Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

Making Media Literacy Central to Digital Citizenship

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again


It’s easy to get caught up in the hype around the latest and greatest classroom tech, from video games to 3-D printers to Raspberry Pi kits to VR to AR and beyond. The reality is that kind of tech -- expensive, bleeding-edge tools -- makes headlines but doesn't make it into many classrooms, especially the most needy ones. What does, however, is video.

While we often get distracted by the latest device or platform release, video has quietly been riding the wave of all of these advancements, benefiting from broader access to phones, displays, cameras and, most importantly, bandwidth. In fact, 68 percent of teachers are using video in their classrooms, and 74 percent of middle schoolers are watching videos for learning. From social media streams chock-full of video and GIFs to FaceTime with friends to two-hour Twitch broadcasts, video mediates students’ relationships with each other and the world. Video is a key aspect of our always-online attention economy that’s impacting voting behavior, and fueling hate speech and trolling. Put simply: Video is a contested civic space.

Safety to Savvy

This emergence of video as a high-stakes media form requires a rethinking of what we mean by digital citizenship. We need to move from a conflation of digital citizenship with internet safety and protectionism to a view of digital citizenship that’s pro-active and prioritizes media literacy and savvy. A good digital citizen doesn’t just dodge safety and privacy pitfalls, but works to remake the world, aided by digital technology like video, so it’s more thoughtful, inclusive and just.

Below, I offer five key steps and related resources to merging video literacies and digital citizenship, but I fully realize I’m not inventing something new here. There are decades of precedent, and I’d love to hear from you what you’ve done in your classroom or your favorite resources.


1. Help Students Identify the Intent of What They Watch

One of the core principles of media literacy is that all media are trying to accomplish something, even those that seem to be “just entertainment.” Helping students interpret what that something is when they watch a video will help them approach the video more critically. To do this, equip students with some essential questions they can use to unpack the intentions of anything they encounter. One way to facilitate this thinking is by using a tool like EdPuzzle to edit the videos you want students to watch by inserting these questions at particularly relevant points in the video.

2. Be Aware That the Web Is a Unique Beast

Compared to traditional media (like broadcast TV or movies), the web is the Wild West. There are massive amounts of content falling along a vast continuum of fact and fiction. This content feeds niche communities and echo chambers, some of which lead to dangerous conspiratorial or bigoted thinking. To analyze all this stuff, we can’t just rely on the tried-and-true techniques of traditional media. We need new ways of thinking that are web-specific. Mike Caulfield’s e-book is a great deep dive into this topic, but as an introduction to web literacy you might first dig into the notion of reading “around” as well as “down” media -- that is, encouraging students to not just analyze the specific video or site they’re looking at but related content (e.g., where else an image appears using a reverse Google image search).

3. Turn Active Viewing into Reactive Viewing

Active viewing -- engaging more thoughtfully and deeply with what you watch -- is a tried-and-true teaching strategy for making sure you don’t just watch media but retain information. It’s a great technique, but particularly for teacher-vetted materials that students are meant to learn from. But what about video that’s not necessarily explicitly educational, like more commercial, popular or social media? For this content, students shouldn’t just be working toward comprehension but critique; they need to not just understand what they watch, but also have something to say about it. One of my favorite techniques for facilitating this more dialogic and critical mode of video viewing is by using a classroom backchannel, like TodaysMeet, during video viewings, so teachers and students can actively question and discuss.

4. Transform Students’ Video Critiques into Creations

Digital citizenship should be participatory, meaning students need to be actively contributing to culture. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of the time tweens and teens spend using social media is focused on creation. It’s important for students to create media, so that they can work through their perspectives and make the world more representative of their views. This is important for students from underrepresented backgrounds who have historically been shut out of or just ignored in dominant media. By encouraging all students to create media, we push toward a more equitable and just world, and by encouraging students to produce critical media -- that is, media that directly engage with other media -- we empower students to remake dominant culture. There are a ton of options out there for facilitating video creation and remix, but two of my favorites are MediaBreaker and Vidcode. For middle school and high school students, remix activities also present a great opportunity to talk about copyright and fair use.

5. Empower Students to Become Advocates

Citizenship is ultimately about being democratically engaged in a place, and working to make that place better. As the digital extension of one’s citizenship to a place, digital citizenship must include advocacy. There’s no question young people face a challenging and uncertain world, currently run by people who often do not share their views on key issues and thus do not advocate in their interests. As incubators of participatory civics, classrooms can build students’ confidence and motivation. The Anti-Defamation League and Teaching Tolerance have lesson plans that connect to both past and present struggles, and one can also look to the co-created syllabi that have sprung up around Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville, and beyond. Pair these resources with video creation tools, and encourage students to create videos that advocate for causes important to them.


Tanner Higgin is Director of Education Editorial Strategy at Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources, including full reviews of digital tools.

lower waypoint
next waypoint