With smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, students have 24/7 access to news, information, and opinions—not all of which are well-informed or well-intentioned. In truth, we are flooded with a constant stream of information online, from legitimate news and facts to websites and social media posts taking sides in intense political debates.
In an age when students get the majority of their information from the internet, how can we make sure they know that not everything they find online is reputable? How can we help students become critical thinkers and smart consumers of information who also have empathy for others?
Monitoring students’ internet access in school won’t help them once they leave the classroom. Instead, they need the skills to evaluate online information for themselves. At a time when anyone with a basic understanding of search engine optimization can have his or her personal website appear atop the results of a Google search, students must be able to discern opinion and bias from fact.
Hate speech is content that deliberately tries to divide elements within society. While there are sites on the internet that are blatant about this, most hate speech is subtle and frequently attempts to disguise itself as education, information, or entertainment. This is not restricted to specific websites, but also attitudes that might come up on social media (such as sexist or racist material on Facebook) and in gaming environments.
Students should understand that most people who post information online are looking to convince others of something. Teaching students how to recognize propaganda will empower them to resist these messages.
Online, anyone can pretend to be something they are not. Disguised websites that are malicious or misleading can look professional and authoritative, and writers in chat rooms and blogs might not be who they say they are. Students should be skeptical of any claims until they have confirmed them with a reputable source.
Next page: Teaching students to recognize threatening speech
Helping students understand these dangers and identify the warning signs can make them smarter, more informed consumers of information. Here are three strategies that can help them hone their online critical thinking and evaluation skills:
- Cross-reference information. Go to a number of sites and cross-check information. Don’t rely on a single site for all of your information.
- Look out for red flags. If a website or person tries to isolate a group and make them seem different, brings up a “golden age” in history and claims it was ruined by a specific group of people, or plays the victim of another group of people, be wary.
- Use RAVEN. This mnemonic device helps students remember how to evaluate online content using a series of questions that involve a website’s Reputation, the site or person’s Ability to see both sides of an issue, if the site or author has a Vested interest in a certain point of view, their level of Expertise in the area, and their Neutrality.
A good, informative website should make an effort to acknowledge that there are different points of view on every possible subject. Is there anything that might influence the site, or the writer, to take a particular point of view? Does the person writing know or have any connection to any of the people or issues involved?
Students should be taught how to report online material that is hateful or malicious. Most social media sites make it easy to flag or report such content. Students should keep a record of what happened, noting the time and date. If the offensive content was online, take a screenshot, as this will create a permanent record of what happened. If it arrived via email, online chat, or text, keep the message and (if possible) the username or email address of the person who sent it.
Students also should be wary of flattery: someone who tells them very quickly how great they are online is just as suspicious as someone who does this in person. If students are worried about an online friendship, they should talk about it with a teacher, parent, or other responsible adult. An outside perspective often helps to see things clearly. Anyone who wants to keep their friendship a secret should be a real cause for concern. Above all, students should remember they can always say “no” to online requests.
Engaging in dialogue with others who come from different backgrounds and have different beliefs helps reinforce these critical thinking skills and supports a culture of online civility. Generation Global, a free platform and curriculum that brings together students from different backgrounds and cultures, is one tool that can help. The platform’s teacher training guide can help educators convey these important critical thinking skills to students.
The good habits students learn in the classroom will follow them throughout life, enabling them to evaluate online information with a critical eye while still engaging in peaceful social and professional dialogue.
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