumer culture, one in which we must produce, not just consume media, in order to survive.

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This is where I see a huge opportunity for girls right now. Girls are believed to embrace language arts much more readily than boys. So if you see video production not as a technology but as a mode of communication, it’s easy to see how girls will quickly become proficient in its use.

Girls today are carrying cameras around in their pockets everywhere they go. In most cases, these cameras are fully capable of capturing high quality HD video. The price on computers and the necessary editing and graphics software has also come down so much as to create realistic opportunities for families to provide access to that technology as well. There are freemium apps now for everything from stop motion animation to digital painting and more. Add an inexpensive cell phone tripod and half decent lighting, and all that is lacking are the skills girls need to put all of that technology to good use. That’s where a media arts education can be helpful: to empower girls by giving them the language to say what they have to say, in a way that people will readily comprehend in our current media-rich environment.

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