FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Papers

Media Education in Finnish Upper Secondary Schools
Inkeri Silvennoinen, Spring 2005 (GB)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENPP2C) Finnish Institutions Student Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

The mass media play an important role in today's society. People are confronted daily by a flood of messages from the different media. Media literacy is required to properly understand these messages. It is the responsibility of Finland's educational institutions to train its citizens in media literacy. Among the objectives is how to cope with "information overload" — the deluge of new and even contradictory information presented daily by the media.

In Finland, basic media education is a part of the curriculum of the comprehensive and upper secondary schools. In addition, several upper secondary schools offer special media programmes from which students can choose. What is the advantage of these specialised programmes? Why is it important to learn about the media? What do the students in special media programmes gain that those who study in the basic secondary school curriculum do not?

This paper will outline the structure and goals of media education programmes in Finnish upper secondary schools. It will also present some differences in media behaviour between media students and other students in Messukylä Upper Secondary School in Tampere, as studied during March 2005.

What is Media Education?

"Media" as defined in this paper includes both print (newspapers, magazines) and electronic media (television, radio, Internet, movies, and to some extent cellular phones). They comprise what is usually referred to when speaking of "mass media and communications", and they are also the media which are most familiar to most Finns (TNS Gallup).

"Media education" means the skills and knowledge Finnish students receive in their comprehensive and upper secondary schools, both in the core curriculum and in special media programmes. Media education is mainly the responsibility of the schools, but there are also private associations that provide media education via printed or electronic publications. The aim of all media education is to develop media literacy skills. People should be more aware of the ways they use media, and, when needed, be able to criticize information conveyed by the media (Suoninen 22-34, 248-251). This paper will not cover media education beyond the secondary level; programmes in universities and polytechnics are not included.

The Need for Media Education in Finland

As a small nation the Finnish people have to be aware of what happens outside the boundaries of their country. Mass media can offer people an opportunity to follow the events of the whole world. According to one survey, Finns spend altogether 9 hours and 20 minutes with different media every day (TNS Gallup). In the overwhelming offerings, it is easy to get "lost" in information, and suffer from "information overload". An ability to properly filter and interpret the information is needed.

Small nations also have a need to be internationally active. In addition to providing Finns with information, the media can also help disseminate Finnish culture abroad. By using the media in this way, Finland can make its culture better known to people all around the world.

Media education is important, because the ability to interpret media messages is an important civil skill: it helps one filter out information that may be untrue, and understand the world in general (Lepomäki). The need for media education has emerged in the last 40 years particularly as a result of the radical change in the media environment. In the 1960's, only one third of today's media even existed, and some of those were not in the reach of every family (Suoninen 35-41). Nowadays, media education is a part of every Finnish comprehensive school's curriculum. It is a cross-curricular theme, which means that it is not taught as a separate subject: instead, its main points are covered in several other subjects (Finnish, Perusopetuksen).

In the Finnish school system, every child starts comprehensive school at the age of seven. Comprehensive school consists of primary school, six years, and secondary school, three years. After that, students can either go to a vocational school or an upper secondary school, or start working, but all education after the comprehensive school is optional. There are so many other important things to teach to the pupils in comprehensive school that especially "vague" subjects like media education are easily forgotten, or given less time in classes. Since around 60% of pupils continue to an upper secondary school, media and communications are an important cross-curricular theme in their programmes as well (Finnish, National; Ministry of Education). There are also several optional multi-course media programmes offered in altogether 23 senior secondary schools in Finland (Sinko).

Mrs Outi Lepomäki, Finnish language teacher and the teacher in charge of the media programme in Messukylä Upper Secondary School, says that the media have become such an important part of the students' everyday life that the schools can not ignore it in the curriculum. According to Lepomäki, there has to be a place where young people can stop to think and analyse the messages they receive, and see more clearly the effect the media have on people through the overwhelming offerings. In Finland the situation is good: the aims of media education presented in the curriculum are not only cognitive but also have a strong connection with the reality every student lives in.

But what is it that the students should learn about the media, and how? The researcher Annikka Suoninen, who has been called a "media sociologist", has studied the use of media by young people. She has extended the concept of media literacy to media proficiency, or "media language skills". This refers to the way people choose, use, and interpret the different media and their messages as a part of their lives, with an emphasis on their own choice, needs, and abilities to produce these messages themselves (24-29). To become a proficient media user, a person has to have varied experience of the different media and their working principles. In the special media programmes that are offered in some upper secondary schools, the main point is to learn media criticism and media literacy not only in theory, but also in practise. The students learn how to plan and produce messages for different media, how to use the equipment and the special "tricks" each medium has, how to critically interpret what they see, hear or read, and how and why the message in question was produced the way it was (Messukylä, Viestintä).

