Media studies can provide the life skills needed in today's digital society, says Michael Russell
A question in the current sample paper for the Advanced Higher in media studies asks the following: "In most professional media productions, there are very well defined roles. Under pressure from technological change, and institutional change resulting from this, those distinctions become blurred. What advantages and disadvantages can you see in this process?"
Although the prose is less than elegant, the message is clear. Those young people with media-related career ambitions can expect an uncertain future.
As someone who has spent several parts of my working life in television, I concur with that view. What once appeared to be the settled way of producing film, television and radio - with a range of skills coming together, usually at great expense - has been largely swept away by technological change and the pressure of competition. The same holds true in the print media, where I have also worked from time to time.
It is sometimes tempting to regret the passing of the old ways, and in terms of sheer quality of production - particularly in television - and in terms of job opportunity matters have got, if not worse, then less pleasant to participate in. One can also see that some large organisations have not only responded to technological change, but used it as an excuse to increase profit margins at the expense of those whose whole lives and livelihoods have been tied up in media-related industries.
None the less it is technological progress, rather than anything else, that has driven the issue and nowhere is that more obvious than in schools. Two decades ago a video camera was a rarity. It was cumbersome, usually recorded on half-inch reel to reel tape and was not only expensive in itself, but required expensive editing equipment if anything sensible was to be done with its output. Even 10 years ago, video recording and editing was out of the reach of most young people, as were effective computers.
Now the digital revolution has arrived and with it cheap (and getting cheaper) hand-held cameras that produce near professional results. In addition, virtually every new computer comes with free video and sound editing software, of a quality that was once at the top end of the market.
And the really expensive additional, but vital element - disc storage space - is available off the shelf in most electronics stores at low cost.
All this should mean that access to media literacy - access by doing, not just watching - is a commonplace. In primary schools, it is obvious that getting hands-on experience of using cameras is just that. Yet the subject of media studies, in which such literacy would be further developed, is still a rare subject in most Scottish secondary schools. It does not exist at Standard grade and the number of pupils taking it at more advanced level is still very low: something less than half of 1 per cent of all exam presentations.
Certainly in FE colleges the subject is more accessible, but there it is treated as a means of preparing to work in the screen and media industries, although jobs are very hard to come by and the industries themselves are becoming more and more determined to recruit only those who undertake further, and highly specialised, training.
This balance of availability needs to change. Media studies as a school subject is likely to equip young people with just the critical perceptions they need to survive in today's society. Indeed the biggest influence on them is likely to be what they see on television, download from the internet, or read in the tabloids. Building the skills to understand these influences and to profit from them should be a priority, always accepting that politicians have shoehorned too many "priorities" into education in recent years. Something else will have to give.
Those who teach media studies in schools have worked long and hard to have their subject recognised. The GTC's decision in 2000 to require a relevant qualification for such teachers was welcome, as has been the slow growth in certification. But as in all such campaigns, the desire to make the subject more narrowly academic has been at the expense of making it more widely useful. It has also militated against uptake by those who either do not wish to work in the media, or who have no hopes of so doing.
Accordingly, a new cross-cutting approach to the curriculum may be required: one that takes media studies, English, drama, social studies, modern studies and even history together, and creates some new core skills in understanding the society in which we live, how it has come about and how it can be survived.
The blend of creativity, analysis and research required in mastering these core skills would be a thoroughly modern one and it might also have the advantage of being one which absorbed the attention of some of those who are presently alienated. Computer skills (including gaming skills), technology and communications issues would enter into this mix.
Reading any list of subjects taught in school, at any level, one cannot but reflect on two truisms. The first is that teachers are expected to do too much in too little time and that drastic rethinking and simplification is necessary. The second is that the past remains with us, despite the many changes in schools in recent years. Subjects, no matter how much they have altered in terms of syllabus, are still rooted in an old-fashioned concept of discrete learning.
Our environment now is one of churn and convergence. Schools will have to become places of churn and convergence too and they might make a start by taking the sometimes baleful, but all-pervasive, influence of our media and making it a route to learning about the real world as it is and will be.
Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.