November 29, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Renee Hobbs, Director of URI’s Media Education Lab


Renee_Hobbs“Libraries, film, media, families, and the theme of making libraries the nexus of civic life.”

Those are just some of the things that drive the research of Renee Hobbs, internationally recognized expert on digital and media literacy education, professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island (URI), director of URI’s Media Education Lab, and champion of fair use for K-12 educators.

Hobbs’s work has involved local libraries, online personality quizzes, international collaborations, and petitions to the Library of Congress Copyright Office, among other activities.

The latest? Last week, Hobbs received word that she had won a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to help Rhode Island librarians bolster digital and film literacy competencies among kids, teens, and their parents.

”Ten years ago, we could [tell parents], ‘Have the computer in the kitchen.’ We don’t live in that world anymore,” Hobbs says. The IMLS-funded initiative, called “Media Smart Libraries: Building Partnerships to Support Children in a Digital Age,” aims to bring librarians up to date and make libraries centers for media and film literacy. It is a collaboration between URI’s Grad School of Information and Library Studies (GSLIS), the Providence Children’s Film Festival, and the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services.

“Librarians told us they do not know how to procure and evaluate films and apps,” Hobbs says. “We want to make sure every librarian understands the wide variety of tools to help parents and teacher make choices.” While film is a strong focus, the initiative will also address issues around children’s game apps.

The two-year project will enable public programming events emphasizing film, media, and digital media tools; a revised GSLIS curriculum at Harrington emphasizing digital media literacy; and an online resource hub with information on events, video excerpts, curated media texts, and more.

Hobbs also plans to bring more URI GSLIS students into working libraries as part of their education. She notes that librarians often have much to learn from media-savvy students, while the students gain valuable experience outside the classroom.

“Seventy-seven percent of children’s librarians said they have never collaborated with students in LIS programs,” Hobbs notes, adding that “Seventy percent of public librarians strongly agree that they want to know about how filmmakers for children and teens.”

Advocating DVD fair use for education

Hobbs has been supporting educators’ use of film and DVDs for years. She was a key player in enabling schools to copy DVD excerpts or clips without payment or permission when they use them within the bounds of fair use. “We received an exemption from the Library of Congress empowering K-12 teachers to legally rip DVDs for fair use purposes,” she says.

In October 2012, the Library of Congress Copyright Office granted K–12 educators the exemption to bypass DVD encryption for classroom use. College professors had obtained this permission in 2009; Hobbs’s petition on behalf of K-12 educators pushed for the same.

“Everywhere I go, people still think it’s illegal,” Hobbs says. “I wish more librarians and teachers knew about this.” Because the exemption is temporary, “In 2016, we have to go back to the Library of Congress and defend it again.”

Hobbs says that support from the American Library Association made the fair use argument about “a community assessing their fair use right.” The focus of the petition related to her other broad goals. “Again, it goes back to the issue of librarians who are making wise educational use” of these materials. Hobbs is offering a free MOOC on the topic of copyright and fair use from October 6 to December 8, updating some of the issues covered in her book Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning (Corwin, 2010).

Studying educators’ “digital horoscopes” to study motivation

More recently, Hobbs’s collaboration with Silke Grafe, professor of education at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, led to a study, still in progress, about what motivates educators to used digital media. They are exploring how teachers’ self-awareness about their technology choices might affect what they do in the classroom.

Through the website, a Media Education Lab initiative, Hobbs and Grafe are conducting a  digital personality poll, “What’s Your Motivation?” in order to cull data. They hope that the 12 “digital horoscope” types—including the Trendsetter, the Techie, the Activist, and the Watchdog, among others—will reveal why teachers choose certain tech for the classroom and to what educational ends.

“We’ll look for patterns” among the results, Hobbs says. For example, “an Activist might use it for some kid of a community project,” while “a Techie will do something more digital.”

“Some teachers want to promote engagements—to wake kids up,” and “some just love the latest new gadget.” She adds, “Some only use it because they’re trying to tune into the social and emotional life” of tech-immersed kids—to “meet them where they are.”

By tracing participants’ behavior over time, Hobbs hopes to gain insight into their mindfulness and track the “people who take the effort to make some changes.”

Understanding propaganda to foster open discussion

What’s next for Hobbs? “We are developing a curriculum in teaching propaganda in the 21st century,” she says. “We’re pretty excited about it.” While details are not yet public, Hobbs reveals, “it does have a really cool user-generated content app, as well as traditional lesson plans.”

“We are going to be talking about things like sponsored content and native advertising,” she says. “Paid advertising is so organically woven into the digital media experience that most of us don’t even recognize it. There are many new forms of propaganda that have become normative, and it’s important to understand that.”

Hobbs notes that topics such as “biotechnology, global warming, racial injustice, and the state of the economy” are often presented in media by “interested parties with a particular goal in mind.”

In the classroom, students and educators need clarity, she maintains. “Controversial topics that need to be discussed in schools aren’t, because polarization makes it difficult. It challenges us.” She adds that “When polarization is left unchecked, it can lead to apathy,” meaning that educators avoid certain topics altogether.

No one could accuse Hobbs of avoidance. “The power of film is so remarkable because it has the ability to reach people, tell stories, and inspire,” she says of her current project with Rhode Island libraries, kids, and teens. Look for more of the same from Hobbs.

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss ( is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.