Joining Forces: What Computer Science Education Could Learn from Media Literacy
December 16, 2020

Joining Forces: What Computer Science Education Could Learn from Media Literacy

Technologists can learn a lot from media literacy principles, and produce better technologies because of it.
by Michelle Ciccone

Media literacy has been having a moment. For the past several years, widespread public concern about so-called fake news and the perceived ill effects of social media have increased the calls for more informed media consumers and producers. Media literacy — defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communicationhas been identified as part of the solution, and as a media literacy educator myself, I can’t disagree.

Through my work with both teachers and students as a digital and media literacy educator, I’ve come to believe that truly informed use of digital technologies requires knowing something about how these technologies actually work. On this, media literacy educators have a lot we can learn from the technologists and computer scientists who create these technologies. Which is why, even as someone not formally trained in CS, I love learning from the ethi{CS} project network of CS educators.

But I think the potential benefit is mutual, that familiarity with media literacy principles could help computer scientists and technologists learn to produce better technologies. Below are a few key ideas I believe CS educators can take from media literacy as they educate the next generation of technology developers.

First, media literacy promotes multi-perspectival thinking. It forces us to grapple with the fact that you and I can look at the same image, the same ad, the same film, and see something different. When we come together in good faith to share our different perspectives during, for example, a media decoding activity, our interpretations ideally become more nuanced, more humane, and more empathic.

This is at the heart of what the tech industry is waking up to: not only will every user not experience a single piece of technology in the same way, but in fact a given tool will have unforeseen impacts if we only look at it from our limited point of view. In response, tech companies are hiring ethicists and adopting policies to recruit a more diverse workforce so as to include more perspectives in the room where technologies are made. Yet work still remains. CS students that learn the value of seeking out divergent perspectives will enter the industry better equipped to build technologies that work better and reduce harm for more people.

Second, media literacy helps us unearth the impact of media on culture and society. Media literacy scholars study everything from advertisements to video games to 24-hour news networks to the constant pinging of smartphone app alerts. They study all of the things that encompass our media environments because these communication tools have real consequences for individuals and communities.

Technologies that your CS students will build will also have real impact. Researchers Sepehr Vakil and Jennifer Higgs write, “Democratic societies are shaped, filtered, enhanced, and circumscribed by computing technologies and the algorithms driving them, yet these interactions between society and technology are often difficult to discern. Full social and political participation hinges on the ability to perceive and interrogate these interactions.” Practice analyzing the impact of already-built technologies sharpens these interrogations, and helps turn a skilled computer scientist into a civically engaged technologist.

Third, media literacy helps us unpack the influence of media messages on how we see the world. Introductory media literacy activities engage students in identifying stereotypes — around gender, race, and other aspects of our identities — that appear in mass media. These stereotyped messages are often communicated in subtle ways, and it takes practice and a habit of personal reflection to notice how media representations burrow into our worldview and shape our perceptions.

The media we use in our classrooms also have a powerful influence on our students. CS educators are increasingly conscious of the messages communicated via classroom materials and pedagogy, particularly as we hope to recruit underrepresented students to the field. Key questions of media literacy can help educators consider: What does my classroom communicate about who belongs in CS, and who is left out?

Finally, media literacy trains us to see ourselves as media makers who have the power to disrupt and problematize dominant media messages. The 2020 Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma sparked productive discussion about whose voices were featured in the film and therefore driving the conversation around diagnosing tech harms and offering solutions. But we know from the creative work of organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League that activist media making and compelling storytelling is central to building a movement for equitable and accountable technologies. What we really need are more knowledgeable technologists telling more stories about technology’s impact on society. I can’t help but think that the educators in the ethi{CS} project community — and their students — would convey a more nuanced picture of what computer science is capable of and where the field is headed.

To fully combat the challenges of our current media ecosystem will require collaboration across many communities, including between media literacy and technologists. By borrowing these ideas from the media literacy field, I believe that ethical computer scientists and CS educators can educate and mobilize the public, inviting a wider community in the work of future-building.


For more, watch this recording of the “Media Literacy and the Tech Industry” panel from the November 2020 Northeast Media Literacy Conference. NMLC is an annual event co-hosted by the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. This year’s event was online and gathered people from 28 nations. We would love to continue this conversation about what the media literacy and computer science communities can learn from each other at NMLC2021.

Michelle Ciccone is the Technology Integration Specialist at Foxborough High School and a Research Affiliate at the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy.

Other Posts