Forward to the new age of STEAM(M)! Digital media, education and computing

STEAM(M)

You will notice immediately if you have an awareness of the STEM acronym (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) that, like others, I am inserting the usual, additional letter in there (A for Arts – as recognised in the US, for example by this campaigning site), together with a less usual, silent second M (for Media) at the end.   The reason for the silence is that it is almost totally absent from the formal school curriculum in this country. The reason for its presence in STEAM(M) is that it is always present anyway, regardless of the particular predilections of the authors of the curriculum or their masters, the politicians who decide what it is included or excluded from study here. In fact, we swim in media daily. The moving image is the dominant form of communication. Text-based media are also consumed on a vast scale, if more on-screen than on paper. Social media circulates in profiles, on blogs and at the speed of 140 characters per second. Children know this, adults know this, teachers, parents and carers too – their attention to safety as the key issue of the day is symptomatic of this and shouted loudly every time the area is debated. But the M is silent and absent in our formal, curriculum organisation because… well, why?

The Computing Curriculum for Schools

Like many, I was enthusiastic about the introduction of the Computing subject area, a new (old) way to think about computers in our schools. Of course, the indecent haste and the ditching of some of the good things present in the old ICT curriculum, was unhelpful and it may take many years to train enough people to teach this area. Nevertheless, the whole movement represented a successful initiative which built momentum through high-profile activity (photo opportunities for politicians with huge IT corporations), economic imperatives (the only way to future employment is to know how to code) and an appeal to traditionalists who don’t really get it (you tell them that computing is the new Latin).

A great groundswell of good stuff is happening all round this subject area with coding clubs, learning in maker spaces and some very helpful work for teachers who may be struggling with it in school here and there. I would argue that the next step is to connect this to other curriculum areas, particularly in the arts and media. Because at the same time as there has been a triumph for the STEM lobby, and many positive gains, there have been huge losses to the arts in education in the curriculum (as pointed out by many – here is one example of the kind of commentary). In recent years, they have been downgraded in formal schooling in spite of the obvious connections with the economic arguments (in-game authoring and special effects, for example, there are artists, storytellers, composers, designers and filmmakers working alongside programmers; they depend on one another). So, putting the A back into the acronym and building a new campaign have never been more important.   There is an interest in enriching the computing curriculum by giving it some wider cultural and pedagogical context. But beyond all this is the well-established need for arts education and its connection with positive outcomes for collaboration, critical engagement, cultural understanding, problem solving and even, possibly, enjoyment. In terms of the curriculum, coding and creativity can go hand in hand… This connection between Digital Arts and Education is something at the heart of the DARE collaborative, of which I am founder member, and you can read about some of the projects which are attempting to do this here. Most recently, my colleagues have been successful in gaining funding with the British Library to make a computer game from Beowulf. What better evidence of the connection of new and old, arts and science, reified canonical work and new cultural form could there be?

(M) for (MEDIA)

But what about media as an official subject for study? Well, it will be some time before media are addressed in formal curriculum documents. It would be useful for teachers to have some kind of formal permission to access the codes and conventions of the world around them and to have some guidance about what is available to them in, for example, making the connection between animation and poetry or filmmaking and using tablet devices. It would be wonderful if pupils could have their efforts in media production recorded somewhere in a portfolio, preferably alongside their successes in programming so we do not have to endlessly pretend that there is no connection between coding and the wider experience of the world. I suspect that many teachers and children in primary and secondary schools who have gone beyond using their tablet devices for assessment tasks or as surrogate laptops and browsers are already discovering the benefits of using the camera to record something, to make something…

As noted above, the silent M of Media in STEAM(M) is all around us. The ways in which art, music, film, animation, sciences and social sciences circulate in wider culture are all in media, sometimes social media, and sometimes broadcast media. And there are ways of becoming productive with both which do not necessarily require permission from curriculum documents. And I am not talking about learning media through other subjects, which always reduces media education to a technical support or simple AVA role. I am talking about systematic ways of connecting the arts and STEM by means of Media Education which develops the skills of making and the language of the moving image, its grammar and syntax (for those worried that this is really just play and anarchy, there can even be rigour in learning this too, just like a New Latin).

M-LITERACY or D-LITERACY

For some time it seemed possible that “Media Literacy” might be a way of suggesting rigour and a conjunction of the M word with the L word (a word with undoubted resonance) looked like a good way to represent the inherent subject discipline. It is just possible that the various other distributed versions of literacy may be able to carry some of this weight, and some of this rigour into classroom more easily. Certainly “digital literacy”, however ill-defined and lacking in shared understanding of meaning, does seem to be one way to enable productive discussion of engagements with media and essential lessons in safety.

Formally, later in the school years, there are still courses in Media Studies (at the time of writing) and Film education attracts funding – at least for after school provision through the likes of Into Film. Organisations like the Film Space and Learn About Film provide great ideas and resources and BFI Education reaches many children and schools and connects the arts and sometimes the sciences together. Film, as a recognised art form, does not suffer from the same positioning as “media” as the absent other which can’t be named because a commentator, possibly someone who would not actually be able to handle the rigour involved in its study, will ridicule it. And yet, it too requires more, a higher profile, a connection to the arts curriculum, an unapologetic recognition in schools that it is of equal importance to the computing curriculum.

STEM, STEAM(M): Making the arguments

The STEM lobby made their argument very well and really I am arguing that the new age of STEAM(M) is upon us and we would do well to think about ways to enable children and teachers to go beyond STEM, to embrace the arts and learn about and with media. There must be ways to win this argument and to encourage the use of animation, music, arts, photography, film and, yes, programming tools in an inclusive definition of literacy appropriate to the century. It is apparent in many countries around the world that this is necessary and desirable and it is strange to live somewhere where reference to the moving image has been surgically removed from the curriculum for primary schools for the first time in more than twenty-five years. For teachers who are worried about deviating from the prescribed curriculum, let’s see if the door is slightly ajar anyway with the reference to “digital texts” in the computing curriculum and take it from there.

Science – Technology – Engineering – Arts – Maths – (Media) – into the new (existing anyway) STEAM(M) age…

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