In addition to knowing how to search information online, you also need to be able to view the results with a critical eye and participate in the public discussion.

We are surrounded by media content – but are we critical enough?

Feature. Media literacy is the all-important citizen skill of the 21st century, but in Finland, adults in particular are falling behind.

Tuomas MacGilleon Photo Pexels

11.10.2018

Finland has a strong non-formal adult education system, but courses on media literacy are hard to find.

This autumn, only one of a total of 181 adult education centres offered a specific course on media literacy. Even this course was cancelled due to the lack of participants.

Jaana Nuottanen, executive director of the Finnish Association of Adult Education Centres, believes that there is a need for this kind of education.

“Online disinformation is a phenomenon that we are now beginning to notice, after international examples like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It’s a real, growing problem which has dangerous consequences,” she says.

So why are people not exactly rushing to attend such courses?

Ms. Nuottanen says that while it is easy to see a need to improve the media literacy of our society, the need might not yet be pressing enough – especially on an individual level.

Merely understanding the problem and the scale of it is not easy if you have grown up in a country that has a free press and a strong tradition of newspaper subscriptions.

“Elderly people in particular have not had to question the reliability of what they read for several decades. It is a revolutionary change in thinking that is needed. And a change like this takes time.”

Adults in particular can struggle in the digital world

Understanding the scale of the problem is not an easy task, even for decision-makers.

There is no research evidence on the level of media literacy, says Saara Salomaa, who works for the National Audiovisual Institute (KAVI) as a senior adviser in media education.

Over one-tenth of the whole population – have trouble in reading or making very basic calculations.

“According to an international comparison on media literacy, Finland is ranked quite high. However, the research does not really assess media literacy skills. Instead, the evaluation is based on the structural framework in each country, such as freedom of the press and accessibility of journalism.”

One indication of literacy problems has attracted the attention of politicians.

According to a PIAAC survey, more than 600,000 Finnish adults – over one-tenth of the whole population – have trouble in reading or making very basic calculations.

At the same time, we are moving towards an increasingly digital society, where you have to know how to search for information in order to find and apply for the services you need.

As a result, the Finnish National Agency for Education has now launched a programme that could give adult education centres the boost they need to put more focus on media literacy. More about that later on.

Much is being done, but more is needed

The National Audiovisual Institute is subordinate to the Ministry of Education and has been appointed the task of promoting media education and skills in Finland.

Saara Salomaa says that several other actors are also working to improve media literacy.

“Libraries, museums, media companies and other organisations have been active in engaging people to learn to operate in the digital world. Libraries in particular have played a big role.”

When we talk about improving media literacy, the adults are left in the margins.

However, most of the learning materials and workshops aimed at adults focus on technical matters – for example, teaching elderly people how to connect to the internet or do a Google search.

“These competencies should also be taught from a citizens’ skill point-of-view, which means that, in addition to knowing how to search for information online, you also need to be able to view the results with a critical eye and participate in the public discussion if you want to.”

“Another significant issue is that when we talk about improving media literacy, much of the focus is on children and young people,” says Saara Salomaa.

“While this is of course important, it leaves adults in the margins”.

Easy to live in denial

The media companies have also taken part in educating people to be more critical towards online content.

Since 2015, the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle has published an article series called “Valheenpaljastaja” [Lie detector], which focuses on fake news and online disinformation.

Critical thinking is the number-one citizen skill of the digital era.

“The purpose of it is to enable people to do fact-checking on online information,” says the author of the articles, freelance journalist Johanna Vehkoo.

In addition to writing about the subject, she also holds workshops and lectures for professionals – so far mostly for journalists and communications specialists.

Like Saara Salomaa, she stresses the importance of critical thinking as the number-one citizen skill of the digital era.

We tend to believe that we ourselves are rational and critical, that it’s other people who fall for hoaxes or propaganda.

“Being able to question what you read is far more important than learning any technical skill,” she says.

All three interviewees point out that acknowledging and admitting this type of shortcoming is difficult, especially for adults. And fixing it is far from easy.

“We tend to believe that we ourselves are rational and critical, that it’s other people who fall for hoaxes or propaganda. For example, conspiracy theorists often believe that they are the critical ones who know something that others don’t,” says Saara Salomaa.

“There is a confirmation bias deep in our psyche. We tend to look for information that supports our existing beliefs, and no-one is immune to it,” Johanna Vehkoo explains.

So how should you begin to educate people on a subject, if they do not want to admit they need to be educated in it in the first place?

This autumn, only one of a total of 181 adult education centres in Finland offered a specific course on media literacy. Even this course was cancelled due to the lack of participants.

Learning possibilities should be diverse and practical

Johanna Vehkoo says that “media literacy” as a course name is probably not the way to go, as the term is rather vague and can easily be confused with the general ability to read.

“Fact-checking online information or learning how to recognise internet scams are more accurate and interesting descriptions of what it is about,” she explains.

Education initiatives are often aimed at the old, young or unemployed.

Keeping the discussion on a practical level helps too.

“Talking about fake news that has recently made the headlines is a good starting point. In my own training sessions, I try to give practical advice on how to recognise different types of misinformation.”

“Having different learning options is important,” says Saara Salomaa. “While physical courses are a good way to learn, attending them is not possible for everyone. In addition, there could be, for example, online courses or social media challenges.”

Education initiatives are often aimed at the old, young or unemployed. This leaves out the vast majority of adults who are working.

These people could be reached within the business world.

“After all, companies do invest in their employees’ knowledge and well-being. What they could do to promote media literacy is an interesting thought.”

Funding for adult education centres available

The current situation of teaching media literacy at adult education centres is not necessarily as gloomy as it might sound.

Jaana Nuottanen notes that while courses that concentrate solely on media literacy are rare, skills like critical reading are taught, for example as part of a writing course.

In the big picture, Finnish adult education centres are designed to – and required by law to – address the educational needs of the local community.

Adult education centres across the country will be more than willing to meet this need.

“Once the need to improve media literacy has been properly established, adult education centres across the country will be more than willing to meet this need,” says Jaana Nuottanen.

This could happen soon. As mentioned before, the Finnish government has launched a programme that aims to improve the skills adults require to operate in an increasingly digital world.

A government subsidy worth €7 million is aimed at the non-formal adult education sector.

The goal is to provide both technical and civic skills, including subjects like critical reading and searching for information. The application period ended recently, on 8 October.

Jaana Nuottanen says that this is a good chance for adult education centres to strengthen their role in promoting media literacy.

“I sincerely hope that as many adult education centres as possible will take this opportunity and begin to develop courses on media literacy.”

Media literacy according to The Finnish Media Literacy School

While the meaning of the term ‘literacy’ can be boiled down to the ability to read and write text, media literacy includes several other aspects.

The Finnish Media Literacy School describes media literacy as having the ability to understand and create not only text, but also other content typical to the digital era, such as audio, video and combinations of these.

Media literacy also requires technological skills, the ability to search for information and read critically as well as civic skills like communication and being able to participate and have an influence on public discussions. On top of this, there is the necessary knowledge about different media-related forms and phenomena.

Edit 15.10.11:59: “The application period is now open, ending on 8 October” was changed into “The application period ended recently, on 8 October.”