Content creation, at its essence, is what students have been doing from time immemorial. Before the advent of the internet, students rarely shared their work beyond their immediate family and friends. Now they can, and often do, share their work with the world, reaching countless people they will never know. With this ability comes an urgent need to understand the potential impact of the content they create.
Students have many sources for information — some more reliable than others — and an abundance of digital tools to create their own content. These tools have enormous potential to improve student engagement and learning. However, just as the internet necessitates greater focus on information literacy, the rise of social media and user-generated content requires that students develop skills to be effective and responsible content producers.
Years ago, I had a student who wanted to use Claymation in a project. At the time, smartphones nor stop-motion animation apps didn’t exist to make this task easy. But this student painstakingly used an Apple QuickTake, one of the first widely available digital cameras, to take hundreds of photographs of his characters, carefully positioning each to create the illusion of motion. With an early video-editing solution, Avid Cinema, he brought his story to life.
Today, this student would use a completely different set of tools — and that’s OK. It wasn’t that he learned how to work with a digital camera or a now-obscure software that was important, but that he identified a goal, recognized his challenges, and chose and adapted the proper tools to solve the problem and achieve his goal. In whatever career he has pursued, he has surely been practicing those same fundamental skills nearly every day since.
The sheer number of tools available to students and teachers today is staggering. One of the biggest challenges is getting students to pick the best tools for their projects. In my experience, the best way to do this is to prioritize versatility.
Platforms such as Pixton, Canva, or Twig Create can be used in multiple ways, in multiple contexts and across multiple classes or subjects. Greater exposure to these tools is key. While some students will need guidance, many will instinctively choose the best tool for their purpose and often master it, making it a means to achieve their goals.
Processing feedback and criticism
Another component of being a literate content creator is understanding how that content might be perceived and interpreted by others, and how to process that feedback constructively.
Criticism can be hard on all of us because it feels so personal at times, but students must learn that different people may react differently to their work and views. They must be able to recognize unfair criticism and maintain confidence in their work when justified, but they should be able to just as readily admit culpability and address any missteps that might have harmed others. Learning how to recognize and rectify mistakes is essential.
This last point can be particularly trying, because there are relatively few examples of adult content creators taking responsibility for their content.
One exception is the Boston Globe’s Fresh Start initiative, which periodically reviews and removes old articles that might have unfairly impacted someone’s life, especially viewed through the context of time. The Globe’s view is that “journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle to someone’s success, with the worst decisions and moments in regular people’s lives accessible by a few keystrokes for the rest of time.”
This brilliantly illustrates why students need these skills: Content you create and share can be accessed in a few clicks by everyone, forever, having a long-lasting impact on themselves and others.
Confidence in their perspective
Art exhibit participants often provide an artist’s statement, reflecting on their work and sharing their insights, feelings, opinions and reasons for doing it. This provides context for the work in a way we do not see in much of our digital content produced today.
Having students write similar statements when they create digital artifacts can help them clarify the facts, motives and possibly emotions underlying their content. It also can help build confidence in their perspectives and points of view. When students use factual knowledge to create content, they feel more confident in whatever information, belief, or feeling they are expressing. Additionally, they get better at evaluating the accuracy of content created by others.
Educators must engage in meaningful and ongoing content creation-related discussions with students. Complex issues, such as deepfakes, can provide a springboard. What are the implications of creating or distributing deepfakes? Is there a difference between creating a deepfake of your great-grandparent and one of a world leader? What about when someone creates a deepfake of a historical figure with misleading information? Why are deepfakes more problematic than memes?
These discussions can help students take more responsibility for their own content and more thoughtfully examine that produced by others. Furthermore, they must understand that whatever they and others produce will be subjected to new interpretations over time.
Educators have made significant progress with other online behaviors — such as information literacy, data privacy, and anti-bullying — because we prioritized these skills. The creation and distribution of digital content is no different.
As students become effective and responsible content creators, it is critical that they understand the value and potential impact of their content. As an example, they need look no further than Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl.” Since its publication in 1952, every generation has found new meanings in this journal kept by a child during World War II (now in more than 70 languages). Even today, it shines new contextual insights into subjects as wide-ranging as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and the war in Ukraine.
Ultimately, content creation is an essential facet of educating students, but perhaps its most important role is giving children a greater voice in our world. As Anne Frank demonstrated so poetically and tragically, children often understand many aspects of life that we adults have long forgotten.
Tammy McGraw, Ph.D., is an education consultant and former director of digital innovations and outreach at the Virginia Department of Education. She can be reached via email.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.