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The media ecologist

Media studies goes (back) to school

Media evolves pretty quickly. Lac-bac, CC BY-SA

There was a brief flurry of panic as Ofqual, the UK government agency charged with looking after school qualifications, left both film studies and media studies out of the list of subjects students would be allowed to take after a big reform they are pushing through. The good news is that they are safe … for now.

According to the key document Completing GCSE, AS and A level Reform, 55,851 students are taking media studies at GCSE (typically taken at 16 years old), 34,388 at AS level (17) and 24,503 at A level (18 years old). This makes it one of the largest subjects being considered for reform. And film and media studies together are the tenth most popular subject at A level. Media Studies graduate employment indicator figures for 2013 are equally encouraging, with numbers ranging from 88.7 to 94.7%. These statistics don’t only show popularity – but also good employment prospects.

Film and media are part of our daily lives. They are also major industries. The British Film Institute estimates that UK film is worth £4.5 billion to the economy and the Confederation of British Industry that the creative industries, in which media figure prominently, constitute 10.6% of UK exports and employ 1.5m people.

Today, every industry, government and NGO needs communications and media specialists for internal and external communications. Media, in all its forms, contributes increasingly to students’ self-awareness and cultural formation. Both subjects combine critical with practical skills. Both combine understanding of the textual practices involved, ethical issues such as truth and equality of access, understanding political economy and knowledge of technological parameters. Practical work teaches both vocational and generic skills, notably research, planning and evaluation. There’s no question that these subjects meet the “real and relevant” criteria of Ofqual’s remit.

The media is in constant evolution. There are new texts every night, significant new production, distribution and consumption tools about every six to eight months, and major inventions like games, mobile and social media at a rate of about one a decade. The rate of evolution makes it imperative to choose wisely and with foresight what knowledge and skills will be required over the potential 40 or 50 years of students’ working lives. Because of this, media studies still constitutes a distinctive field of study, with few overlaps with neighbouring disciplines such as drama, sociology or English.

Overly prescriptive curricula will lock students into the present needs of an industry which will almost certainly have different needs in the near future. I’ve been at more than one event where industry representatives asked us to train people for in-betweening (a technique in animation that disappeared about two years after this event) or to prepare students to be skilled users of MySpace. Flexibility is what’s needed, and this is what is at the heart of the discipline: learning to work in groups, fundamental principles of communication, and core critical skills for the assessment of media practises and content.

The combination of critical and practical components in assessment allows for a wider range of students to succeed. Of course, as Professor Buckingham notes in his report for the Media Education Association, there is always room for improvement in the descriptors for the various levels of achievement in practical work, a problem shared with art and drama. But these are problems we share with industry: if we knew how to deliver creative and successful results every time, we’d all be billionaires.

The subjects provide a valuable platform for students who intend to leave school and go directly into the work force. They equip them with the ability to read forms of media which are now the dominant form of public communications and to produce their own responses and creative works in the forms which now dominate social and other network media. They also provide a subject-specific grounding valuable for further study in disciplines including political science, sociology, psychology, education, art, design, drama and some areas of information science and computing. And they encourage a participatory mode of thinking and working: addressing the representation of all sectors of the population, not only as a matter of interpretation but of practice.

It seems odd that the one part of society that constantly moans about studying film and media is the media. Of course journos and filmmakers want to hang onto their jobs, and of course media owners want to stem the tide of criticism that has been directed at them in recent years. But that is no reason to stifle the creative dreams and critical intelligence of future generations.

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