[Editor’s note: This post by Alan November, written exclusively for eSchool Media, is part of a series of upcoming articles by this notable education thought leader. Check back on Monday, January 23rd for the next must-read post!]

“At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish. … If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed.” —Stanford History Education Group, 2016.

The fact that 80 percent of middle school students in a recent study could not distinguish between fake news and authentic news on the web shows that we, as educators, have to do a better job of teaching media literacy in the digital age. That means paying just as much attention to teaching students how to be smart consumers of information as we pay to what we filter in our schools.

Across 12 states and 7,800 student responses, the overwhelming majority of our students from middle schools to universities were easily manipulated into believing falsehoods to be true or credible. According to reporting by NPR about the study, “In exercise after exercise, the researchers were ‘shocked’—their word, not ours—by how many students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of information.”

I am not shocked. As I have travelled the country visiting with schools, I have learned that many of our students have a false sense of confidence about their web and media literacy skills. In fact, it’s not unusual for students to laugh in disdain when asked if they know how to use Google. One fourth grader in a top private school instructed me, “Sir, if you have any question, you have to know how to use Google.”

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To expose students’ false confidence in their own skills, I will present them with a search challenge that I know will lead to bogus information in the top page of results. (Most students only look at the top page of results.) The scary part is watching students’ complete ignorance of any framework for questioning the validity of their results. The problem is that students don’t know what they don’t know.

I want to be wrong about this, but as with the Stanford researchers, I believe we are in serious trouble. Simply put, we are not preparing students to make informed decisions when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, Google searches, or web-based content. Even when students pass our print-based reading tests, they are basically illiterate when it comes to web-based content.

(Next page: How to ensure students’ media literacy)


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