Teaching Digital & Media Literacy Requires Teaching Skepticism
1.25.11 | The newly restarted online Carnival of Journalism asked bloggers to respond to recent recommendations from the Knight Commission to promote journalism education in higher education and to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.” Specifically, discuss: “how do we actually make it happen?”
Craig Silverman, managing editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab, took up the challenge and put his response in colorful terms: “Universities — indeed all educational institutions — should build bullshit detection into the basic curriculums”:
Bullshit, you see, is everywhere. It is being produced, perfected, pontificated and pushed out at astounding rates by all manner of people and organizations. It spreads and multiplies. It morphs and mutates. People spew it, broadcast it, print it, tweet it, like it, blog it.
The bad news is there is too much bullshit. The good news — cue the theme to The Six Million Dollar Man — is we have the technology to defeat it. The strange news is that very same technology is also helping spread bullshit. Let me put it this way:
The Internet is the single greatest disseminator of bullshit ever created.
The Internet is also the single greatest destroyer of bullshit.
In between is a confusing world—a world that, as one student described it to Silverman, seems to offer “too much.”
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, the core of your message should be to remember that a search is only as good as the search strategy.
– Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s–Belfield School
In addition to quoting Ernest Hemingway on what we need to develop to separate fact from fiction, Silverman also references a more contemporary idea from Clay Shirky (which also happens to be the title of one of his talks): “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.”
One of the ways to turn filter failure into filter function is to emphasize digital literacy—which involves knowing all the subtle ways information may be skewed.
One of the best filter educators is Howard Rheingold, who teaches the more politely termed “crap detection” as part of his journalism curriculum at Stanford University. Silverman also points to an earlier post about Dean Miller’s work at the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Miller teaches what he calls the “APCs” to evaluating online news: Authority, Point of View and Currency (how recent and updated is the information).
A great case study of the need that Silverman identifies appears in a New York Times online commentary by Kevin M. Levin: “Teaching Civil War History 2.0.”
As we enter the Civil War Sesquicentennial and we’re inundated with new online representations of the conflict that shaped so much of American history, Levin, chair of the history department at St. Anne’s–Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., and author of the blog Civil War Memory, believes it’s the perfect opportunity to teach digital literacy—specifically smart research strategies for the digital age:
Over the past few years I have worked hard to integrate online databases and social media into my classroom, both of which have forced me to rethink what it means to teach history as well as what it means for my students to do history. The creative possibilities are endless, but our work is of little value if we fail to teach our students how to search for reliable content and assess the information they find.
Levin cites a recent controversy in Virginia over the content of a 4th-grade history textbook that claims that “thousands of Southerner blacks fought in the Confederate ranks” during the Civil War. The author of the textbook, Joy Masoff, is a not a professional historian and says she gathered her information through online sources. The problem is, while many websites promote the idea of a legion of “black confederates,” no evidence exists for the claim—and no academic historian believes it to be true (though evidence does exist of isolated cases). The claim, though, reinforces the racist stereotype of faithful slaves who were supposedly content in slavery.
Levin believes this episode should motivate a new approach to research: “Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, the core of your message should be to remember that a search is only as good as the search strategy.”
“The ease with which we can access and contribute to the Web,” he later adds, “makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse.”
The brave new digital world, for both Silverman and Levin, is only as good as our ability to navigate it.
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