Saturday, December 3, 2016

Will the Next Generation Be Discerning Consumers of Internet Information? It's in Our Court Now

Where do your students get their news? What do they know about bias and credibility of sources? Is it important that they understand these concepts? Do THEY know that it is important for them to understand these concepts?

In a world where last week a front-page BBC article is titled “Facebook, fake news and the meaning of truth,” we need to seriously consider these questions—and not just hope that some past or future teacher has covered or will cover it, since no teacher ever taught US, so we’re not really sure how to go about teaching anyone else. 

Here’s what happened to me and in my class in the last two weeks—at first surprising and a little frightening as a work check-point turned into formative assessment, then a little nerve-wracking as I tried something new, and finally very exciting as students took ownership of the necessity of understanding bias and credibility in news and other online sources.

I gave 10th graders a Google Classroom assignment to hold them accountable for their research during the period before Thanksgiving break since I was missing class for an educators’ conference. The assignment was basically a 2-item annotated bibliography on the research question they had each brainstormed the day before. They were to find 2 sources and for each one, record the publication information in MLA Works-Cited page format and write one sentence explaining why it is a credible source and one explaining why it is relevant to their question.

As I read their answers, on my laptop in my hotel room, to why the source is credible, I realized they clearly knew a little, and they clearly needed to know more. Here were some of their answers:
  • Because it has contact information.
  • Because it has links.
  • Because it’s dedicated to my topic.
  • Because it’s a news source.
Each sentence is one piece of an over-all picture of credibility, but none are stand-alone assurances.

So the first 2 days back to school, we put research on hold, and our objective became to learn about bias and credibility in online sources. This was our learning plan for day 1:
  • Why is this website credible? Students spent 5 minutes freaking out over the amazing Pacific Northwest tree octopus. One student asked to go to the bathroom and then forgot about it (that’s real engagement!). Another student said, “This almost sounds like a hoax web site, but I know it’s not.” Then they finally began catching on. Sasquatch? Hey, wait a minute.
  • Read this article to discuss what is fake news, what is bias, and why it matters. When students read that 40%-60% of Americans use Facebook as their primary news source, many said, “Not me—mine is Instagram.” So I asked if they could name original sources that people on their feed posted. Segue to the next topic…
  • Where do you get your news? Can you list the names of newspapers, periodicals, web sites? What are their bias? We briefly discussed left/center/right, liberal/conservative. One of the students had actually used Breitbart and Slate as the 2 sources—I pointed out what a fascinating comparison could be made if one were aware that the 2 sources had diametrically opposed political biases! And we used this web page to classify a few of the sources we’d listed.
  • Home learning: Read and take notes on this list of ways to determine online source credibility (anything you didn’t already know about credibility of sources--well enough to use on the tree octopus site!).

Day 2 we started out with a discussion of what they’d learned in last night’s reading. Then I projected a white supremacist web site. We discussed what factors reduced its credibility even though it had some of the factors they’d cited at first as credible: contact information, links, dedicated to one topic.

Next, I played devil’s advocate, gave them this link to “Frequently Asked Questions about the Armenian Genocide,” and asked, “Is it credible?”

“Can we use that list we read last night?” Music to a teacher’s ears!

Oh, the discussions that ensued! Discussions about primary and secondary sources, about grammar and capitalization, about corroborating information googled, about whether having a stated bias made a source not credible or was just something to be aware of….

Once I sent them off to continue their research and find 2 more credible, relevant sources, they paid much more attention to credibility. One student, researching what had happened to the rest of Elie Wiesel’s family, told me he found such non-credible sites, so now he was using the Jerusalem Post. I asked, “What is its bias?” He said, “When I looked it up, it was really confusing….” And we had a good discussion of how even the sites labeling bias are biased! (But he’d actually looked it up!!!)

Yup, that was an exciting week. Which brings me back to where I started: Where do your students get their news? What do they know about bias and credibility of sources? Is it important that they understand these concepts? Do THEY know that it is important for them to understand these concepts?

If you haven’t asked them, please do. If they’re not masters, teach them something. If you don’t know what to teach them, here are a few resources I’ve collected over the last 2 weeks:

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