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What our tech-savvy kids don’t know

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by Candace Bowen, MJE
Foundations_mainThey may be digital natives with instincts that allow them to use the latest app and easily share photos and video on social media platforms, but when it comes to evaluating information they access on the web, those from middle school through college aren’t nearly as knowledgeable as some might think.

In fact, they can’t tell an ad from a news story or hate group propaganda from factual material from a respected news outlet. In fact, the Stanford History Education Group described students’ reasoning ability when it comes to Internet information as “bleak.”

The group’s 18-month project, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” looked at “the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets and computers.”

From January 2015 to June 2016, the researchers developed and administered assessments to 7,804 students in 12 states, from inner-city LA to suburban Minneapolis, and at six different universities from those with tough admission standards to state schools that accept most applicants.

As the group’s recently released report states, “For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

As the group’s recently released report states, “For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

To get an idea of just how much these students really know about the Internet, the researchers tested their understanding of a range of information that appears on social media and other Internet venues. For instance, they showed middle school students “sponsored content” and news articles to see if they could recognize an ad. They showed high school students studying about gun laws a chart from a gun owners’ political action committee to see if they would accept it at face value. And they showed college students a tweet to see if they might use it as an eventual source in an article.

Perhaps even more intriguing – especially for education nerds – are the sample questions the report contains, along with a rubric for each and sample responses that show mastery (the student answers correctly and provides coherent reasoning for the response), emerging (the student answers correctly but provides limited or incoherent reasoning) and beginning (the student answers incorrectly).

The results the group reports are indeed bleak, but this shows the kind of media literacy journalism teachers might be able to help promote. Much of it deals with concepts we teach all the time: “Question Authority.” And of course there’s “verify” and “be transparent.” At least we hope our students would do better on this group’s assessment.

Also, the report ends with “Next Steps,” which include a promise to pilot lesson plans to use with these assessments and an awareness of the problem that is far worse than the researchers originally thought.

“Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite,” the researchers say. They hope to produce web videos to show how digital literacy is vital for a country like ours that relies on an informed electorate.

One Comment

  1. I agree that my students seem to take everything at face value – not only regarding the news but about writers. I am both amused and horrified at what their papers assert about Shakespeare. We need to train students and teachers to evaluate sources.

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