Using Black Mirror in the Classroom

Some have called “Black Mirror” a modern day “Twilight Zone,” and like the vintage science fiction series that often envisioned the future, “Black Mirror” brilliantly conveys how media and technology could alarmingly devolve in the near future. That’s why some educators are using it in the classroom.

Frank Bridges, of Rutgers University, has written a piece called Black Mirror as a Pedagogical Tool in the Classroom. He said a show like “Black Mirror” “allows students to experience a taste of the not-so-distant future for 45 minutes and still have time to discuss their ideas in class.”

Bridges cites the episode The Entire History of You in which an implanted device called a “grain” captures and indexes video and audio of everything viewed by the recipient.

“The episode may feel jarring and its ideas inconceivable,” he writes, “but it can be explained to the class that elements are already available with existing technologies such as augmented reality glasses, compact flash memory, retinal implants, and networked home devices.”

Bridges said educators can incorporate other materials, such as media articles, to prepare students before watching the episodes that can prompt them to begin thinking about the future of technology.

In my mass communications class at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, students first learn about the history of mass media before we begin envisioning the future with the help of “Black Mirror.” Students begin to think about their personal relationship with technology, social media and electronic communication. Some have said it was “eye-opening.”

Emily Glover, of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, offers advice about how to teach pop culture and TV shows. She says television shows, news stories, podcasts and other popular media can be used as teaching tools to help students learn digital literacy skills.

Glover said the ethical use of technology is one of the main themes of digital literacy. It’s important for students to understand how media and technology affect them and how they affect media and technology.

“The British anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ (often compared to ‘Twilight Zone’) requires the viewer to reflect and discuss the implications technology has (and will have) on our lives,” Glover writes. “While episodes push high school classroom boundaries, some courses in higher education have jumped on the ‘Black Mirror’ bandwagon.”

Glover said teaching television programs such as “Black Mirror” and “The Twilight Zone,” (which we also looked at this semester in contrast), provide an engaging framework for discussing the appropriate use of technology, media ethics and the future of tech.

In a MediaShift article, Jeremy Littau writes that one of the great things about science fiction is that it can tell us about ourselves. He explains that the original “Star Trek” series used the idea of “humans traveling the galaxy in a starship to tell stories about race, gender, class and moral choices.”

Littau, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, has also used “Black Mirror” in his classroom to approach weekly discussions about technology, media and society. Wednesdays are “Black Mirror” days in his class. Students watch the show and Tweet a 140-character review about the episodes. He also shows them other tech-related articles.

Littau is right when he says “Black Mirror” is not for everyone, and I agree it should be handled with care if used in class. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing some episodes with students, and I use trigger warnings when setting up the episodes.

Katy E. Pearce, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, also uses “Black Mirror” in the classroom. In her syllabus, she writes that each episode taps into our unease about technology. “Each episode is a superb platform for ethical debates,” she said.

Pearce notes that students should realize the show is speculative fiction with mature themes. “Episodes are fascinating,” she said, “but also disturbing, as the show features graphic content.”

Some teachers have even posted “Black Mirror” Nosedive worksheets online for grades 9-12. The worksheets include a pre-viewing activity about social media habits, a viewing quiz, and worksheets about themes and complex characters. Students are asked to write a character-based essay.

My students were asked to envision themselves as writers for the show and come up with an idea for a new episode of “Black Mirror.” You can read some of their Black Mirror Reflections here.

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