Can a New Approach to Information Literacy Reduce Digital Polarization?
The internet doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but it should—to give users the skills to separate truth from falsehood so they can distinguish between propaganda and the indisputable and confirmable. And colleges should be the place leading students through this reference book.
That’s the argument of Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, and it isn’t just some “hot take” designed to be provocative. He actually wrote the manual. And he has already convinced more than a dozen colleges to adopt it (and more than 100 college libraries to prominently link to it). Recently, he’s started research in an effort to prove that it works (and can help preserve American democracy).
Plenty of people are talking about the importance of information literacy these days, and many educational institutions see it as part of their mission. And yet it’s more complicated than it seems. Earlier this month researcher danah boyd gave a provocative keynote speech at SXSW EDU arguing that media-literacy efforts at colleges are “backfiring,” turning out graduates that are good at questioning everything, and selectively believing what their gut tells them is true.
In fact, boyd worries that this feeling of not knowing what to believe can draw students into extremist websites, which promise clear answers.
Caulfield has noticed some of the same issues among students he’s worked with. “A lot of people are worried that students are just these gullible rubes believing everything,” he said, but that’s not what he typically sees. In a recent blog post, he described a student who dismissed the right-leaning Breitbart News because it is funded by the Mercers hoping to use it to influence political debate, and was equally dismissive of The Washington Post because it is owned by Jeff Bezos, who has given money to Democrats. Those situations are hardly equivalent, he says, but can make it easy for information consumers to simply throw up their hands.
“Without feeling empowered to sort fiction on the web a lot of students are merely cynical and believe they can’t trust anything,” said Caulfield in an interview with EdSurge. “Our hope is by giving students the tools to evaluate this stuff quickly that we’ll take a chunk out of some of the cynicism.”
“You can get focused so much on the agenda and the supposed agenda of people telling you things,” he adds, “that you lose a lot of the gradations of true and false.” That’s where Caulfield’s manual comes in. Its purpose is to instill in students “a habit of fact checking, and get people to build more complex models of the world than they currently have.” He stresses that the goal is not to just establish that some experts are always right and others wrong, but to give students the tools to judge information on a case-by-case basis.
It’s easier than ever to for a misleading lie to spread online. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. There it was in my social media feed, an article from Sports Illustrated saying that the Washington football team had decided to dump its polarizing Redskins mascot to become the Redhawks. This was huge. I lived in Washington for 20 years and was invested in this issue. I dashed off an email to my wife with the link.
Of course, that link wasn’t really from Sports Illustrated. It was from a similarly-named web address, sportsillustrated.news, which redirected to an article on a parody website. I had fallen through an information trapdoor, and plenty of others did too. It happens to all of us, if we’re honest.
Caulfield’s instruction manual—called Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers—explains how to avoid ending up down in these infotraps. It describes what it terms Four Moves and a Habit for evaluating any online article by going upstream to track claims or quotes to their original sources. The actual site of the Washington football team had no mention of this monumental mascot change, so I could have disproven the article in a couple of seconds.
Lee Skallerup Bassette, an instructional technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington, has been teaching with Caulfield’s guide to her Introduction to Digital Studies course, which typically has about 25 students. Her favorite part is having students go through the exercises, such as the one where students learn how to do a reverse Google image search to determine the origin of a picture. “I didn’t know about the reverse Google search, and I teach this stuff,” she adds.
Things have changed so quickly that “we’ve all been caught somewhat unaware and somewhat unprepared,” she says. “I think it’s the most important time to be a university professor,” she adds. “There is a lot of disinformation on both sides.”
Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury College, has been teaching with the book as well.
“You have to place your trust somewhere,” Collier says. “The ultimate goal is less about teaching kids this or that, but helping people to develop frameworks for trust and where to put your trust, how to build your trust and how to recognize when that trust is being manipulated.”
Caulfield’s manual is a key piece of his Digital Polarization Initiative, run out of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project. He started the effort around the time of Donald Trump’s election as president, but he insists that his guide attempts to avoid partisan trappings. The premise is there are things that are either true or false, and that people need quick easy ways to check, so they can make their own political judgments.
“People aren’t really a Democrat or a Republican or even an authoritarian or an anarchist,” he says. “People are many different things. And there’s a part of almost everybody that likes to know what the truth of the matter is.”
Caulfield is now working with top leaders at 11 colleges and universities to test his teaching approach. The plan is to use a measure of “civic online reasoning” developed by the Stanford History Education Group, a research team that made international headlines late last year when they found that students get low marks in judging the credibility of the info running through their social feeds.
The professor hopes that students exposed to his fact-checking approach will improve their civic reasoning, and that the “rigorous assessment” will lead more colleges to adopt his manual.
And then maybe those students will go out and politely correct, say, the misinformed post sent by a fast-clicking parent or uncle—or at least think twice about sharing. “That can help stop the virality that happens in the outrage cycle,” says Bassette, of the University of Mary Washington. “It will take time—it’s not going to be undone immediately.”