Information literacy has been a hot topic of recent conversation.
Many folks believe that websites that traffic in false information and ”fake news” may have influenced the last United States presidential election. Traffic on the Snopes website, which debunks false rumors, has never been greater. Ideological separation also is being driven by the ways that we sort ourselves in our schools, neighborhoods, friendship groups, political affiliations, and faith institutions. Already often isolated from the dissimilar-minded, we then also self-select into individualized news media and online channels that can result in walled-garden echo chambers, or “filter bubbles.”
To combat our growing concerns about fake news and filter bubbles, we’re going to have to take the task of information literacy more seriously. That means rethinking some organizational and technological practices.
Our information landscape is changing both rapidly and drastically. Today we have a digital, online, hyper-connected, interactive, global information landscape that often is free or low cost, fosters decentralized creation and sharing, is frequently real time, and has exponential reach. This landscape stands in sharp contrast to our older, analog landscape that relied on ink on paper rather than bits in the ether. It was expensive, and thus primarily oriented around experts, fostered consumption and scarcity, and was fairly static and slow to change.
As learning institutions bestowed with the societal charge of preparing informed citizens and knowledge workers, schools must help their students and graduates master the dominant information landscape of today and tomorrow, not just yesterday. And right now, most schools are struggling.
Information Literacy is Everyone’s Job
School leaders can do several things to foster information literacy, combat fake news, and increase students’ information and technology fluency. One critical leadership behavior is helping educators understand that information literacy is everyone’s job, not just that of the librarian or media specialist. Being an informed citizen, being a critical thinker, being able to deeply and thoughtfully analyze complex texts—these have all been traditional student roles in schools but they are taking new forms in our emerging information spaces.
Given the complexity of our new information landscape, we no longer can trot students down to the media center a few times a year to learn from the librarian about trusted voices, credible sources, and appropriate citation. All educators now must integrate information literacy in authentic and meaningful ways into ongoing digital and online work with students. Using our disciplinary expertise and experience, we thus can appropriately contextualize critical discernment.
In other words, we must help our students dissect and understand subject-specific media such as false videos about the environment or websites dedicated to political untruths while they have us available as content-area experts to help guide them.
School leaders also must recognize that in order for students to be actively engaged in—and critical consumers of—digital and online information channels, they must have access to technologies and online environments that often are heavily filtered or completely blocked. We can’t help our graduates be citizens and critical thinkers within spaces to which they don’t have access. This is particularly true if we want students to be actively involved within political, scientific, and other digital spaces rather than passive recipients. For instance, teaching online information literacy by pre-selecting a small handful of resources for students to analyze is vastly different from teaching students to navigate and make sense of our vast, complex online information commons.
Encourage Meaningful Exploration
School leaders also must create safe spaces for teaching and learning about controversial topics. Imagine, for instance, a high school government teacher who asked her students to follow the social media channels of the two primary political parties here in the United States. On the Republican side, students could follow GOP websites, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos and subscribe to conservative blogs such as RedState, HotAir, Instapundit, and Michelle Malkin. On the Democratic side, students also could follow relevant websites, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels, along with liberal blogs such as Daily Kos, HuffPost, Democratic Underground, and ThinkProgress. Sprinkle in a few other sites such as The Hill, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, Fox News, and CNN and we can see how real-time social media could be an incredibly powerful lens through which to view, discuss, and understand government in action, not just as abstract concepts from a dry textbook.
I’m not sure how many teachers would be willing to try this, however, given schools’ traditional aversion to anything broaching controversy. I believe principals and school systems must be willing to buffer a few anxieties in order to enable these kinds of meaningful learning experiences.
Expelling the Assumptions of Digital Natives
Schools also have to stop treating students as digital natives who already are knowledgeable about and proficient with technology. Youth fluency with social and gaming technologies may imply certain levels of technology comfort but does not mean that students have the ability to use digital tools in academic- and work-productive ways. Not only is the digital natives concept disproven by research, it also seems to grant us permission as educators to avoid the difficult challenge of fostering technology- and information-fluent students because we supposedly have little to teach them. Schools’ reluctance to own this challenge—perhaps because of our educators’ own lack of technology fluency—results in findings like the recent study from Stanford University that showed that students’ current information literacy skills are abysmal.
Finally, school leaders should recognize that those teachers who enable youth to actively interact and create online also are creating opportunities for students to learn essential lessons about responsible participation, sharing, contribution, etiquette, and digital citizenship as natural extensions of their classwork. This approach is far more meaningful and impactful than a few isolated media literacy sessions or digital citizenship lectures. We say that we want engaged citizens and critical thinkers. So let’s do a better job of preparing our students to be thoughtful consumers and active contributors within our new technology-suffused information spaces.
Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver and is the Founding Director of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). He can be reached at Dangerously Irrelevant or at @mcleod.