The research unit… If you are an English teacher or Language Arts teacher in K-12 schools, I don’t need to include the adjective “dreaded.” Before you even pass out the assignment sheet, your students squeeze their head between their hands and slump over their desks weighted down by the expectation to write 3-5 pages and cite multiple sources.
The powerless feeling students experience when asked to find a reliable digital source indicates that the institutions responsible for ensuring kids know how to safely and comfortably navigate digital platforms are behind. Teachers have taught students to use static checklists to determine the credibility of potential sources, which leads to a narrow view of appropriate source material in academic settings. I remember teaching information literacy to my twelfth grade students, and yes, our school didn’t focus on media and digital literacy skills until students were almost out the door to college. I passed out the CRAAP handout on evaluating credible sources and watched as all of my students navigated to Google Scholar to search their topic, knowing that the sources generated on that site would easily meet the outlined criteria.
But determining reliability is not as simple as checking sources for a .gov or .edu in a web address. If students limit their source material to those deemed credible by traditional metrics, they will overlook valuable perspectives. Mathew Johnson, Director of Education at Media Smarts points out that there isn’t the same financial barrier to distributing information that there was when print media reigned supreme. The availability of digital media is arguably its greatest boon, allowing for diverse voices to join the conversation. However, adding to public discourse is not the only motivation for authors to contribute digital material.
The monetary incentive to create viral material can lead to the spread of disinformation. Sites spreading misinformation prey on readers’ emotions and, often, with their professional digital platforms and credentialed authors, they pass as credible sources of information. Mathew Johnson claims that it’s not enough to to teach students credibility indicators, you have to teach them to judge “what is behind the source.” Learning this skill is not a simple one, but it is imperative that children with devices learn to recognize the warning signs of disinformation.
If we examine the Common Core standards for K-12 education in the United States, standards that most schools have designed their curriculum around, students will not be introduced to digital material until the third grade. While this may seem an early enough age, if we look at the data presented by Common Sense Media, there are some facts that may surprise you. For me, the biggest surprise was the amount of kids aged 0-8 that have access to their own device. Keep in mind that eight years old is the age of the average third grader. If children are accessing digital platforms at and before age eight, it would be reasonable to expect that students could benefit from direct instruction on how to engage on digital devices.
Shana White a fellow at Georgia Tech’s Constellation Center for Equity in Computing, a program that teaches students computer science skills and digital literacy, claims that there is data to support the finding that young people do not fact check digital information they come across.
White describes information on the internet like this… You can’t trust the intentions of a stranger on the street and “the internet is like a large highway.” You can’t assume that people have the best intentions.
While there are a few exceptions that include fact checking information you are researching on behalf of a friend or for a school assignment, research supports the claim that students are digesting digital information without first verifying the content. To combat the spread of disinformation, students must build the habit of verifying sources and reject the idea that fact checking information is only appropriate in academic settings.
The habit of verifying source credibility is not a simple one to teach. The tricky part of teaching students to recognize disinformation is that young people don’t have the contextual knowledge needed to spot a potentially invalid source. Because of this gap in real world experience Mathew Johnson says a “holistic approach to media literacy” is needed. He gives the example of teaching students to recognize the ideology of hate so that they can spot red flags when they read what a checklist would affirm is a reliable source, but that actually has an agenda to misinform. The company, Media Smarts, promotes Four Moves and a Habit from Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. In this approach, students learn “moves” for verifying sources like tracking information back to its original source and checking information with information in related sources to confirm alignment.
This approach to teaching source credibility takes up more instructional time as the teacher must engage with case by case questions that come up during the fact checking process. This can be uncomfortable for teachers who have constructed teacher centered classrooms where they are responsible for knowing the “right” answer. However, this approach to teaching media literacy gives students permission to question the reliability of information and the tools to do so outside of academic assignments. When inviting students to evaluate source credibility using a holistic approach, the teacher’s role is to model what questions should arise while verifying a source and to answer those questions alongside students.
While effective media literacy instruction is vital to combat the spread of disinformation, consuming misleading information online is not the only danger of failing to address the digital reality of children today. Shana White points to research that suggests “who you are online is who you are in real life.” For the youngest among us, a digital citizenship lesson can be as simple and as powerful as showing students that it is just as important to be honest online as it is to be honest in person.
“Who you are online is who you are in real life.”Shana White, Fellow at Georgia Tech’s Constellation Center for Equity in Computing