Competency and media literacy

By Edwin Hübner, January 2015

In 1996, the German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom started the initiative “Schulen ans Netz” (Schools online) in collaboration with the German government. After only five years, every school in Germany was connected to the Internet. It was a widely-held opinion that computers would fundamentally change the way in which schools operated.

Photo: Bastografie/

In 1999 the then president Roman Herzog said in a speech that received a lot of attention that “Information technology will lead to a revolution in the classroom. But first we have to devise education methods for the information age. […] For me it’s clear; computers belong into every classroom ...”

There were also other voices which expressed a critical opinion about possible negative consequences of the computerisation of education. These did not find a sympathetic ear at that time. However, in the mean time there are schools all over the world that have locked their computers back up in the cupboard. The advances in learning that were hoped for have not materialised and as a result the disadvantages have had a much more pronounced effect.

Poor literacy skills

On 23 July 2012 the German radio station Deutschland Radio broadcast an interview with a secondary school teacher about the results of an internal study of German philosophical faculties. This study reported grave failings, which “leap right out”, in the quality of work of the pupils. In addition to difficulties in spelling, grammar and sentence construction, the study observed poor ability to express themselves, to write coherent texts “and above all poor reading ability”. Simultaneously the professors reported that their pupils possessed a great degree of media competency.

The question then arises as to what we understand by media competency, seeing as writing is also a medium. What use is the ability to use a computer when you have problems reading and writing?

Content, form and means

What, then, is a medium? This question isn’t quite so easy to answer. A concrete example: the detective novel The Golden Egg by Donna Leon can be purchased as a book, an ebook and also an audiobook. The content remains the same, but in the former case it is presented as text and in the latter case as sound. The text can then be presented in a range of different ways; printed in a bound book, as pixels on the display of an ebook reader or on the screen of a computer. The sound data can also be presented either as saved on a CD and played through a CD player, or saved as a data file and played through an MP3 player, which is then heard through a pair of headphones.

With this simple example we can clearly see that a medium comprises several levels:

1. The content that the author wants to transmit: the media content.

2. The method through which it is transmitted, e.g. as text, sound or image: the media type.

3. The technical/material base through which or in which the media type comes to expression, the carrier of the media.

Books, CD players, televisions and computers are in the strictest sense only carriers of media. They transmit the media type of text, sound and image and it is these which then bring the media content to expression.

The observation of the lecturers can thus be understood as follows: the pupils posses a high level of competency in their interaction with the media carrier the “computer” and are incompetent with regard to the media type text.

All-round media competency is vital

The fascination with the vast capabilities of IT technologies has caused a lot of people to be seduced into no longer viewing the “older” media as being media. In view of this, it is easy to overlook the fact that media has always played a role in education. The first thing that a child learns in school is reading and writing, i.e. they obtain competence in the media type text. Even today this is regarded as the first responsibility of a school. But now, during the learning of basic literacy skills in primary school, the question has to be whether this should be limited to pen and paper or whether the computer should already play a role.

A person does not really posses media competency if they can only function when a computer is available. Media competency means being knowledgeable in the advantages and disadvantages of all types and carriers of media as well as possessing the capability to choose the most suitable one for the job at hand.

Teaching the media types text, image and sound

An education in media comprises several levels. One the one hand it occurs on the level of the media types text, sound and image and on the other on the level of the carrier of the media. Schools have to pay attention to every level and every area has a curriculum. This can be exemplified using the media type “image” (for more on this topic, see Struwwelpeter 2.0).

That the media type text needs to be mastered is self-evident. But the media type image also needs to be able to be “read”. The same way that children have to learn how text functions, they also have to learn how meaning is expressed through an image and how it can be understood. In a curriculum which is guided by the development of the child it is important that children create images themselves. This can already begin while the child is attending nursery, creating simple motifs with coloured pencils or watercolours. This can then be built on when they start primary school, when children are capable of aesthetic perception. They then learn aesthetic judgement and to differentiate between different shades of colour. As they become older the pictures and images become more sophisticated and diverse. At around the age of 12 (class 6) is the right time for an introduction to the principals of projection and shadow theory. With the aid of concrete graphical exercises they can learn the practical application of the rules of perspective. In class 11 they learn to approach projective geometry in an exact mathematical manner. From class 9 onwards, with the aid of concrete projects, they can become acquainted with the visual language of photography and film. It should be stressed, that in addition to producing their own films, they should be able to understand and analyse professionally produced films. Young people should also have an understanding of how advertisements are made and how they work.

