School in the Grips of Change - Media Education in Finland

Article of the month

Helsinki, 13 September, 2002 — Young people in Europe live somewhere between traditional cultures and cultures breaking those traditions. As in supermarkets, they may choose which traditions to follow and which to cast aside.


At the same time, individuality is emphasized: the young are encouraged to live and make lives of their own. This means more options: you do not have to follow traditions. But what does this really mean - disposable culture of sorts? Where is the responsibility of adults? With all this freedom - aren't we close to abandoning our young?

Young people in Europe live somewhere between traditional cultures and cultures breaking those traditions. As in supermarkets, they may choose which traditions to follow and which to cast aside. At the same time, individuality is emphasized: the young are encouraged to live and make lives of their own. This means more options: you do not have to follow traditions. But what does this really mean - disposable culture of sorts? Where is the responsibility of adults? With all this freedom - aren't we close to abandoning our young?

Tradition cannot be viewed simply as a confining situation from which the individual is to be emancipated. Traditions may support young people's growth: the social world into which the individual is born is mostly experienced as a tight-knit web of social relationships, of systems of signs and symbols, with their particular meaning structures. And when the information environment is so instant and speedy, our European civilization could be viewed as more or less constant and slow: traditions give us intellectual flexibility. Traditions are part of human capital investment.

School inevitably represents traditions. According to recent studies in different countries, pupils certainly value school education. But, knowledge, action models and practical competencies, which they feel are important for their own life and their work, they acquire outside school! Leisure time, the media, computer games, consumption, and their own peer groups - all these act as informal learning environments more effectively than formal schooling.

In solving the problems of today's school, we need to consider seriously the changes (in the following, I will describe seven of them) which have taken place in our information and media environment over the past years. And in changing the world and making it a better place to live, the school, as well as youth work, should not have a re-active but an active role.

Educational policy in the New Europe should mean, above all, taking young people and their lives seriously into account, taking young ones seriously.

From Behaviourism to Constructivism

The concept of learning has changed radically. The learner no longer merely seeks relevant information but wants to get it in a way which leads to a new understanding in the process of learning: this influences the design and development of information systems and the relationship between learning and teaching.

According to the constructive notion of learning, knowledge cannot be transferred, but the learner him- or herself must build the structures which help his or her thinking develop. Choice and interpretation are central: we construct the objects of our observation, we do not register them.

We learn new knowledge by applying what we have learned earlier. It is essential to respect the learner's own way of analyzing the world, it is the basis on which the learner constructs and de-constructs the content taught. Thus, learning is the outcome of the learner's own action. In terms of the learning process, the means used to achieve the objectives may be just as important as the objective itself. The important thing is not only how much but what is learned. Interaction has an important role in constructive learning. We live in a world of meanings, and it is important how the common meaning is achieved.

The path from behaviouristic learning to constructivism follows the line from observing to construing, from imitating others to thinking on one's own, from a ready-made world to constructing a world. It is very likely that you have the universe in your own head. It appears that it is no longer possible to master information where it comes from, only where it comes to: in the head of the recipient.

From Learning to "Playing"

The newly devised concept of edutainment, a combination of the concepts education + entertainment, should be taken seriously. The experience of pleasure motivates and activates; entertainment is an important educational factor.

Traditionally, learning has been associated with the Protestant ideal of hard work. Surprisingly enough, it is possible to learn through pleasurable games; in essence the human being is, after all, homo ludens. One good example is the especially skilful "Nintendo"-surgeons: it is said that there is a great difference between technical excellence of younger surgeons who have grown up in the world of computer games and their colleagues of the old school.

My own notion of learning is to see it as a process of the reorganization and construction of a person's not only knowledge, but also emotions and will resulting from interaction with the environment and its ecology, the media environment and media ecology. Actually science, art and humour use the same language with small variations.

From Papermedia to Hypermedia

In cultural history, human communication may be examined in terms of three long periods: the oral, textual and visual phases. In the prehistory, oral communication was concrete and tied to time and place, here-and-now. In the textual phase, information crossed the boundaries of time and place and detached itself from personal knowledge, enabling concepts to be born. The era of visual communications is characterized by cumulative technical knowledge and industrialization. Now, in the 20th century, in the "culture of the eye", oral communication is possible both in real time and through an audio or audiovisual recordings, so that we can speak of a new kind of oral phase. We are closing the circle, going back to oral communications, but of the kind that is tied to neither place nor time.

The letters forming a written text are extremely abstract communication. But when we trace the origins of the letter A, we see that they are concretely in the image of the Apis bull. We have actually returned to our prehistory of writing with our abundant use of images. Cultural history speaks of "culinarisation": only quality visual communications has genuine demand. Current youth culture is especially visual. It is here that the problem lies: the school is till based on textual culture.

Although the book has a head-start of 500 years compared to the multimedia, the school would do well to transfer from verbal thinking to integration of verbal and visual thinking, which would be a natural consequence of converging technology, the convergency. Besides, 'hypertexts' compared with 'papertexts' are by nature non-linear, they aim to be interactive and therefore are more processes than products.

