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The COVID-19 pandemic complicates ingrained educational inequalities around the globe and foregrounds the pertaining challenges that teachers have encountered due to school closures and the shift to distance learning. This study responded to scholarly calls to envision literacy education that has the capacity to critically address global issues and rapid technological changes. This cross-border teacher education project intended to examine how academics and pre-service teachers in different geographic locales could collaboratively explore equitable learning opportunities for diverse learners through the use of critical media literacies to respond to interconnected global crises.
The information age has shifted the focus of literacy education from teaching reading and writing in official, standardized, and printed formats to nurturing critical users of new media that have substantially changed most people’s ways of living and communicating . The COVID-19 pandemic foregrounds the global digital divide and the pertaining challenges that teachers have encountered due to school closures and the shift to online learning . The global pandemic has also stressed the interconnectivity between people across geographic locales and the importance of collective problem solving for living well together . This study responded to the scholarly calls to envision literacy education that has the capacity to critically address global issues and rapid technological changes and collectively explore new ways of enacting equity in and through education . To pilot teacher professional development for a larger cross-border new media literacy project that connects Canadian and Hong Kong youth, this teacher education project connected one Canadian professor and four Hong Kong pre-service teachers via the virtual spaces of Teams and Google Docs. This teacher education project intended to examine how academics and pre-service teachers in different geographic locales could collaboratively explore equitable learning opportunities for diverse learners by using critical media literacies to respond to interconnected global crises. This project asked: (1) How did Canadian researchers and Hong Kong pre-service literacy teachers collaboratively explore equitable learning opportunities for diverse learners using critical media literacies? (2) How did Hong Kong teacher candidates perceive the effects of cross-border, online professional learning?
The researchers conducted an extensive literature review of empirical studies on teacher education and critical media literacy and identified three themes: teacher candidates’ increased awareness of using critical media literacies through teacher education courses on critical media literacy, their willingness to engage in media analysis and incorporate critical media literacies in their classes, and the challenges for teacher candidates in applying critical media literacies in their courses.
Existent literature shows that pre-service teachers used digitally mediated tools for their professional learning and created digital messages, postings, stories, and images to reflect on their critical media literacies. However, Fajardo’s  review of critical literacy studies shows that teachers’ professional learning programs have not encouraged teachers to address socio-political issues in their language classrooms. Pre-service teachers need to be critical media literate themselves before they could deepen their students’ criticality about power, privilege, and ideology . Responding to this scholarly call, the cross-border teacher education project also addressed the scarcity of literature on using critical media literacies to respond to interconnected global crises. The study was hence designed as a collaborative professional inquiry that tried to close the gaps between academic research and teachers’ classroom practices to attend to “the digital landscape and global shifts of the twenty-first century” , p. 12.
The cross-border teacher education project is theoretically undergirded by critical media literacies. Instructional designs involve the creation of learning experiences, environments, and materials that promote learners’ acquisition and application of knowledge and skills . Forms of instructional designs include the creation of instructional materials, modules, and lessons. Instructional designs are also explicit in their choice and use of procedures, methods, and devices to bring about productive learning . The researchers concurred that critically oriented literacy teaching should be a participatory and collaborative project . The shared leadership in instructional design included both academics and teacher candidates to collectively brainstorm and select topics, materials, and activities.
An important overarching goal for pre-service teachers is for them to take responsibilities to help students become “actively engaged in alternative media use and development” , p. 261. Critical media literacies could prepare pre-service teachers to better support “their students in critical inquiry with and about information communication technologies (ICTs) and popular culture” , p. 319. Critical media literacies could also help educators “rethink teaching and learning as political acts of consciousness raising and empowerment” , p. 319. Therefore, it could offer in-service and pre-service educators pedagogical strategies to “strengthen civic engagement and reassert the promise of democracy with an informed and empowered citizenry” , p. 319.
Funk et al.  proposed a critical media literacy framework to support pre-service teachers’ learning with and about ever-evolving media and technologies. The framework includes six aspects of critical media literacy: (1) All media texts are socially constructed by individuals or groups within social contexts; (2) all media have their own languages, with specific grammar and semiotics; (3) individuals and groups understand media texts similarly and/or differently depending on multiple contextual factors; (4) media and media messages support or disrupt dominant hierarchies of power, privilege, and pleasure; (5) all media texts serve a purpose that is shaped by the creators and/or systems within which they operate (e.g., commercial or government); and (6) media culture concerns social and environmental justice and perpetuates or challenges positive and/or negative ideas about people, groups, and issues.
Critical media literacies helped foreground the local micro-politics in literacy education that the teacher candidates have lived through. They enabled the researcher-teacher to engage in collaborative inquiry to problematize these micro-politics and envision alternatives for a universal or one-type-fits-all approach to literacy education .
Methodologically, the project used digital ethnography to study pre-service teachers’ online interactions on the social media platform of Teams . Digital ethnography is a good fit for cross-border, online education projects, which is evident in two of the principal investigator’s (PI) funded studies e.g., . Digital ethnography helped the research team to explore communal practices through traditional and social media. To prepare literacy teachers for a larger-scale cross-border research project that connects youth from Hong Kong and Canada in a social networking space for digital story making, this study tried to cultivate a cross-border community of practice that could potentially foster global interconnectivity and collective exploration of equitable education. In this six-week project, the research team connected with four Hong Kong teacher candidates (See Table 1 for participants’ profiles) in the online platform of Teams and used Google Docs to collectively pursue “real and relevant questions”  in Hong Kong and Canadian literacy education. Following ethics approval, an invitation to research was sent to teacher candidates at a Hong Kong university via the teacher education office. Interested teacher candidates signed the online consent.
