LIVE @ ISTE 2024: Exclusive Coverage

media literacy

How media literacy is critical to saving our democracy

A Stanford study suggesting how easily manipulated students are online should be a wake-up call for school leaders nationwide.

[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.”

Learn from the best innovations in education! Join education thought leader Alan November in Boston July 26-28 for his 2017 Building Learning Communities edtech conference, where hundreds of K-12 and higher-education leaders from around the globe will gather to discuss the world’s most successful innovations in education.

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)

Historically, we did not have to teach our students how to question the validity of information when we ensured the books in the library and in our classrooms were selected by educators. Providing our students exclusively with vetted information is no longer sufficient. Yes, we need to continue to give our students high-quality content, but we also need to prepare our students for a world that does not have a Dewey decimal number on the book jacket and is in their hands or pocket 24-7.

We also need to recognize that various media channels have different structures that require very specific lessons for literacy. At a minimum, our students should be in a position to say that they do not know, instead of confidently claiming to understand. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces in place—such as our traditional assessment designs—that keep us from creating innovative, web-based lessons. In this country, we tend to teach what we test. I do not know of any state or national test that measures web or media literacy. Without a test that requires this skill, we may be stuck in our paper-based definition of what it means to be literate.

There is another factor holding us back from teaching our students to be literate in the most powerful and ubiquitous media ever invented by society: We have spent too much time, money, and energy blocking various channels of information on the web, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in our schools, when we should have been carefully teaching students to understand the organizational structure of these channels.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires K-12 schools to block objectionable material, but it also states that schools “must provide for educating minors about appropriate online behavior.” We seem to excel at the blocking provision, while we have basically ignored the education side of the law.

Just as we ensure that our students do not misinterpret a quotation to be attributable to the main author, we should also ensure that our students know the simple difference between a modified tweet, a retweet, and an original tweet. We also must teach students how to develop a line of inquiry in tracking down a primary source to verify an opinion on a website. One powerful fact-checking tool that all of our students (and adults) should know how to use is the Wayback Machine (, which has been backing up the web since 1995. Students can use this tool to find historical information online, such as what an organization or politician stated years ago, and then compare it to what is being reported in the present time.

We are in a mission-critical state of losing our democracy unless we broaden our definition of what it means to be literate today. As with reading print, web and media literacy needs to be embedded across the curriculum and within the design of assignments across all grades and subjects. Students need practice, practice, practice.

Our national policy of filtering the web in our schools to protect children from objectionable material was an incomplete solution, and one that has backfired to produce an ill-informed and easily manipulated electorate. No one would argue that we shouldn’t filter out highly objectionable material. However, the reality of life in a democracy is that the information flowing toward our citizens 24-7 across many digital channels is messy—even nasty—with multiple versions of the truth.

The one thing we can count on is that the web will get messier and nastier. We must prepare our students to navigate the reality of this messy world. Hanging on to the idea that somehow we can control the information our students access is counterproductive to one of the original tenets described by the Founding Fathers: “Education being necessary to its [democracy’s] success, a successful democracy must provide it.”

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

New Resource Center
Explore the latest information we’ve curated to help educators understand and embrace the ever-evolving science of reading.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.