One aim of the change is that our young move on from being and feeling outsiders to being networkers of many different kinds. The best would be to offer the largest possible media menus, which would ensure that media are used in relevant contexts by relevant means.

There are so many realities available. Alongside the "real" reality, we may encounter media reality, multimedia reality, virtual reality„m They are all equally valid, but they all have sign and symbol worlds of their own, and they follow different kind of regularities.

From Technology to Human Resources

The real power of electronic communications is that in it people are the ultimate source of knowledge - not the physical mass of wires, the complex networks or the vast databases of information. It is people's knowledge, relationships, insights, spirit and expertise that are passed on from person to person, and this is the magic of this interconnected world.

"We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature", said John Naisbitt in his book Megatrends twenty years ago - and this claim is still very valid.

As to the set of problems in Finland, we have even tried to promote a new science which we call "medialogy", which researches the interactive combination of technology and culture. The demand for quality software is growing at the same rate as hardware capacity. At the moment there is a serious shortage of pedagogically and culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials available. It is time to stress the need to go over from hardware to software, from technics to ethics!

In the world of technology, young people are in urgent need of on-line human resources: reciprocal contacts with experts, teachers, tutors, and other students. This kind of combined information and human network may engender new possibilities.

Young people's style of living is described in research literature by the letters CCC - clothes, CDs, cafeterias. What is involved is not conventional consumption, but consumption connected with experiences, symbols, culture, appearance, and togetherness. It is easy to see that behind the use of the most modern technological hardware, we can find basic existential values and needs of having, loving and being.

From Moral Panic to Critical Thinking

In today's - as well as in the future - electronic information environment, everyone is able to access vast amounts of data without a mediator. This truly requires critical thinking skills. One must have both an ability to define one's own information needs, to locate, use and evaluate information and an ability to evaluate both the outcome of information retrieval and the process of retrieval itself.

Critical thinking means a way out from confusion to comprehension. Critical thinking is a productive and positive activity. Critical thinkers see the future as open and malleable, not as closed and fixed. They are aware of the diversity of values, behaviours, social structures, and artistic forms in the world. Critical thinking is a process, not an outcome, and it is emotive as well as rational. Critical thinkers try to imagine and explore alternatives.

So, it might be time to move from moral panic to freedom of expression. When - probably also as a result of the bad reputation of the Internet - the EU Commission published its Action Plan on promoting the safe use of internet, we could very well ask: safe for whom? In Finland there has always been an emphasis on the positive functions and qualities of the Internet. To our minds, censoring the Internet is not only technically impossible but morally suspect. Still we are eager to promote ethics and etiquette, n-ethics and n-etiquette.

From National to Internationally European

The school does not live in a vacuum. It must open up more and more not only to its surroundings but to the world. Internationalism has become young people's everyday at school as well as in their free time. In the near future physical and mental mobility will be promoted, as an example, by wireless multimedia.

Maybe, we Finns are the most European of all European nations. We are almost the only people to still retain the two major currents of European cultural history: Roman-Germanic and the Byzantine-Slavonic thinking. Finnish thinking try to combine oriental mythical-poetic and occidental logical-linear thinking. On the whole, when the media are eminently Anglo-American, it is time to stress the European pluralism„m..
From Literacy Media Literacy

Our current definitions of literacy are quite narrow: text read and text written, with some critical awareness of others' work. But for example multimedia offers us many more channels for supporting open communications, so that a broader definition of literacy is indeed needed.

In traditional literacy, the most advanced readers construct personal philosophies by synthesizing information and accepting or rejecting points of view. Knowing the facts is only the beginning. Being able to link them together, to discard one in favour of another, to synthesize them into personal way of life - that is the ultimate measure of literacy.

But, with the changing media landscape, the concept of literacy is expanding towards what is currently known as media literacy. Traditional literacy is no longer enough, one should also be able to read and write different media texts, whether verbal, visual, oral, auditive, digital, iconographic or any combinations and networks of these. As integration and convergence of technology is true, so too is the need for skills to read and write integrated media texts. For example traditional reading skills are needed when reading electronic documents, but when reading on screen, text must be read vertically and at an in-depth level, not only horizontally.

Media literacy, the movement to expand the notions of literacy to include the powerful post-print media that dominate our informational landscape, helps people understand, produce and negotiate meanings in a culture made up of powerful images, words and sounds.

Media literacy is the ability to analyze, augment and influence one's active reading, listening and viewing of media, which enables one to become a more effective citizens. Analyzing means consumer skills : the media literate person recognizes that s/he is actively negotiating meaning with media texts. Augmenting means user skills : the media literate person is able to appropriate additional resources to further study any topic of interest. This ability includes being able to effectively use appropriate technology. Mental and technical processes of information seeking and processing are equally important. They ought to be based firmly on learning tasks which value the learner's own initiative, reflection and interests. Influencing means producer skills: the media literate person is able to deliberately change the impact or meaning of messages as well as create and send his/her own messages. The roles of reader and writer, producer and receiver, are reciprocal. The reader becomes a writer and vice versa.