In the 6-week project, pre-service teachers participated in (1) three rounds of collective digital instructional design; (2) online interactions on the social media platform of Teams and Google Docs about the designs; and (3) exit interviews about the impacts of the cross-border online project on their professional learning.
The research found teacher candidates’ transformed perceptions and practices in the following aspects: (1) their shifted focus from training their students’ decontextualized language skills to nurturing their critical media skills; and (2) the shift from a deficit-oriented view about what literacy learners could not do to an asset-oriented view about the linguistic and cultural repertoires that those students could bring to diverse classrooms.
The cross-border professional learning facilitated teacher candidates’ collective knowledge creation and inspired their ethical insights about how critical media literacies could affect educational equity locally and globally. First, teacher candidates demonstrated their changed perceptions of literacy education, from focusing on decontextualized skills residing in individuals to addressing the cultural and ideological assumptions of literacy education . The behavioral and cognitive paradigm of literacy sees imparting knowledge through “linear and staged curriculum” as crucial for all literacy learners [, p. 6]. Literacy learners’ own interests and creativity (i.e., affective dimensions) are to a great extent neglected in literacy curriculum and instruction that focus on decontextualized skills and knowledge. Throughout the project, most teacher candidates explicitly expressed the importance of authentic media resources and meaningful learning to engage students. It is important to note that the teacher candidates’ position was mainly about using socioculturally constructed symbolic tools to facilitate learners’ cognitive development. Such a positioning primarily deals with the influences of social processes upon individuals’ psychological construction of meaning. Though teacher candidates gradually showed enhanced awareness of power relations embedded in diverse languages and within literacy classrooms, there is still space in the project to explore the social and ideological aspects of literacy education; for example, how various forms of literacy are socioculturally, politically, and ideologically situated phenomena [e.g., ]. Second, teacher candidates showed their shifted focus from test-oriented teaching to asset-oriented teaching. Test-oriented education produces passive learners who are “less able to deal effectively with a highly complex, interdisciplinary, intercultural, mediated social world” [, p. 239]. Scholars also problematized the fetishization of standardized literacy testing and prescriptive curriculum that might hinder meaningful, improvisational, and heterogeneous meaning-making [e.g., ]. The teacher candidates drew on their previous learning and teaching experience and intended to incorporate meaningful learning opportunities and media creation activities to energize literacy learners. As Share  argued, “It is often through the process of making media that students deepen their critical understandings and develop a sense of empowerment by producing counternarratives or telling stories rarely heard” (p. 23). Such a “wealth model”  is in contrast to the deficit approaches and foregrounds diverse literacy learners’ distinctive funds of knowledge (e.g., skills, knowledge, and cultural resources and heritages) . Ensuring equity among learners during COVID-19 shall be an important element in the new normal of education [e.g., ]. Equity can be taught and practiced in online learning as it constitutes a crucial element of social justice that is much needed during troubled times .
Changes in the teacher candidates’ collective instructional design reflect their changed perceptions of literacy as ideological and encoded with the power imbalances of dominant and minoritized languages and cultures. Those changes manifest teacher candidates’ explicit exploration of equitable learning opportunities that promote diverse learners’ heritage languages and cultures, such as the problematization of stereotypes in YouTube videos and the collective video making activity of preserving heritage cultures (e.g., YouTube video making about the history of lion dance). As Kellner and Share  noted, “When groups often under-represented or misrepresented in the media become investigators of their representations and creators of their own meanings the learning process becomes an empowering expression of voice and democratic transformation” (p. 372). In this study, the component of supporting literacy learners as creative media designers is not as explicit as the element of encouraging them to be critical media users. This refers to a way forward for future teacher education research on critical media literacies to nurture agentive participatory citizens. As Janks  contended, “deconstruction without reconstruction or design reduces human agency” (p. 178).
Virtual, cross-border professional learning also offered teacher candidates the opportunity to experience the constraints of technological platforms and tools, which would deepen their understanding of how to use media and technologies to promote equity and diversity in online teaching. In the exit interviews, teacher candidates shared their reflections on the limitations of Teams as a social network platform. Examining anti-oppressive pedagogies in online learning, Migueliz Valcarlos et al.  maintained that “technology platforms and tools that educators use to host their classes embody social, cultural, and political values and biases” (p. 355). Future teacher education research could further the examination of the associated biases that “enable and constrain conversations, relationships, and learning in different ways” in virtual learning platforms (p. 356). Involving teacher candidates in online professional learning projects could help them to be more reflective of the different critical situations that their learners may be experiencing in virtual learning spaces.
The pandemic has brought to the fore inequalities among various student populations, and emerging research suggests that the design of remote learning can perpetuate or ameliorate these inequities . This teacher education study considered the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic upon education systems worldwide and redressed educational inequities through collective problem-solving between people across cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The study highlights the importance of exploring asset- and equity-oriented literacy education that could enhance pre-service teachers’ transnational links to ensure equitable learning opportunities and to support education in unpredictable crises.