Should Research Engage with Digital Media?

Teaching Innovation: Prof says media literacy is critical for today’s scholars

Summer 2014

Today’s child development experts might disapprove, but Prof. Mark Lipton, School of English and Theatre Studies, says television was sometimes his childhood babysitter. He clearly recalls being plopped down in front of the TV set so that his mother could go out.

Reflecting on those experiences as an adult sparked Lipton’s interest in media and a desire to understand the effects of television on children.

As a student at Concordia University he majored in communication, and his thesis on children’s television included a TV pilot starring Lipton himself, who says he was “a cross between Mr. Rogers and Pee Wee Herman.”

As a graduate student, Lipton chose New York University to study with well-known author Neil Postman because he shared Lipton’s interest in education and technology. The American media theorist wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood, among many other titles. Lipton ended up working as Postman’s assistant for 10 years.

“As Postman aged, his interests shifted and he became nostalgic for older models of education,” says Lipton.

The Guelph professor doesn’t share that nostalgia. Lipton’s interests are in the scholarship of teaching and learning in a digital media age. Many of the concepts behind his work are explained in his new book,Research, Write, Create: Connecting Scholarship and Digital Media. Written with University of Missouri professor Twyla Gibson, the book is aimed at faculty and fourth-year and graduate students who are interested in engaging their research with digital media.

Naturally, the book has a companion website, which Lipton says took as long as the book itself to create and includes additional case studies and tools. He plans to keep updating it as needed to reflect the fast-changing world of technology.

He was, however, disappointed that Oxford Press asked to have the site locked so that only purchasers of the book can access it. Academics and researchers need to be aware of how communication has changed, he says. “Writing is an ancient form, and it is still the traditional format for most scholarly work.”

Lipton recalls being on doctoral committees where a student wanted to create a podcast or video or other digital form of communication as part of a traditional thesis manuscript, and the idea was greeted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “That’s a radical idea in most places,” he says. “But if we look at the real world, words on paper are no longer the dominant form of communication. Why do today’s students have to rely on an ancient form of communication when they have smart phones? Other media can be a viable way to represent scholarly ideas.”

A digital essay, for example, could include hyperlinks to articles quoted in the piece, and a video could include excerpts from people interviewed and images relevant to the topic.

Lipton’s book makes it clear, though, that “you can’t just make a video and call it a paper. It has to be the result of research and participating in the conversation of scholars.”

He points out that our methods of communication keep changing. The printing press may have been invented in 1450, but it took another 50 years before someone thought to add page numbers and indexes to the books that were produced. At that time, few people could read or write. By the 18th century, though, more people acquired these skills, and many used them to write diaries and letters. “Writing became social, it was something almost everyone knew how to do,” he says.

The same has happened with digital media. Blogs, once a craft, have now become social – something done by large numbers of people. “I agree that a lot of it is crap,” says Lipton, “but so were most of those 18th-century diaries.”

That didn’t mean there weren’t good writers in the 1700s; in the same way, there can also be good material found online. But in this context, Lipton says media literacy becomes even more important.

In his book, he helps readers understand how to research using digital media. In his own classes, both at U of G and at the University of Guelph-Humber, where he teaches in the media studies program, he uses Facebook and assigns students to create blogs for class.

“Universities are not about the transmission of knowledge, they are about learning to ask the right questions,” says Lipton. He suggests we have some important questions to ask about how to understand and use the evolving digital world.


Teaching should mirror the reality of our students’ future

Story by Rebecca Kendall, From Mary Dickieson (Ed.), The Portico Magazine. Communications and Public Affairs: University of Guelph, Fall 2010.

The Potential for Great Things; The University of Guelph’s BetterPlanet vision rests on the talent of its people, including 14 young faculty whose teaching and research achievements foretell our future success.


Mark Lipton

Have you checked Facebook today? Tweeted, updated your location on Foursquare, added photos to Flickr or posted a note to your blog? Maybe, like many people, you’ve done all five. Or maybe, like many others, none of this makes any sense to you.
Whether you understand the tools of social media and how they work in the ever-changing face of global communication or not, they’re here to stay, says media studies professor Mark Lipton.

“As new social media become more prevalent in the lives of young people and in the lives of most people, it’s going to become increasingly important to be more media literate.” The way people communicate and share information is of great interest to Lipton, who joined U of G in 2004 after studying at Concordia University and New York University (NYU) and teaching at NYU, Vassar College and the University of Toronto. Lipton also taught media in high school and middle school in New York City. He says he wanted to come to Ontario because of its international record for teaching media literacy.

Media education was integrated into Ontario’s curriculum in grades 9 through 12 more than 20 years ago, and a 2006 provincial mandate added it to elementary schools. Nevertheless, Lipton has found Ontario teachers aren’t completely prepared to teach this component, “especially since the elements of any media literacy curriculum are changing as a result of emerging social media.” As new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter surface and become everyday practice, media literacy becomes increasingly important, he says.

With this in mind, Lipton launched, a digital learning commons filled with open educational resources for educators who teach kindergarten to Grade 12. Launched in 2007, the site aims to help teachers enhance their teaching by using some of these technologies. So far, the site has logged about 15,000 unique visitors and nearly 140,000 page views.

When Lipton was a child, his media diet included large helpings of books and television. “Both inspired me to think in creative ways. Both inspired my vocabulary, and both inspired me to think critically,” he says. In third grade, he wrote a play, cast his classmates in the roles and directed their performance. “It was a series of short skits based on my experience watching Sesame Street and Electric Company. I’ve always been inspired by children’s television and still watch it when I can. I think it’s important to be able to talk to young people about what they care about.”

Today, the media menu has moved beyond books and television — and even beyond other staples like radio, magazines and newspapers — to become a smorgasbord of digital music and games, websites and applications for mobile devices like cell phones and iPods. “This technology isn’t going away. In fact, it’s growing at an unprecedented rate, making it necessary for children and young people to understand how to use these tools, rather than be used by them.”

According to a 2008 Statistics Canada survey, 84.3 per cent of Canadians now have Internet service at home. And a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that youth ages eight to 18 spend almost 7½ hours per day connected to media.
“That’s time they’re spending on the computer, watching television, listening to music and playing video games. Personal media use has almost become a full-time job,” says Lipton. The study also found that 66 per cent of kids have their own cell phone and spend an average of 33 minutes per day on the phone; students in grades 7 to 12 spend up to 90 minutes a day texting.

“The challenge is for the education system to leverage these media to create relevant learning experiences that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures.”
His research findings suggest that one of the main barriers to technology implementation in Ontario classrooms is rooted in teaching philosophies that favour traditional methods of instruction; responsibilities that put a single teacher in a classroom of students who each have different needs, abilities and learning styles; and a lack of administrative support from the schools and school boards.

While these factors contribute to a slow-moving change in the delivery of education, Lipton says the main hindrance is rooted elsewhere. “The number one reason why media literacy is so broad and unstructured in Ontario classrooms has to do with technical competence. There’s a huge range of understanding among teachers.”
He says previous research indicated this range of understanding was linked to things like the age of a teacher and whether he or she worked in a rural or urban setting. “I haven’t found this to be true at all,” he says. “It has more to do with a teacher’s access to and competence with today’s educational tools and the teacher’s philosophical approach to teaching media literacy.

“Teachers need to be rewarded for risk-taking and know what’s available in terms of free resources. If we aren’t engaging kids in discussion surrounding technology and social media, then we’re missing a real opportunity.”