The dimensions of media literacy are large. In research literature, I have found numerous terms for different kinds of literacy: visual and audiovisual literacy; teleliteracy; information literacy; computer literacy; literacy of electronic texts; multiple literacy which means foreign languages; intertextual literacy; intervention literacy, which means the ability to read and interventionally write; technology literacy; network literacy; media literacy and finally cultural literacy which is the largest definition, and close to the German concept Bildung!

Media literacy can be defined as different kinds of media awareness and competencies, also occupational ones. Teachers' media competence includes the capability to teach with media and about media. This means readiness at school for media educational and media pedagogical approaches.

Finland is known for its nearly 100-per-cent literacy. We also want to keep up with the media literacy. This is why we have set up a task force called "Literacy in the media society" to promote the ability to read and create media texts as an important citizenship skill. This literacy project of Ministry of Education has also received support from our new Government. In its Programme, published some months ago, the Government says:

"Teacher training, the creation of new learning environments, the development of teaching material in both domestic languages and the strengthening of diversified literacy will constitute the areas of focus in the information society strategy for education."

Media Education

Everybody knows the classical fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Above I have examined the seven phenomena relating to changes in the learning environment. Metaphorically, if they represent the dwarfs, where is Snow White who cleans the house? My answer is media education.

People have always loved stories, and storytelling has a long tradition. The narrative is in fact one of the major currents in the media. Even the news items on television are stories told from day to day, often combining fact with fiction.

The new media are actually very classical in their forms of narrative. The new media manifest an observable continuum: the narrative methods have been developed throughout history and classical narrative dramaturgies are also found in the communications of our time. Aristotle's "Poetics" is indeed an excellent introduction to the modern multimedia: you only have to know your public and approach them with a blend of rhythm, sound, drama and rhetoric.

Media education - concerning both the old and new media - have a tradition of more than thirty years in Finland. The curriculum on mass media education was devised in 1970 in co-operation with UNESCO. But, more than twenty years later, after radical changes in the media landscape, we just as radically changed our national curriculum from the mass media education to media education, as a part of the new national curricular guidelines in 1994. The demarcation between different kinds of media have diminished alongside the development of media technology, which is nowadays mostly manifested in technologic convergence and convergence of content.

The new aims of media education are three dimensional:
- In receiving messages, the pupil enjoys the media and interprets and criticizes all kind of media texts.
- In communicating, the pupil experiences a joy of creation, knows the basic concepts relating to media and is skilled in using all kind of media.
-The pupil in his/her environment uses media in accessing knowledge, and s/he knows the cultural, aesthetic and ethical values of media and - most importantly - recognizes the constructive nature of media.

Partly in the context of media education, an extensive technological assessment project was carried out in Finland in 1997 and 1998. From its beginning in the late 80s, the use of IT in education has greatly expanded. In the '90s, dramatic breakthroughs in the creation of networks and communications technology have begun to alter the educational scene. At the same time profound paradigm shifts are taking place in our concept of learning.

The study showed that access to ICT resources depends (still) on the family's social and economic standing, on the age and employment of the person in question, and on the geographical location. The person most likely to be "wired" is a young, well-educated, technically-oriented male living in the Helsinki area. I think it would be worthwhile to ask where the girls are. On the whole, boys are fascinated with technology, girls with content and the functions of technology. Boys know how to surf, girls what contents to look for.

According to the National Information Society Strategy 2000-2004 by Ministry of Education strengthens the idea of media education: ˇ¨By the end of the strategy period in 2004 media literacy will have become a part of general education.ˇ¨ Inevitably, media education is the most modern part of the right to education in any civilized communication society.
Communication Society

We could describe the information society - such a largely used but biased concept - by saying "information-rich, knowledge-poor". This is why I would like to rename it: instead of the term 'information', I would suggest using the term 'communication' as an attribute.

In a ritual definition, communication is linked to such terms as sharing, participation, association, fellowship... This definition makes use of the ancient identity and the common roots of the terms 'commonness', 'communion', 'community' and 'communication'. My argument is that we should move on from technical information and data to real interactive and content-rich communication, from information society to communication society, where shared knowledge is most powerful and dominant.

The area where shared knowledge would be desperately needed is the cooperative domains of school and youth work. It is surprising how little connection there is between school work and youth work. After all, what both are about is the same young generation and the creation of media space for young people. Media education would provide a good bridge.

As an example of such cooperation bridge between school and leisure time - between formal and informal education and training - as a social innovation we have developed Media Camps - one of the workshops at this conference.

The idea in media camps is that communication skills are needed everywhere in society and belong to everybody. Activities at the camps give the participating children and young people experiences of a new way of life, including self-expression, participation and taking responsibility. What the camp is all about is more than media technology: it is a way of living and learning together, combining mutual responsibility with individual initiative.

The camp could also exemplify the idea which I put forward at the beginning of my paper: by offering this kind of activities, we try to take responsibility as adults, we do not want to abandon our children and youth.

Dr. Ritva-Sini MERILAMPI
Ministry of Education
Meritullinkatu 10

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