AAC&U News, January/February 2017

Perspectives – Educators Wage War against Fake News

Amid intense outcry over fake online news stories that may have influenced the presidential election, educators across the country are echoing Stanford History Education Group (SHEG)’s recent call to arms that labeled American students’ dearth of online media literacy skills “stunning,” “dismaying,” and “bleak.”

“For every challenge facing this nation,” SHEG’s report, which was released in November, said, “there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. . . . Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

SHEG tested thousands of middle school, high school, and university students to determine their aptitude at “civic online reasoning—the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.” They set benchmarks for each level and hoped, for example, that college students, “who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”

College students fared worse than high schoolers at this task, with 93 percent failing “to see through MinimumWage.com’s language to determine that it was a front group for a D.C. lobbyist,” when a simple Google search would have found numerous articles exposing the bias.

These media literacy skills, or their absence, can benefit or harm students throughout their future lives and careers. A new study by the PEW Research Center reported that 64 percent of Americans believe that fake news causes “a great deal of confusion,” and 23 percent have shared fake news online, either purposefully or inadvertently.

It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success, a 2013 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates and published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that 72 percent of employers think higher education institutions should do more to teach the “location, organization, and evaluation of information from multiple sources.”

Indeed, some universities are pushing for more systematic, comprehensive news literacy instruction. According to a December article in Slate, the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University “has run a course for undergraduates since 2007 and has since expanded into secondary schools by hosting summer teacher-training workshops and making course materials available online through its Digital Resource Center.”

In their 2015 article about teaching media literacy to future teachers, Baylor University faculty recognized that some institutions don’t have the resources to start these kinds of designated media literacy courses. Instead, they call on institutions to spread media literacy skills throughout the general education curriculum: “One way to promote media literacy . . . is to spread, share, and demonstrate lessons that fit into the traditional curriculum and coursework that pre-service teachers are already required to take. In this way, media literacy is positioned as an instructional or pedagogical strategy for teaching and learning across subject areas, not as a separate subject.”

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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