50 years ago, students could look up information in a textbook and trust it to be true. People still had their own opinions and biases of course, but they couldn’t so easily be published for everyone to see, nor spread so widely.
In the 21st century, anybody can post anything online. So when students have a question, a quick internet search will provide them with millions of different answers. With the progression of social media, information is being produced and spread faster than ever. And, as perfectly exemplified by the Covid-19 "infodemic", much of this information can be misleading, or lacking in truth entirely.
Without guidance for how to spot what’s true and what isn’t, what’s fact and what’s opinion, students are left vulnerable to conspiracy theories, phishing, and worse. A recent report published by the OECD has revealed how important it is that education helps students to develop “digital literacy” skills…
21st Century Readers
The OECD report on 21st Century Readers cites some interesting results from the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reading assessment 2018. For example, across OECD countries, less than half of 15-year-olds were able to distinguish facts from opinions in PISA assessments.
This inability to separate fact from opinion leaves students vulnerable to the masses of fake news and misinformation out there, which is often spread on social media platforms that students are all too familiar with. What’s more, the technology behind social media is designed to push people towards like-minded others and information that backs up their opinions, rather than providing alternative ideas. This fuels confirmation bias, where people seek out and pay more attention to ideas that they’ve previously agreed with. Unfortunately, this urges students into a single-minded way of thinking that could hinder their educational outcomes.
Another concerning finding from the OECD report involved students seeing an email from a well-known mobile operator, which asked them to click a link to fill out their data to win a phone. We’ve all received these phishing emails, and as adults, most of us know to ignore them - but 40% of the students responded that they’d follow the link. This illustrates a concerning amount of trust for the internet from this generation of students.
What can we do?
In light of this, the report promotes the need to equip students with “digital literacy” skills that enable them to navigate the confusing (and potentially dangerous) online world.
Education is the key to this, but currently, only 54% of students in OECD countries report that their school teaches them how to spot whether information is biased. That leaves nearly half of students in these countries who are missing out on this training. While parents can play a role in helping their children to not believe everything they read online, this research suggests that schools have a large responsibility in this matter…
So, how can schools develop their students’ digital literacy skills?
Teach them to spot bias
The OECD report found that in education systems where more students learn in school about how to recognise bias, a higher percentage of students could distinguish facts and opinions in the PISA reading tasks. This kind of training, to spot biased information, check facts before basing opinions on them, and question sources of information, can easily be weaved into tutor times, citizenship/PSHE classes, or even applied within specific subjects. One strategy involves encouraging students to ask critical questions when reading new information from a given source. For example:
- Who has written this?
- What are they not telling me?
- Where did this information come from?
- Why has this been written?
- Why am I seeing this?
- What more would I like to know?
- How do I know this is true?
- How reliable is this?
Expose the problem
Another key way to develop students’ digital literacy skills is to make them aware of the biases and misinformation that are out there. This can really bring the issue to life.
For example, we can expose the way that search engines and social media algorithms work and play into confirmation bias. The Social Dilemma, a documentary on Netflix, provides a fascinating account of this, relating to young people’s perspectives. Showing students this documentary may be a good way to engage them with the issue.
Being familiar with and able to spot biased information has applications not only for navigating the online world but for making informed decisions in general. This skill will be particularly important for students’ success as they progress through their education and enter the world of work.
Invest in reading
Across OECD countries, there was a strong association between student’s overall reading performance and their ability to assess the credibility of information sources.
So, encouraging students to develop their reading skills more generally, for example through reading around school subjects or even reading for pleasure more often, may support their internet “savviness” and their ability to spot biases when navigating the masses of information online.
Education is becoming more and more reliant on the internet, and children are being exposed to the online world at younger ages. At the same time, the amount of untrustworthy information on the internet is dramatically increasing and spreading. So, teaching students digital literacy skills is an issue that’s becoming more and more important. We hope that teachers find these few simple strategies helpful in doing so.