Traditional media education can be divided into two parts: media education and expressive learning.1 The first part is then subdivided into actual media education, where students study the media and their messages, and using media in studies, where the media are used as a study tool or as material to learn something in another subject. For example, working with the same electronic newspaper at school can be "media education" for some students, and a "study tool" for others (see Härkönen in Penttilä 4.1.).

Media Programmes and National Curriculum for Upper Secondary School

In 2004, there were only two upper secondary schools in Finland that offered an entire media programme that could be chosen separately. One of them was Juhana Herttua Upper Secondary School in Turku, where the concentration is on both arts and media, and the other one was Messukylä Upper Secondary School in Tampere. Messukylä Upper Secondary School was the first media-oriented upper secondary school in Finland. In 1997 it was given a special assignment by the Finnish Board of Education to offer a full media programme (Finnish, Erityistehtävän; Messukylä, Much Ado). Starting from 2002, altogether 23 senior secondary schools have offered the media diploma course, where students can take some media courses and show their special skills in whatever media field they know best (Sinko).

To graduate from upper secondary school, students must complete at least 75 courses. Of these, 45 to 49 are obligatory. The rest can be chosen from specialised and applied courses in different subjects. The media programme in Messukylä Upper Secondary School consists of at least 12 media courses that the students can choose out of about 30 possibilities (Messukylä, Much Ado). There is no upper limit to the number of courses that can be taken in upper secondary school, but to compensate for the extra courses in the media programme, media students can choose to leave out altogether 8 of the obligatory courses in the core curriculum. Nowadays, there are approximately 100 students taken in every year, 36 of whom have chosen the media programme (Messukylä, Hakuohje).

Every media student has to take basic courses in journalism, photography, sound techniques, and video making or drama. In all these subjects, there are also advanced courses that the students may choose to take if they are interested in the subject. The rest of the courses can be chosen from a variety of project courses like producing a radio programme, editing the school's electronic newspaper, making a short documentary for the local TV station, creating a web page, etc., or from the more theoretical courses offered in media criticism, modern popular culture, script writing or movie criticism (Messukylä, Viestintä). Instead of school teachers, the media courses are taught by media professionals. During the media programme the students should learn to use their analytical knowledge in practise, and combine their roles as a receiver and a sender (Lepomäki). Most of the different media courses are open to all students, but they are clearly more popular among the media students. 2

In Messukylä Upper Secondary School the official aim of the media programme is to develop the students' media literacy. The students should learn to categorise and interpret the messages of different media, define the background factors for each message, express themselves by the means of the media and each medium's technique, and deal with ethical and aesthetic questions in both producing and using the media (Messukylä, Viestintä). This corresponds well with Suoninen's idea of media proficiency. In the national curriculum for upper secondary schools the emphasis is on the student's role as a receiver of the media's messages. The following extract is from the new curriculum to be taken into use in autumn 2005:

General upper secondary education must provide students with instruction and modes of operation that will enable them to consolidate their understanding of the key role and significance of the media in our culture. Upper secondary schools must reinforce the active relationship of students with the media, their interaction skills and their co-operation with the local/regional media. Students will be guided to understand the effects of the media and the role of the media as an entertainer and provider of sensations, conveyor of information and opinion former, provider of behavioural models and sense of community, and as a shaper of world views and self-image. Students will observe and critically analyse the relationship between the world as described by the media and reality. Students will learn to protect their privacy, safety and data security when moving about in media environments. (Finnish, National)

Some of these topics were also included in the old curriculum, but it had been criticised as being too technology-centred. Media education had mostly been dealt with in Finnish language classes (Penttilä). The new curriculum, however, defines more specific objectives of learning, which now have to be taken into consideration in every subject. The main objectives are for the students to:

  • acquire sufficient skills to interpret and receive messages: they will learn media criticism in terms of their choices and interpretations of media texts, as well as social skills and knowledge needed by consumers
  • know how to deal with ethical and aesthetic issues: they will learn to assume responsibility in terms of media content production and use and their own media behaviour
  • become accustomed to using the media as a learning tool and environment, learn how to use media in study-related interactive situations and for the acquisition and communication of information. (Finnish, National)

However, most of the teachers have not been educated to work with these issues. The teachers are, to a certain point, given free rein with how the curriculum is fulfilled, and since media education has earlier mainly concerned only Finnish, arts and history classes, other teachers are now being presented a large number of new challenges with the new curriculum. But if the new system works the way it should, the students should definitely acquire more of these set objectives than before (Lepomäki).

