An innovative literacy programme teaches Indian schoolchildren to consume digital media critically

Despite having the world's second largest smartphone and online markets, internet penetration in India is quite low, with only one in four people reporting its use. Worse still, research by the Center for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) has found that economically and socially excluded groups, including women, religious minorities, scheduled castes and tribes make up the smallest proportion of internet usage and media literacy. While the dismal internet penetration rates are discouraging, in a democracy where mob lynchings can transpire because of misinformation in WhatsApp forwards, it is not digital access, but a digital capability divide that is dangerous to the Indian politic.

Digital capability entails the ability to find, critically evaluate, and apply information in one’s life. This means being able to look at WhatsApp forwards, or sensationalised news, and discern fact from propaganda. To combat this perilous digital capability divide, CCDS launched a media literacy project in 2013. Their project started in low-income households around Pune, and is now focusing on 11-16-year-old children in 34 schools around the country. These schools — a mix of government and private — largely cater to lower socioeconomic groups, and will be provided with media literacy material. The material, such as workbooks and videos, provide the framework for information and communication technologies, which is intended to encourage users to consume media critically.

An innovative literacy programme teaches Indian schoolchildren to consume digital media critically

CCDS' project is now focusing on 11-16-year-old children in 34 schools around the country. All images courtesy CCDS

According to CCDS director Hutokshi Doctor, most school curricula do not train children to navigate a media that is increasingly manipulated, sensationalised and false in its representation of facts. Instead, curricula in school and government policies and programmes promote digital acquisition skills that are focused on protectionist strategies, namely censorship. Thus the ease with which a crowd can be roused from WhatsApp forwards, and religious texts and myths can be used to link televisions and genetic engineering to ancient India.

“CCDS's digital media literacy project advocates for the inclusion of a formal curriculum on media and information literacy (MIL) in schools, as well as free and open-access media literacy learning resources for adults, parents and teachers,” says Doctor. Their initial attempts at media and information literacy resources included a music video and animated modules. The video was shot in low-income areas in Mumbai, and the music was composed and sung by Dharavi Rocks, a group of young musicians who make music with waste material. The video, along with an animated module called Kahan Milenge Saare Jawaab was used in internet literacy workshops across low-income settlements in Pune. These workshops were primarily for children and women, and trained them to use the internet for research, as well as create videos on smartphones.

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CCDS' workshops are primarily aimed children and women.

Since its focus on school curricula, the CCDS has created a media literacy workbook in English called Media Maze, written by journalist and children's writer Shabnam Minwalla and illustrated in a graphic book style by Bengaluru-based Adwait Pawar. The aim of the workbook is to help children understand media beyond just news, including advertisements and social media. “It explains the largely un-curated world of the internet and why we shouldn't believe or forward any old message,” says Doctor. The workbook also includes tips on combatting cyberbullying, staying safe online, and recognising gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the workbook will be easily accessible outside school, as it’s too large a file online to load on smartphones. It will, however, be provided at the schools that are part of the project.

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CCDS' media literacy workbook, Media Maze

The workbook is accompanied by news literacy videos, created in collaboration with media scholar Aloke Thakore, a PhD in journalism and mass communications. They are in Hindi and attempt to engage children in being critical about where and how information in the media comes from. The videos progress in complexity, beginning with an explanation of what media is, and ending with the role of media in a democracy. The videos are on YouTube, so can be easily accessed outside the school as well, perhaps shared at home by the children.

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From Media Maze

Doctor claims that it is too early to talk about the impact of the material, but workbook and news literacy videos are already being used in media literacy training by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, and in rural classrooms by Azim Premji Foundation. “These are sort of samplers of the kind of material that is needed to inculcate media and information literacy in children and teens in the Indian context,” says Doctor. Based on their research, the CCDS will publish a report in 2019 advocating for information and media literacy in school curricula.

In the future, CCDS hopes to create media information literacy material on smartphone apps and online for young adults, parents and teachers. While this may not necessarily mean less sexist WhatsApp jokes or ‘fake’ news in WhatsApp groups, hopefully, it will help in recognising a meme from a fact. As Doctor says, “in a democracy, censorship cannot be the solution to this problem of disinformation. Promoting media and information literacy is the solution.” By working on media literacy today, the CCDS is shaping a future Indian democracy that is more influenced by factual reporting than the flash of fake news.

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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2018 10:19:07 IST

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