By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
Recently, in “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (23 Nov. 2016), NPR reported that Stanford University researchers were shocked to learn that students are unable to distinguish real news from fake, ads from articles. The researchers collected and analyzed data from 7,800 middle school, high school and university students. The participants were from 12 states and were asked to evaluate information from various online sources such as tweets and articles.
The researchers’ “surprising” findings highlight that many people assume that young people are technology savvy because they can use their mobile devices and social media with seeming ease. However, their inability to use technology effectively is reflected in the results of this study. The students generally accept what is presented to them without questioning the validity or the bias. They accept it at face value.
I would hazard a guess that if the same study were done with any group of Internet users, the results would be equally as shocking. Rather than assuming that students or any users of technology and social media understand and are analyzing what they are seeing, our concern should be the quality of their digital literacy, their ability to read critically and not just accept everything without question.
The researchers propose that students and all other Internet users should be trained to read like fact checkers. They need to learn to not just read what is on the page but understand what it connects to. However, educators who work with and study technology use suggest that this is not enough.
Nik Peachey, for example, in his recent book, Thinking Critically Through Digital Media (2016), talks about how students are generally taught how to work with information through passive engagement. He suggests developing digital literacies, including understanding and analyzing what they are seeing. They need to “assess the validity, credibility and underlying bias of the information they study” and be “given a range of research tools and techniques for reassessing the information and evaluating how it fits within their personal framework of belief systems and values.”
The International Literacy Association also addresses this issue in “Knowing the Difference Between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies, and Teaching Both” (3 Feb. 2016). The author, Maha Bali, points out that teaching digital skills needs to be embedded in authentic contexts so that learners are also becoming digitally literate. She states that “digital literacy is not about the skills of using technologies, but how we use our judgment to maintain awareness of what we are reading and writing, why we are doing it, and whom we are addressing.”