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Free curriculum helping students evaluate online sources, spot misinformation

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Posted at 3:15 PM, Jan 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-25 15:15:23-05

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — History, science, and English are subjects students are expected to learn. But some educators feel there’s another skill kids need now more than ever: digital literacy.

While young people are digital natives, research from the Stanford History Education Group shows they don't evaluate online sources with the same fluency as they operate devices.

“The one word we used to summarize it was bleak," said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and History at Stanford.

His team created an instrument to measure digital literacy in 2015, testing thousands of students from middle school to college. At the time, Wineburg says there was little hard data on the issue.

“What our studied showed was a seemingly bottomless ability of young people to believe what their eyes see on the screen," said Wineburg.

Among their findings:

  • 82 percent of middle school students couldn't tell the difference between an ad and a news story
  • High school students accepted posts on social media at face value
  • College students fell flat trying to identify the organization behind a website

Deploying strategies used by fact-checkers at the nation's leading news outlets, they developed the Civic Online Reasoning (COR) curriculum.

When evaluating a digital source, students are taught to ask these three questions:

  • Who’s behind it?
  • What’s the evidence for its claim?
  • What do other sources say?

“After only six one-hour lessons, students significantly improved in their ability to make thoughtful judgments about the kind of material that they see every day,” said Wineburg.

Available for free online, teachers can download COR curriculum lessons and integrate them into classes like history and biology.

“I said, 'We need this in nutrition!' There’s so much disinformation in nutrition, and it is so attractive," said Priscilla Connors, an Associate Professor at the University of North Texas and a registered dietician and nutritionist.

Connors wanted to embed the program into her introductory nutrition course, made up of students with varying majors.

“How do I address the fact that they’re defaulting to influencers, they’re defaulting to social media sites? And actually teach students how to be more critical in their analysis of it," said Connors.

Wineburg's team created a series of modules tailored for nutrition. In addition to a crash course on digital literacy, the curriculum focused on the lateral reading strategy: leaving an unfamiliar website, opening new tabs in a browser, and searching for information about the original site from other sources.

Through one-hour lessons each week, Connors says her students began to think more critically.

"I can teach them the facts about what is a carbohydrate, how does it function in the body, where is it in the food supply," said Connors. "But the skill they needed was how to interpret information that they got online relative to their understanding of the nutrients and where to go to get the best information and how to judge information.”

At the beginning of the course, only three out of 87 students engaged in lateral reading; on the post-test, 67 students did.

“I think it fits right in there with everybody should learn how to drive a car before they get their driver's license. And where do we do most of our traveling right now? Online!” said Connors.

She says students found the course especially valuable during the pandemic, as misinformation and disinformation spread online about ways to prevent or cure COVID-19 with nutrients and supplements.

“I got a sense that my students were developing skills they would not have had if this module wasn’t there," said Connors.

Wineburg says technology has outpaced our ability to keep up with it, and these digital literacy skills are critical for both kids and adults.

“This is not something that we can put off to the side and wait until tomorrow for. This is something that we need to address. Because right along with the pandemic, we are deeply engaged in fighting an info-demic.”