The curriculum for an understanding of media carriers should be constructed in a similar manner. At the beginning of their school career children should have at least once made their own paper and, when they become a little older, also have bound their own book. From class 9 onwards they can then be introduced to the principles of computer technology and this  should again be approached through practical experience of electronic components and devices. This of course should include learning how to make use of online resources alongside books, magazines and libraries. Furthermore, they should learn the advantages and disadvantages of various presentation techniques through practical experience and how presentation software can be utilised.

The erosion of concentration

Everyday contact with information technology has cultural side-effects, irrespective of content. An example: reading texts on a screen has led to changes in reading habits for many people; they have become more cursory and therefore more perfunctory. Today people tend to skim through texts rather than thoroughly “work” to understand them. Readers have less patience. The American publicist Nicholas Carr said, referring to his friends, that “the more they use the internet, the harder it becomes for them to concentrate on longer texts”. Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School complained that “I have completely lost the ability to read and understand a longer article, whether in printed form or online”. Due to this, Brian Knutson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, rightly fears that “the internet could bring about the ‘survival of the focused’ of those people who are blessed with a natural ability to remain on course or can be sufficiently doped up with stimulants to achieve their aims, while the rest of us float along in a web-supported flurry of distraction.

Enforced concentration through the use of stimulants is no real alternative. More crucially, the question is how children can be helped to increase their capabilities in a natural way to remain internally “on course”. This leads to a central question which is raised far too seldom in the discourse about the teaching of media: in what way is a person changed through using technical devices and what counterbalance should be offered in education?

Indirect media education

The healthy development of a child’s physical, emotional and spiritual facilities is an essential basis for the responsible use of media as an adult. Therefore the first responsibility of education should be supporting the development of these facilities. Children need a variety of practical challenges which encourage a well-rounded and healthy development of their abilities.­ Likewise, care should be taken that everything that stands in the way of this development should be avoided. With this in mind, it is possible to differentiate between a direct and an indirect media education. An indirect media education helps a person to develop the strength which is needed to cope with the demands of the technical media world later in life. An indirect media education helps a developing person to remain “focussed”. The American communications expert, Howard Rheingold, suggests that digital media and networks can only be meaningfully introduced after the ability to remain “attentive” has been learnt. The teaching of this ability should focus on mental self-discipline which would allow the use of these digital tools without a loss of concentration.

These abilities are best learnt in a media-free environment because the media environment tends to lead to a disruption of this process. In view of this, the intensively cultivated craft and artistic skills taught in Waldorf schools take on an additional, new meaning. Because in no way can attentiveness, concentration and discipline be learnt as easily – through direct doing as it were – than in working on a piece of wood, a sculpture or a piece of clay ceramic. Every lapse in concentration is directly displayed and becomes visible in the work itself. In a choir or an orchestra it is impossible to produce something together when some are not paying full attention. From this point of view it is possible to look at every class taught and find elements of indirect media education. Working with and strengthening these elements should take a central role because today and into the future all education is an education in the information age.

Roman Herzog is right with his assertion that “we first need to devise an education for the information age”. Yet providing the technical resources is not enough. Our way of thinking about education has to change at a fundamental level. Education, as the philosopher and lecturer Gernot Böhme demands, has to be “anti-cyclical […], that means encouraging […] that which is not encompassed by the manifest trend of development”. In this respect we are still waiting for such a revolution in schools to take place.

About the Author: Dr. habil. Edwin Hübner is a teacher of mathematics, physics and religion at the Frankfurt/Main Free Waldorf School. Since 2001 he has been a research fellow at the Institut für Pädagogik, Sinnes- und Medienökologie (IPSUM) in Stuttgart, lecturer in teacher training and the author of several books on media education.