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Putting a Focus on Media Literacy in the Digital Age

K–12 educators find they must teach students to better evaluate information from the web.

For K–12 students, there has never been a time in their lives when information wasn’t just a Google search away. But does that mean that these digital natives are savvy when it comes to knowing what information to trust?

The answer is overwhelmingly no, reports Stanford’s History Education Group (SHEG) in a 2016 study.

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” reads the study. “But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

In the study, SHEG asked students in middle and high school to determine if the content was unbiased based on its source — a piece of sponsored content for middle schoolers and a National Rifle Association chart on gun laws for high schoolers. It found that the students were overwhelming “unprepared” to make that judgment.

Earlier research revealed similar outcomes. Education Week reported on a 2015 study from University of Connecticut’s New Literacies Research Lab, which found that only 14 percent of the seventh-grade students in the study were able to correctly evaluate the reliability of a piece of online information.

“We teach online reading comprehension to middle school classrooms,” says Ian O’Byrne, who served as a fellow at the lab. “As we were teaching students to evaluate online information, we realized the kids couldn’t do it.”

O’Byrne says most of the time his students would give the first answer they came across, rather than consult multiple sources, to get their work done faster.

To hone a student’s skepticism, O’Byrne suggests schools reach out and teach this kind of critical thinking.

Educating Students to Evaluate Digital Sources

“Teaching media literacy requires teacher guidance and support from administrators that this is important curriculum,” says Kelly Mendoza, a media literacy expert at Common Sense.

Often teachers are so overwhelmed with demands to teach to their standards that they don’t have time to cover digital literacy, she says.

Common Sense is hoping to combat this with the release of new media literacy tool kits designed for educators to teach critical thinking within statewide standards like Common Core.

The tool kits are separated into lesson plans for elementary, middle school and high school students.

SHEG also has a popular curriculum plan called “Reading Like a Historian” that is used in several classrooms.

“Media consumption has become the norm rather than the exception for today’s youth,” reads Common Sense’s media literacy topic backgrounder. “And with the recent unsubstantiated news circulating on social media and other online channels, young people often struggle to decipher credible sources from sponsored ad content.”

Both Mendoza and O’Byrne agree that the basic skill of teaching students to be lateral readers is the first step to improving their media literacy.

“We need students to read across multiple sources and compare, not just find one source and go with it,” says O’Byrne.

UberImages/Thinkstock
Mar 08 2017

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