Article written by Alan November.
“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.
How would you feel if you discovered that 70% of middle school students could not distinguish between fake news and authentic news on the web? According to a year-long study by the Stanford School of Education, that is exactly where we are as a country.
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 that information.”
I am not shocked. As I have traveled the country visiting with schools, I have learned that many of our students have a false sense of confidence about their web literacy skills. In fact, it is not unusual for students to begin 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.”
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. To quote the Stanford study, “However, at each level — middle school, high school, and college — these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”
In the Stanford survey, students failed across various categories of digital media. How can this possibly be true? How could so many of our college students fail such a low bar? Yet, in the application of reading outside of a school setting in a web-based world — where an increasing number of Americans now consume their news — at least 70% of our students failed to pass a test of reading validity. According to the Stanford study, 80% of students could not detect the difference between an advertisement and a news story.
How well would adults do? If we extrapolate the study, which isn’t too far-fetched if we assume that children who grew up with social media might know more than their elders, it is possible that the majority of adults cannot fact check, distinguish a reliable source from a biased one, and believe things to be true that are patently false when presented with web-based content. The real problem is that they do not know they do not know.
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 provide our students with 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 x 7.
What is really scary is the false sense of confidence that our students have about their own skills. If you believe you are literate, then what would motivate you to question your own assumptions about fact vs. opinion or complete falsehoods, especially if the content arrived via Facebook by a trusted personal friend? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that if you can pass a reading test based in print on paper, you would be able to transfer those skills to a different media with print such as a Tweet? It turns out this notion of transfer from one media to another may not be as easy as it would seem. (See the seminal work on “The Medium Is the Message” by Marshall MacLuhan.) We may need to recognize that various channels have different grammatical structures that require very specific lessons to be literate.