Breaking the Fourth Wall: Effective Digital Media Use in the K-12 Classroom
I recently completed an independent study for the end of my graduate school career that examined current trends in media arts and media literacy education in the United States. In addition to examining current trends, my report studied areas of strength and improvement in the field, specifically at the K-12 level. I then related these findings to the current K-12 educational landscape in Pittsburgh, specifically as it relates to the potential future offerings of professional development seminars for teachers in the integration of media literacy in the classroom.
One of the challenges that I continually faced was the lack of consistent local and national data examining how K-12 teachers are currently using digital media in the classroom. I found a lot of really great national data that talks about the many positive teacher attitudes towards digital media integration in the classroom, as well as local and national data that says that a majority of teachers currently use digital media in the classroom. However, I am still wondering: how are teachers using digital media in their classrooms?
At the national level, one of the best reports on teacher media usage in the classroom that I have found is the latest Digitally Inclined report, published by PBS in partnership with Grunwald Associates, LLC in January of this year. The report does a great job summarizing many of the key findings from the pre-K-12 teacher survey, many of which are especially relevant for the media arts field. Specifically of note were the strong teacher attitudes about the positive effects of digital media usage in the classroom and also the increasing levels of video usage, as measured in video segment length, in pre-K-12 classrooms. For the purposes of this survey, positive attitudes were measured using teacher perceived educational benefits of digital media usage in the classroom, as well as teacher attitudes about how the integration of digital media in the classroom may specifically benefit children.
Locally, I looked at current and past data from the Arts Education Collaborative's bi-annual teacher professional development survey, which is sent to arts educators throughout the Southwestern Pennsylvania region to assess educator interest and needs in a variety of topics surrounding professional development opportunities in the arts. Though results from the most recent survey, conducted during the month of April this year, have not yet been published, preliminary results indicate that arts educators in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region use a variety of technological resources in their classrooms. In the 2008 report, regional arts educators indicated that their frequency of use of media-specific technologies such as a DVD player, television and VCR in the classroom hovered somewhere between "a few times a year" and "once a month".
Both of these reports do an excellent job of illustrating what types of technology and digital media are being used in the pre-K-12 classroom. However, they do not clearly indicate exactly how teachers use different forms of technology and digital media in the classroom. One of the inherent challenges in gauging how teachers use these technologies in the classroom is a lack of common definition(s) for various forms of educational usage. For example, if I asked all survey respondents "do you use digital media in classroom instruction", the word "instruction" may be interpreted differently by every teacher and skew the survey results. If teachers use digital media in the classroom without integrating it into a lesson plan, is this still considered instruction? Even if it was possible to create a common definition for every form of digital media use in education, it would still be difficult to categorize all of the potential different uses of digital media in the classroom. Furthermore, would we want to limit teacher responses to this question?
On one hand, I am happy to see that so many teachers are integrating digital media in their classrooms and lesson plans. I am even happier that these teachers have reported such positive attitudes about the use of digital media in the classroom. It is great that digital media is being included at least partially in many daily lesson plans, but at what cost? Is digital media being used in a non-media classroom in ineffective ways? Ineffective, in this instance, means only that no educational value or new idea is being added to instruction with the use of digital media in the classroom. It cannot, and should not, be said that all digital media use in pre-K-12 classrooms is ineffective. However, when reports such as the Media Literacy in U.S. Institutions of Higher Education indicate that media literacy courses are limited in United States higher education institutions' Education programs where teachers are trained and certified, one wonders where proper media literacy teacher training is occurring if not through added professional development opportunities. Moreover, how is this ineffective use of digital media in the classroom affecting the media literacy movement?
I do not doubt that digital media is being used in classrooms, in many cases, with the most positive of intentions. While some may use it for entertainment rather than educational value, most teachers are probably using digital media to enhance the subject materials of lesson plans. I worry, however, that this increase of inclusion of digital media in the classroom is without the proper context or critical, analytical theory that is required of any and all effective media education. In essence, some teachers may inadvertently be adding to the fourth wall rather than breaking it down; the fourth wall being the imaginary barrier that allows a viewer to experience media as an accurate and realistic representation of fictional stories or events.
It always seems as though one of the many reasons people are so fascinated by the media is because it is a seemingly untouchable representation of reality. It is the notion that all digital media, especially film and television, are passive-viewing mediums only. When these mediums are used in the classroom without also discussing any context for the medium or analysis as to why this specific medium was used for the lesson, children do not gain any real added insight into the media they already spend countless hours with at home and are, subsequently, left with the notion that media is still inaccessible.
Let me provide an example: a teacher chooses to include a documentary about a specific country to teach about the cultural heritage of said country. Without any context or critical analysis, the film just becomes “movie day” in the classroom. Children aren't asked to examine and critique the film for its portrayal of the culture, they are asked to accept the film as an accurate representation of reality.
This sort of passive media consumption can be countered by something as simple as the teacher explaining why they chose a film rather than, say, a newspaper clipping. Asking this type of question in the classroom may seem simple and ineffective, yet it is necessary for laying the groundwork for teaching children to think about the media in a more proactive and critical, rather than passive, way.
Of course, a complete analysis and integration of media literacy concepts in the classroom would require extensive teacher training and future professional development opportunities, but we can start establishing teacher interest in media literacy training by asking them how they are currently using digital media in the classroom. While currently measured positive teacher attitudes about the educational benefits of digital media use in the classroom indicate that teachers would be willing to discuss such topics, my guess is that many may have a difficult time articulating how, specifically, digital media is being used in their classroom. This is through no fault of their own, but rather is a direct result of the media-saturated culture that we all live in; wherein we are all so accustomed to having the TV on in the background while we're surfing the web, etc. that we don't stop to think about why we use certain media to achieve certain tasks or to inform ourselves about the world around us.
If we begin asking teachers to articulate their thought processes as they relate to the use of digital media in the classroom, we can begin breaking down the fourth wall. When this wall is broken, teachers may in turn become more aware about the media choices that they themselves make, both in and out of the classroom. With this awareness comes an understanding of the many covert and overt effects of media on our society and our perception of reality. This, in turn, fosters a desire to learn more about the field of media literacy. Once this need for further information has been established, we as a field must be ready to respond and train pre-K-12 teachers as quickly and effectively as possible in media literacy integration in the classroom.
I am excited that so many pre-K-12 teachers are using digital media in their classroom, and that so many of these same teachers have positive attitudes and viewpoints about the role and educational merit of digital media integration in the classroom. I remain concerned, however, that the current increase in digital media use lacks the necessary inclusion of media context and critical analysis discussion, which ultimately limits the educational effectiveness of media usage in the classroom. Teaching with, and integrating, digital media in the classroom should be no different than using any other educational tool, both of which require some discussion of context and analysis. If we wouldn't talk about Pablo Picasso in the classroom without explaining his cultural significance and the historical context of his works, then why should we show the TV miniseries Roots in a United States history class without the same discussion of the piece's cultural significance and historical context?
Amy Puffenberger is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts Management program at Carnegie Mellon University. She also received her undergraduate degree in film and video production from Grand Valley State University. Her primary interests are in non-profit film and media arts and literacy education.