Survey of the Students in Messukylä Upper Secondary School

Even though the aims of the media programme are defined in great detail, the actual learning process is different for every student. Each student will have different media interests, and a different background. To find out whether the media courses actually affect the students' media behaviour, and what differences in media usage might exist between an average upper secondary school student and an average media student, all second-grade students in Messukylä Upper Secondary School were asked to answer a questionnaire concerning their views on different media and the media education they had received during the upper secondary school.3 The survey was conducted in March 2005. In total, 92 students completed the questionnaire; 30 of these were media students.
The Usage of Media

The first three questions were about media usage.4 The students were asked which media they used daily, which weekly, and how much time they actively use with different media every day. They were also asked whether they themselves had produced any content for one or more media, either as a school assignment or for other purposes.

The results show that media students, on average, use different media more than the students who are not taking the special media programme. As shown in Picture 1, Daily Use of Media, other students use the most common media (television, radio, newspapers, movies) more than media students, whereas the Internet and magazines are clearly more used by the media students. Picture 2 shows that when regarding weekly use, media students more often use all the media in question, except for the radio. TV was the most-used medium among all students.

The pictures below show the differences between media students and others:

Pictures 1 (L) and 2 (R): Each number corresponds with a medium:
1=television, 2=radio, 3=newspapers, 4=magazines, 5=electronic newspapers, 6=Internet, 7=cellular phone, and 8=movies.
Picture 1: Note the use of television, magazines, electronic newspapers, and the Internet.
Picture 2: Media students use all media more except for the radio.
Graphs and data: Inkeri Silvennoinen.

The students were also asked to estimate the average time they spent actively with different media every day. The average time for media students was 2.54 hours, and for other students slightly less, 2.34 hours. There were more media students than other students who reported spending five or more hours actively with different media every day, and accordingly fewer media students than others who reported spending only less than one hour per day with different media.


Pictures 3 (L) and 4 (R): Media students spent on average twelve minutes more with different media every day.
Graphs and data: Inkeri Silvennoinen.

90% of the media students and 52% of the other students also reported having produced content for at least one medium. This included articles in newspapers or electronic publications, TV or radio programmes, short films, and web pages.

Attitudes towards Media and Media Education
Next, the students were asked to list the media they found the most reliable. The students answered that they found newspapers and television to be the most trusted media. The least trusted medium was the Internet (not including electronic newspapers). Most students wrote that this was because the traditional media have a certain status and are more supervised, whereas the Internet is a new medium, and anyone can put online any information regardless of its origin or even legality. The results were not surprising, since television, radio and newspapers are the most familiar media to young people — according to a national study they reach people best (TNS Gallup).

When searching for information, students mainly used newspapers and the Internet. Also encyclopaedias and other literature were mentioned; television, radio and magazines were considered important sources of information as well. Even though television was a source of information for many students, it was primarily seen in the role of an entertainer: 75 out of 92 students listed it as the most or second-most important provider of entertainment. Other important media for entertainment were the Internet, magazines and movies: nearly one fifth of all students reported that they watched movies daily.

These results support the idea that there truly is a strong need for media education: when the media are everywhere, and only in the background but also in very active use, young people need skills in media literacy. According to Mrs Lepomäki, the basic courses in all media fields are found to be the most effective courses in developing the student's media literacy. There are also specialised courses in, for example, media and movie criticism, but the basic courses in the actual production of media content create a solid base for learning to observe the media in a new way.

The students seem to agree: media students were asked whether or not and how their image of the media had changed during the media courses. 97% answered that it had changed, and 10% that it had changed substantially. Other students were asked to list the subjects in which they had received media education. 33 students answered Finnish, 28 history and social studies, and 18 foreign languages. Studies in automatic data processing and psychology were also mentioned. 48% of the students reported that their image of the media had changed during upper secondary school. 58% reported that their media criticism had increased — the same percentage of media students was a full 100%. Almost all of the media students said that the most important courses for increasing their media criticism had been the two journalism courses and the project courses in video making.

Conclusions from the Survey
Did the media students get what they wanted when they chose the media programme? The reasons for choosing it were for most students the same: they were interested in working within the media, and they wanted to do something different than just basic secondary school courses. Many said that the best thing in the media programme had been the practical approach. There were some complaints about the level of teaching and the equipment, but overall the students were happy with the media programme. Of those who were not media students, 14% wished there would be more media education in the curriculum.

