I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “fake news” phenomenon. Maybe it’s because I’m a [former] librarian; maybe it’s just because I’m obsessed with the whole digital literacy thing, but I don’t think it’s only because fake news is in the headlines a lot lately. A friend recently told me she thought the term “fake news” was completely inane, as what that really means is simply “lies.” Digital literacy – and its fairly large subset, media literacy – is a crucial set of skills and attitudes that are necessary now more than ever before to impart to today’s learners. And it takes a huge amount of pretty sophisticated critical thinking, digital skills, and an understanding of our online behavior to even start to understand how complex the action of website evaluation is.
Take for example the recent news story that went viral about the Santa who claimed that a young cancer patient died in his arms. Totally heartwarming, tear-jerking, and – as it turned out – probably patently false. That the story was picked up so quickly and easily by multiple news stories, apparently without any independent fact-checking, is remarkable, and highlights how widespread the proliferation of fake news really is.
Another friend, an academic who I refer to as a “professional smart person,” and I were discussing this issue yesterday, and we agreed that for us, as people with multiple advanced degrees, it’s often hard to recognize fake news, or to think to fact-check a widely published feel-good story about a Santa in a children’s hospital. How much harder, then, would it be for a 10-year-old, or even a 17-year-old high school senior, to identify whether or not a website is credible or factually accurate? Where can teachers, who may not feel confident themselves in the art of website evaluation, go to learn the skills they might need to help their students understand the kind of complex critical thinking needed to be successful Internet users?
If your district has Atomic Learning, as mine does, you might take a look at the course titled Evaluating Web Resources. In just a couple of hours, you can get some good background information on things to consider when determining whether or not a website is worth your time. This course provides information that will need to be provided to students many times over their schooling careers; there is no way that a one-time lesson on web evaluation would be sufficient for the complex information landscape in which we all find ourselves today. But the course would give teachers (and perhaps some older high school students – there is a LOT of ground covered) some good background information, perhaps in collaboration with their school librarian, to use with their students.
The Atomic Learning course provides a “Web Resource Credibility Checklist” that is pretty extensive and addresses questions to ask about and tips for determining a website’s author, purpose, accuracy, and more. Similar to the CRAAP Test but more extensive in scope, this list is a good starting point for things to think about when encountering a new website or embarking on a search for information. In a meta-evaluation of the information (based on the suggested checkpoints), I was pleased that the course provided current information (with screenshots of web searches indicating the year 2016) and somewhat disappointed to find no biographical information about the author of the course.
Another of the checkpoints listed was the appearance of a site. Back in 2000, when I first started my librarian career and the Internet was still young, it was much easier to draw distinctions between a site that was probably credible because “it looked good” and one that wasn’t because it didn’t; I’m not sure with all of the website creation tools available today that that is still a valid criterion for judgment, since it’s so easy to create a beautiful site with potentially horrendously inaccurate information. Although the course touched on fact vs. opinion, I would love to have seen a bit more emphasis on helping students to distinguish among sites like blogs, other social media posts, journalistic op-ed pieces, and editorials, as the lines between facts, analysis, and opinion are often blurred. I also wish that the course had included references to fact-checking sites like Snopes, Factcheck.org, and Politifact, and perhaps a mini-lesson on tips students could use to become power searchers.
But there is only so much time that one can devote to a course, so perhaps the topics noted above could be included in a “Website Evaluation Round 2” type of course. Maybe I’ll even offer to put one together! I’m proud to be a burgeoning Atomic Learning Ambassador, so perhaps creating content for them is in my future. The ability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff when it comes to reliable information on the Internet is definitely a HUUUUUGE component of one’s overall digital literacy, so you know I’m on board to help others understand the complexities of website evaluation in whatever small way I can.
If you really want to focus specifically on combating “fake news” (aka lies), here are some additional resources specifically addressing the fake news phenomenon:
Check Before you Wreck (video)
How to Choose Your News (TED-Ed video)
Real or Fiction? (**The information at the top of this page is somewhat outdated and is probably no longer that helpful for confronting the kind of nuanced evaluation that is necessary to evaluate many of today’s news sites. However, the pairs of websites they provide for comparison are excellent. You will probably need the key at the bottom of the page.)
I sincerely hope that you are resting and recharging this week and are not spending an undue amount of time thinking about fake news or about your students. But I know you probably can’t help but think about and worry about those kids, despite your best efforts. It’s just who you are.