There has been much hand-wringing recently about the role of the internet in the election of Donald Trump. Facebook has been chided for failing to distinguish fake from genuine news sites in its news feeds, and has moved to address the criticisms. But a more effective solution would be for us as educators to do a better job of teaching people to distinguish reputable sources from garbage.
A colleague of mine told me recently that she had failed a third-year student’s dissertation proposal on early childhood development for citing parenthood websites and the Daily Mail. While I would like to say that this is a situation that occurs rarely, the truth is that it happens all the time.
As a secondary school teacher in the US some years ago, I would use the example of websites about Martin Luther King to teach my students how to recognise reputable sources. At that time, the first website that came up when you googled the civil rights leader’s name was www.martinlutherking.org. While you might expect it to be reputable, it is in fact maintained by a white pride organisation that uses it to defame King.
Even though it seems obvious that you need to look beyond page rank on search engines, many university students who have grown up on the web consider it a place that can be counted on for accurate information. They don’t fully grasp that location services, prior searches and user metadata all help the web to structure what is shown to a particular user. And even if students do, they struggle to see that while these predictive services are useful for some aspects of life, academic filtering needs to happen mentally, rather than through a defined algorithm.
Hence, they stumble into pit after pit of unreliable, unscholarly, downright fake information, and cite it in their assessments. As lecturers, we curse their stupidity and cover their papers in red marks, but do little else. Many academics also insist that university students should come equipped with the ability to recognise accurate information and reputable sources, and that it is not their job to teach these skills.
I disagree. That many students patently do not arrive at (or leave) university with these skills indicates that we need to teach digital citizenship skills through students’ university careers.
But how? Most university libraries are very good at offering services to students and staff on using databases to find and evaluate scholarly materials. But the truth is that doing literature reviews is boring and time-consuming. Systems are rarely easy to navigate and familiarising students with a broad literature base requires them to be genuinely motivated. There is no getting around the fact that being well grounded in a field means spending time reading about it.
In some ways, we as lecturers are getting things right by creating opportunities, albeit sporadically, for our students to work as active digital citizens. This includes research-based and problem-based learning, modules on active citizenship and continuing professional development workshops on digital reputation. But these are not ubiquitous and some universities do a better job than others. Taken in the round, we fail.
As lecturers in everyday situations, the workload involved in ensuring that all students are active digital citizens who understand their responsibilities is simply too much for any one module or course. One solution would be for digital citizenship to be taught in a compulsory new module aimed at every student. But logistically, I don’t see that happening.
I also take the naysayers’ point that some of the responsibility for becoming responsible digital citizens lies with students themselves. Laziness is not an excuse for not doing research correctly, especially when they have been warned against using Google as their main research tool, or relying on the abstracts of academic papers rather than reading the whole paper.
So the solutions are not obvious. But one thing is for sure: unless universities face up to this problem, we will go on turning out digital children whose credulity is ripe for exploitation by mendacious political forces in the post-truth era.