The results show a clear difference between the students who are taking the media programme and those who are not. This shows not only their interest in media, but also that the education they have received has influenced their habits of using the media. It has given the media students an ability to critically interpret the messages in the different media, and also to prepare and produce those messages themselves.

Even though the media courses do not directly affect learning in other courses, they do improve the students' ability to observe their environment in a more active way. For example, in the Finnish essays in the matriculation examination (the final examination in upper secondary school), the effect of the media courses is not shown on the language level, but rather in the way of making analytical observations, and having something original to say about phenomena in today's society. The media programme also has more concrete advantages: the students can use their skills when applying for a study place in a polytechnic or a university (Lepomäki).

The media have become a very popular subject to study: they are everywhere, and they are developing constantly. In Finland, at the moment, media can already be studied in several universities and polytechnics. For example, in Tampere Polytechnic, there is a School of Art and Media, and media and communications can also be studied in several other polytechnics. A Master's degree in the fields of media and communications can be taken in at least four universities (Finnish, Yliopistojen, Ammattikorkeakoulujen). Many secondary-level media students wish to continue their media studies at the tertiary level, and the media diploma or other media studies they do in upper secondary school may help them to get a study place.

Requirements for the Upper Secondary School Media Diploma

The upper secondary school's task is to provide good common knowledge in every subject. However, the courses available in the curriculum and the matriculation examination concentrate mainly on languages and sciences (Finnish, National). In order to show their skills in other subjects, students may take a diploma course in the subject in question. It is possible to take diploma courses in arts, music, and even physical education. A diploma course is a demonstration of the student's skills in the form of practical work: the students can, for example, prepare a performance or an exhibition, or take part in a competition.

Earning the diploma, which is a separate certificate, requires a certain number of completed courses in the subject in question. Since 2001, it has also been possible in some schools to take a media diploma course, where the student can choose a medium and produce content for it, preferably to be published in the medium in question. In order to take the diploma, the student has to take at least 4 media courses during upper secondary school (Finnish, Median; Sinko). At the moment, the media diploma course is offered in 23 upper secondary schools, but from autumn 2005, taking the media diploma course will become possible for all students, regardless of the media programmes offered in their school. Due to this, Messukylä Upper Secondary School is also opening all its media courses to all students in Messukylä (Lepomäki).

The media diploma consists of a written part, 1/3 of the grade, and the actual content, 2/3 of the grade. The written part, a "media biography" and a journal of producing the chosen work, evaluates the student's ability in media criticism and knowledge of the terms of the chosen media field. The student should also be able to connect his or her work into a wider context, and consider the effects of the media in general. The work itself evaluates the student's ability to properly plan and produce the message and use the needed equipment. The media diploma is graded from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest grade (Finnish, Media diploma; Lepomäki).

Messukylä Upper Secondary School was one of the first schools to offer the media diploma course. Since the beginning, it has been very popular among the students. Several students take the diploma course every year. The chosen works have been collections of newspaper articles, documentary films, image reportages, radio programmes, etc (Lepomäki). Outi Lepomäki says that it is a perfect way for the students to show the skills they have achieved during the media programme or through independent projects, and get credit for what they have learned. It is also an opportunity to produce media content independently, without a group of other students in the same project. 2

Positive Changes in Media Education

The mass media are constantly changing. In Finland, the polytechnics and universities are producing hundreds of new media professionals every year, and new technologies continue to develop rapidly. The one thing that will not change is the need for media literacy. Media education must be within reach of everyone. Upper secondary schools will do their part in the future as well, but they must not be the only source of media education.

With the new curriculum in upper secondary schools, many things will change for the better. Media education will be more thorough; when the media diploma courses, and possibly also all other media courses, are opened to all students in the school, and not just media diploma students, every upper secondary student should have an equal opportunity to become a proficient media user. This is what Finland needs: citizens who are media-literate and media-proficient.

The ability to communicate via the media will help in whatever profession the students choose, because media competence will be a requirement for almost all future professions. When one has learned how to understand the media, one will be able to distinguish between what information is relevant and what is not. With that ability, people will no longer need to be afraid of being "lost" in information, overwhelmed by information overload.


  1. Expressive learning is not relevant to the topic of this paper, so it is not described.
  2. Based on the author's personal experience.
  3. The questionnaire was in Finnish; it is appended to this paper in DOC format. It consisted of both multiple choice and open questions.
  4. Cellular phones were also included in the list of media because of their third-generation technologies that allow them to be used as multi-media tools.

Works Cited:

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Last Updated 22 April 2010