Students and fake news: Educators breathe hope into bleak diagnosis
Friday, March 10, 2017
How many times have you turned to a young person for assistance with a high-tech device? It’s easy for parents and teachers to be wowed by the tech savvy of today’s "neo-digital" natives.
Yet, while the typical millennial student can work the most complicated phone and has got a finger on the pulse of social media and the newest apps and games, recent research out of Stanford University shows a gaping hole in their digital competence — namely in their ability to discern what online information is credible and what’s not.
More than 7,800 students between the ages of 12 and 20 from 12 states were assessed in the study by Stanford's History Education Group. Researchers examined middle school, high school and undergraduate students' ability to evaluate the information that flows through social media channels. At each level, three tasks were assigned, including distinguishing advertising from an article, questioning the reliability of sources and identifying potential bias in tweets.
"Bleak" was the word used by writers of the executive summary to sum up participants’ ability to reason about the information that runs ramped on the Internet. "Large portions of the students — at times as much as 80 or 90 percent — had trouble judging the credibility of the news they read," reported professor Sam Wineburg, lead author of the study, on NPR’s "All Things Considered."
In one assessment, high school students were shown a photo on an image hosting website depicting distorted daisies with a caption claiming that they were the result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The photograph had no attribution, nothing that indicated that it was from anywhere, explained Wineburg. When asked if the photograph provided proof that a nuclear disaster caused these aberrations in nature, over 80 percent of the students had extreme difficulty making that determination.
"They didn't ask where it came from. They didn't verify it. They simply accepted the picture as fact," said Wineburg.
Released in late November, right in heart of the post-election outpouring of news about fake news, results of the Stanford study received wide media coverage. Around this time, NPR interviewed a fake news propagator who stated the obvious truth: fake news isn’t going anywhere and not only can we expect to see more of it in the future, sites will get harder to distinguish from real news sites.
"As recent headlines demonstrate, this work (education) is more important now than ever," said Wineburg in the Stanford press release. "In the coming months, we look forward to sharing our assessments and working with educators to create materials that will help young people navigate the sea of disinformation they encounter online."
While the situation may look bleak, there has been a staggering response by historians, librarians, college professors, English language teachers and others over the last three months. The legitimate press has stepped up to bat, not only in informing the public about the issue but in publicizing workable solutions from qualified educators.
Throughout January, The New York Times printed a series of lesson plans "devoted to helping students determine why, how and where to find reliable information." One edition featured STEM-specific lesson while another focused on English-language learners who due to language barriers may experience a greater challenge in identifying fake news.
NPR put out a social media call to teachers and librarians in early February and from the numerous responses, published a sampling of best practices from around the country. Here teachers can check out innovative ideas like fake news "Simon Says" and spelling bee-like competitions between schools using fake news written by students.
On Smithsonian.com, historian and educator Kevin M. Levin writes, "The history classroom is an ideal place in which to teach students how to search and evaluate online information given the emphasis that is already placed on the careful reading and analysis of historical documents."
He shares simple research guidelines for students. The same parameters used in historical research — identifying information sources and checking their reputability along with the proper citation of text and images — can be transferred to evaluating the links that pop up in students’ Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram feeds.
Professor Steve Fox explains on Boston's WBUR-FM how he uses recent news stories to get his students to think critically. While information and news literacy courses aren’t new to many college journalism departments, they are gaining more publicity and becoming more attractive to the average student. Seats have been added to Fox’s news literacy class at The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which recently opened to non-journalism majors as a general education course.
"I'm a lot more critical of how many sources I'm checking and where I'm backing up my facts, and not just re-sharing something because I got really mad when I read it," reports a junior enrolled in the course. "I feel like it's making me a much more critical thinker about the information that's out there."
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