Digital Literacy for Digital Natives

Helping teachers face down fake news and cultivate smart, discerning consumers of online information

January 17, 2018
conceptual wall of brightly colored screens showing different kinds of images

Like high schoolers across the country, my students are digital natives, well versed in the intricacies of Snapchat, Instagram, and group chats. One in four American teenagers reports being online “almost constantly,” and 92 percent report going on daily, according to a 2015 Pew study.

But every scroll through social media, every Google search, and every YouTube video brings a barrage of news, fake news, and ads masquerading as news, all of which my students must sort through. Many of them are ill-equipped for the job — not always able to tell fact from fiction; to identify content that is attempting to persuade them; or to recognize reliable sources. They’re eager consumers of news, but not yet discerning ones.

This is a pervasive problem. A 2016 report by the Stanford History Education Group, analyzing the work of roughly 7,800 middle school, high school, and college-level students, found that a majority were unable to tell sponsored advertisements from real articles, or to recognize where information they read was coming from.

Most of the information our students see online has a motive — trying to persuade them to buy something or think something or believe something. But students struggle to recognize these diverse agendas.

The task of training students to be thoughtful news consumers is daunting and unwieldy. It’s not just a question of sorting real from fake news, says the study’s lead author, Sam Wineburg, but “the broader question of how do all of us evaluate the information that comes to us via screens."

When I go online for news, I bring with me a wealth of already-amassed knowledge about the news source and its reliability or flaws, developed over decades. Often I have a baseline knowledge of the content, which informs how I evaluate what I read. But where to start with students who are just now building these skills? Luckily, a growing number of resources are available to help teachers begin to tackle this problem.

Here are four steps along the pathway to digital literacy in the classroom, followed by resources below.

1. Students need to be able to identify possible motives an article might have.
Most of the information our students see online has a motive — trying to persuade them to buy something or think something or believe something. But students struggle to recognize these diverse agendas.

Ask students to develop a list of possible motives that articles and images might have. Curate examples of each motive and together write a list of clues students can use to identify each.

This work will need to be ongoing and integrated at all levels and across all subjects. Cultivating our students into thoughtful, discerning, and critical digital thinkers is one of the most important responsibilities educators now have.

2. Students need to be able to identify tone and bias.
It is often hard for students to identify the tone of an article unless it is blatant. How can we break down bias and tone into recognizable components?

To give students rudimentary tools to identify bias, have a discussion about why authors choose certain words or highlight certain facts. Compare articles about the same subject from different news sources: What information is highlighted? What words are used to describe the same event? Does the article present both sides of an argument or just one?

To explore how biased news is created, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project suggests challenging students to write their own biased news story about an event they are studying. Start by having them list all the facts, and then have them select only certain facts they want to include or exclude to try to convince classmates of a particular idea.

3. Students need to learn to be skeptical of sources and develop tools to check them.
In a world where even the most respected newspapers are described as fake news, how do we help students know what sources count as reliable?

Start by having students catalogue where they currently get their news — Facebook? Twitter? Podcasts? Applying what they’ve learn about bias, students can begin to assess the perspective and the mission of the news sources they read. Are they reading independent journalism with original reporting, are they reading advocacy sites, or are they getting news from crowd-sourced “citizen reporting”? Talk with them about the standards and ethics of journalism. Together, gather a list of sources your class believes are reliable and keep the list easily accessible to students. 

Use a checklist created by the News Literacy Project to help students evaluate sources and detect fake news.

4. Students need to understand how what they read online is targeted at them.
Many students don’t know that when they search online, complex algorithms determine the articles and ads they see. Few students understand how bots can make topics falsely appear to be important. When software shapes what we see, our students must be wary of whom to believe online, and they must work to read authors who don’t always confirm but rather push and stretch their beliefs.

Build students’ awareness through discussion of key concepts, mini research projects, and even by intentionally testing these technologies out. Here's one lesson on understanding online searches.

These are just the first steps; this work will need to be ongoing and integrated at all levels and across all subjects. Cultivating our students into thoughtful, discerning, and critical digital thinkers is one of the most important responsibilities educators now have.

Digital Literacy Resources for Teachers

  • Test how well your students can judge the credibility of the information they see online by using Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning assessments.
  • Search a growing collection of tools and information on the new Digital Literacy Resource Platform, from Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society
  • Read a new report from the Stanford researchers that explores how professional fact-checkers assess the validity of online content. A summary of the report describes how researchers found that the most effective fact-checkers tended to read laterally, meaning that they quickly scan a website and then open a series of related tabs in their browser to verify and add context from other sites. (By contrast, the researchers found, professional historians and college undergraduates tend to read vertically, meaning that they stayed within the page in question and read down to evaluate its credibility — and were more often manipulated or deceived.)
  • Teaching Tolerance has an extensive Toolkit on Digital Literacy, with areas of focus that include identifying reliable sources, understanding online privacy, and constructively engaging in online communities. For each area, the toolkit offers lessons geared toward K–12 students.
  • The News Literacy Project (NLP) has created an online platform, Checkology, with hours of virtual lessons covering everything from First Amendment issues to viral rumors to the role of algorithms in shaping the content you see. The NLP also created “10 Questions for Fake News Detection,” a checklist.
  • In partnership with the NLP, Facing History and Ourselves has a mini curriculum on digital literacy and democracy, centering on events that followed the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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