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Most of Rhode Island’s elementary and secondary students are not receiving media literacy education, according to findings in a report by the Media Education Lab.

After surveys and interviews with more than 500 educators, parents, elected officials, and school leaders, researchers from the lab, which is housed at the University of Rhode Island and is led by director Renee Hobbs, found that while most Rhode Islanders are aware of the importance of teaching media literacy, most schools aren’t including it in their curricula.

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Misinformation, or “made up” news — like the political kind seen so often during elections -- is considered to be a critical problem by most Americans.

Renee Hobbs is the director of the Media Education Lab, which is housed at the University of Rhode Island.
Renee Hobbs is the director of the Media Education Lab, which is housed at the University of Rhode Island.Renee Hobbs

Studies have also shown that false news and not fully understanding the media can influence economic, political, and social well-being. According to the Pew Research Center, toxic social media can also deepen political and cultural division. But it’s been proven in the US, and elsewhere, that digital media literacy can also increase discernment between what is real and what is misinformation, according to a recent report co-edited by David G. Rand, a management science and cognitive sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“And it’s not just answering the question of ‘can our children read the news’ or not,’” said Hobbs, who is also a journalism professor at URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. “Outside of school, kids are their own YouTube and TikTok creators. Why aren’t schools and educators embracing that opportunity? That’s a place for the development of communication skills, of self-advocacy, ethics, and responsible media use. These are important, rich conversations that would prepare kids for the world.”

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The study was also conducted by a law passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2017, which mandated that the state education department consider including media literacy in the state’s basic education plan. But in the report, it states clearly, “To date, the Rhode Island Department of Education has made no progress in meeting this obligation.”

Victor Morente, a spokesman for the state education department, said the Education Council “endorsed” new library and media standards last spring, which are the national standards.

Pam Steager, head of Media Literacy Now Rhode Island, co-authored the report.

Q: What were some of your key findings?

Hobbs: Most of Rhode Island is aware of the importance of teaching media literacy because they do see the consequences of fake news, political polarization, and disinformation that spreads throughout social media. Those who responded to the survey said the most important reason for valuing media literacy is its capacity to improve someone’s ability to analyze information and recognize high-quality sources, but only one in three students learn how to comprehend and analyze news media in Rhode Island’s schools.

And most of Rhode Island’s student’s don’t encounter media literacy learning experiences that could help them understand advertising or the economics of media industries.

Q: What surprised you the most in the report?

Hobbs: West Warwick’s schools were a treat. I was able to go to the schools a few years ago and saw that students there are exposed to media literacy in elementary, middle, and high school. But then in Warwick, which we gave a “D,” or even places like Coventry, Exeter-West Greenwich schools, media literacy and basic instructional practices are only reaching a small portion of learners. Plus, the educators, school leaders, and others in the community are reporting a significant number of obstacles the kids have to face there that limit innovation (such as access to technology, student readiness, and school climate).

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Barrington was also a surprise (the report graded the district on a C+). There’s a teacher and a few other educators that are really dedicated to media literacy at the middle school, but it lacks in the high school and elementary school.

Q: What advise do you have for teachers that don’t know how to take the first step in teaching media literacy?

Hobbs: It can be included into most classes, but it requires a passionate teacher’s buy-in. School and district leaders could and should be creating a district-wide cross-curricular map to embed core, media literacy practices in Pre-K to Grade 12.

We also have a ton of [free] teaching resources on our website that help break down lesson plans, study guides, and media resources on all sorts of topic (such as teaching 9/11, deconstructing Disney films, helping understanding Copyright, and online games that introduces children to digital literacy). And we have webinars for educators and school leaders.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.