Can a New Approach to Information Literacy Reduce Digital Polarization?


The internet doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but it should – to give users the skills to separate truth from lies so that they can distinguish between propaganda and the indisputable and confirmable. And colleges should be the place that guides students through this reference book.

That’s the point of Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networking learning at Washington State University in Vancouver, and it’s not just a ‘shot’ designed to be provocative. He actually wrote the manual. And it has already convinced more than a dozen colleges to adopt it (and more than 100 university libraries to visibly associate with it). Recently, he started research with the aim of proving that it works (and can help preserve American democracy).

Many people talk about the importance of information literacy these days, and many educational institutions see it as part of their mission. And yet, it’s more complicated than it looks. Earlier this month, researcher Danah Boyd gave a provocative keynote address at SXSW EDU, claiming that media literacy efforts at colleges “backfire”, producing talented graduates to question everything and selectively believing what their gut tells them to be true.

In fact, Boyd worries that this feeling of not knowing what to believe may lure students to extremist websites, which promise clear answers.

Caulfield noticed some of the same issues in the students he worked with. “A lot of people worry that students are just these gullible rubies who believe everything,” he said, but that’s not what he usually sees. In a recent blog post, he described a student who rejected the right-wing Breitbart News because it is funded by the Mercers in hopes of using it to influence political debate, and also rejected the Washington Post because it belongs to Jeff Bezos, who gave the Democrats money. These situations are hardly equivalent, he says, but can allow consumers of information to simply raise their hands.

“Without feeling empowered to sort through fiction on the web, a lot of students are just cynical and think they can’t trust anything,” Caulfield said in an interview with EdSurge. “Our hope is to give students the tools to quickly assess this stuff that we will eliminate some of the cynicism. “

“You can focus so much on the agenda and the supposed agenda of people telling you things,” he adds, “that you lose a lot of gradations of right and wrong.” This is where the Caulfield Handbook comes in. Its goal is to instill in students “the habit of checking facts and getting people to build more complex models of the world than they currently have.” He emphasizes that the goal is not only to establish that some experts are always right and others wrong, but to give students the tools to judge information on a case-by-case basis.

Infotrap coming soon

It’s easier than ever for a deceptive lie to spread online. This happened to me just a few weeks ago. It was there in my social media feed, a Sports Illustrated article saying the Washington football team decided to ditch their polarizing mascot of the Redskins to become the Redhawks. It was huge. I lived in Washington for 20 years and was involved in this file. I emailed my wife with the link.

Of course, that link didn’t really come from Sports Illustrated. It was from a web address of the same name,, which redirected to an article on a parody website. I had fallen through an information trap, and many others did too. It happens to all of us, if we’re honest.

Caulfield’s instruction manual, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, explains how to avoid getting caught up in these info traps. He describes what he calls four moves and a habit to rate any article online going back upstream to track complaints or citations to their original sources. The current Washington football team site had no mention of this monumental mascot change, so I could have refuted the article in seconds.

Lee Skallerup Bassette, an instructional technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington, taught with Caulfield’s guide for his Introductory Digital Studies course, which typically has around 25 students. Her favorite part is having students do exercises, such as the one where students learn to do a reverse Google image search to determine the origin of an image. “I didn’t know about reverse Google search, and I teach that stuff,” she adds.

Things have changed so quickly that “we were all caught off guard and somewhat caught off guard,” she says. “I think this is the most important time to be a university professor,” she adds. “There is a lot of misinformation on both sides. “

Amy Collier, associate vice-president of digital learning at Middlebury College, has also taught with the book.

“You have to put your trust somewhere,” says Collier. “The ultimate goal is less to teach children this or that, but to help people develop trust frameworks and where to place your trust, how to build your trust and how to recognize when that trust is being manipulated.”

Caulfield’s textbook is a key part of his digital polarization initiative, managed by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project. He started the effort when Donald Trump was elected president, but he insists his guide is trying to avoid partisan traps. The premise is that there are things that are right and wrong, and people need quick and easy ways to verify, so that they can make their own political judgments.

“People aren’t really a Democrat or a Republican or even an authoritarian or an anarchist,” he says. “People are a lot of different things. And there is a part of almost everyone who likes to know the truth about the matter.

Caulfield is now working with top leaders from 11 colleges and universities to test its teaching approach. The plan is to use a measure of “online civic reasoning” developed by the Stanford History Education Group, a research team that made international headlines late last year when it discovered that students get bad marks for judging the credibility of the information circulating in their social network. feeds itself.

The professor hopes that students exposed to his fact-checking approach will improve their civic reasoning and that “rigorous assessment” will lead more colleges to adopt his textbook.

And then maybe these students will come out and politely correct, say, the misinformed message sent by a parent or uncle who clicks quickly – or at least think twice before sharing. “It can help stop the virality that occurs in the cycle of outrage,” says Bassette of the University of Mary Washington. “It will take time, it will not be canceled immediately. “


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