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Reflecting on information literacy through the lens of the newly published Online Media Literacy Strategy

Alison Hicks, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Information Literacy, reflects on the UK Government’s newly-published Online Media Literacy Strategy.


I recently came across the national Online Media Literacy Strategy, a document that I wouldn’t normally have paid much attention to given that I have mostly given up aspiring to agree with current governmental policy. What brought it into my orbit, however, was a really insightful analysis of the new strategy by Sonia Livingstone, a well respected media literacy researcher, who picked apart her ‘lukewarm” feelings towards the document in a succinct but thought-provoking blogpost. This analysis makes a great read for anyone interested in media literacy, and/or the Online Media Literacy Strategy. However, it also seems to provide points of reflection for those of us who are interested in information literacy, particularly regarding assumptions that we bring to our teaching. I’ll pull out some of my ‘stop and think’ moments here to try to explain why I found them so thought provoking.

One of the blogpost’s main critiques of the strategy is that it focuses “on reducing consumer harms rather than addressing the breadth and depth of the media literacy agenda.” Livingstone quotes Oliver Dowden’s statement that the aim of the document is to create users who can “contribute to a respectful and kind online environment” to argue that this emphasis places too much attention on supporting media consumption rather than the development of other abilities, including the ability to “organise, protest, and ask difficult questions of those with power.” The argument against information consumption has long been made within information literacy research, but Livingstone’s emphasis on creating courteous and gracious users struck a chord. Do we over-emphasise ‘nice’ or ‘good’ behaviours in our information literacy teaching to the detriment of other activities? Critical information literacy instruction has gone a long way to address this, but recent research that I have been carrying out with my colleagues, Annemaree Lloyd, reveals the tendency to focus on compliance and affirmative actions rather than other aims and goals. How might we integrate more of a focus on activism rather than consumption into our teaching activities?

Another critique is that the document “comes perilously close to blaming the user for the problems of the digital world”. To wit, the document states that media literate people will be able to “control who has access to their data,” for example, even though it is abundantly clear that a number of large media companies have zero interest in making this something that even the most tech savvy person could ever achieve. This got me thinking about how we elide the structural in our teaching – how often do we place the emphasis on teaching learners rather than the need to make businesses better? The recent focus on deficit discourse (I highly recommend Chelsea Heinbach and colleagues’ recent book on the topic, btw) suggests that it still seems far easier to blame learners rather than to examine the structural reasons for which they are not able to (or do not wish to) fulfil our learning goals. Along the same lines, how often do we set unrealistic expectations for learners, particularly related to activities or in spaces over which they have little agency or influence?

A final thing that struck me from Livingstone’s critique was the reference that she made to the need to ease rather than compound the “media literacy burden” on users. In this argument, she asserted that many of the statements outlined in the document seemed to place the onus on the user or learner to stem the tide of fake news/online harassment/spamming, etc rather than the government, who could regulate online systems, or big media companies themselves, who could prevent problems occuring in the first place. What struck me about this statement, however, was her emphasis on easing the burden on the user, something that I don’t think I have ever heard within information literacy literature. All too often it seems that we are desperately hungry for more- more classes, more time with learners, more assessment, more skill-building – yet I wonder what the impact of all of this ‘more’ is upon our learners, whether they are children in a school library, refugees in a public library or MA students in an academic library. How might we reduce the information literacy burden, or at least recognise the impact or additional load that our teaching places upon people?

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