Being a “Literate” Researcher: Finding Credible Sources in the Digital Age

This week, an article came across my Facebook feed that got me thinking more about what it means to have our students be “technologically literate”. THIS article  discusses a recent study done into the ability of students (middle school-college) to determine a credible source from a fake or faulty source online on social media. Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. This struck me as incredibly dangerous, and I think it’s something we need to address as educators.

Much of the training I’ve seen for teachers on “technological” literacy has been on how to actually make the technology work. We train teachers how to train students to turn on and use a computer, to work word processors and spreadsheets, and about how to make their social media profiles professional. What is grossly ignored is the fact that everyone (students and teachers) has more information at their fingertips than has ever been possible.

If students were researching the world through books, it would be much more obvious which sources were credible and which were not. But, we all know that students now are doing most of their research online, and they likely consume most of their state, national, and world news through social media. We have a responsibility as educators to teach students fact-checking skills to make them more literate researchers. The article offers some pointers, and here are some things I personally think need to be done:

  1. Teach students to use fact-checking resources

Politifact, Snopes, and many more websites fact check commonly shared claims and “articles” on the internet. We should be giving students these resources and showing them how to use them.

2. Teach students to find multiple sources about each event

Often, the simplest method of fact checking is to simply find two other sources that express the same information. Provided they aren’t all from clearly political sources (will discuss in a second), it’s likely the information provided is credible.

3. Teach students about rhetoric/bias and how social media amplifies these.

I will forever be grateful to my Language and Composition teacher in 11th grade for devoting class time to cognitive biases and rhetoric. Learning about confirmation bias, strawman arguments, circular reasoning, and other logical fallacies has been invaluable in my ability to evaluate my sources. Facebook doesn’t make this any easier, as they have an algorithm (and I’m sure they aren’t the only social media website with one) that calculates which information you will agree with that will make you happy and shows you only those posts and articles. While it can be nice to keep users happy, this feature creates an echo chamber, and it isn’t always a factual one. For example, during the election, a source saying Donald Trump was endorsed by the pope was shared millions of times. This is quite obviously not true, but the number of shares suggests that many did believe it, and it may have influenced some voters. The Wall Street Journal created a tool to show just how powerful this change in news feeds can be. While Facebook certainly should have some responsibility for this, it’s also important for us to teach students how to find the true information, even if it isn’t what they agree with.

4. Give students lists of reputable sources (with possible biases)

In this election season, we heard a lot of information about how the “mainstream media” was rigged and not to be trusted. While I personally don’t believe this is true, it begs the question: how will our students know which sources are to be trusted? We definitely need to teach our students to evaluate sources, but it would also help to give them sources that they can generally trust. For example, if I were to give them the Huffington Post or Fox News as sources, I would mark those sources as biased quite liberally and conservatively (respectively). Still, there are a number of unbiased sources (politifact, NPR, BBC, etc.) that students should know about, so they can go there for information.

5. Teach students the difference between facts and opinions.

This is another one that was especially prevalent this election season. Many times, I saw footage of Donald Trump stating that “people don’t feel safe, crime is up! (etc.)” In one particularly jarring interview, a reporter said “Crime rates nationally are down; they’re the lowest they have been in years.” and a man responded “Yes, but people don’t feel like they’re down. People don’t feel safer.”

“But they are safer.”

“But they don’t feel that way”

This exchange then carried on. We need to make sure our students understand the differences between feelings/opinions and facts, so that they can properly evaluate their internet sources.

I feel that merely teaching “technological literacy” is a disservice to our students. It’s highly likely that most of the students I will be teaching will have expert-level knowledge of how to use their devices. They know how to access all of the information in the world. What my colleagues and I will be tasked with is teaching them how to comb and sift through the information to find the truth. Only after learning how to sift through internet sources can students truly be “research literate” or even “technologically literate”.




One thought on “Being a “Literate” Researcher: Finding Credible Sources in the Digital Age

  1. rachaelhyaduck November 29, 2016 / 1:05 am

    Thank you for this post. As a future history teacher, teaching students how to sift through the vast amounts of material out there to find something that is credible and reliable seems like a daunting task. I am curious at what article you read and would even like to read it myself. The 5 steps that you listed really break down and pinpoint the important steps to teach students when it comes to being ‘technologically literate’. I agree with you that the future generations of students will be far more advanced and proficient when it comes to technology use. However, sometimes teaching the basics such as how to determine if a website or source is credible is a crucial step that many students often overlook. Thank you for sharing these 5 steps. I look forward to using these steps to help my future students when it comes to becoming ‘technologically literate’. Great post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s