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January 21, 2021

From: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: Teaching: Tackling Disinformation With Media Literacy

This week:

  • I share one academic’s experience of teaching media literacy.
  • I describe what two librarians are doing to promote information literacy.
  • I point you to other resources on countering disinformation.

Tackling Disinformation in the Classroom

Molly Kerby understands political polarization. She sees it every day on her campus. Western Kentucky University, where she has taught for nearly three decades, draws from the bluer cities of Louisville and Nashville as well as deep red regions of Appalachia. While many of her students are proudly the first in their families to attend college, they also arrive with an inherited mistrust of institutions, from higher education to mainstream news media. Students question professors’ authority. Parents question their textbooks.

“We’re Mitch McConnell people,” she says of the Kentucky Republican who was the U.S. Senate majority leader during the Trump administration.

I interviewed Kerby when reporting my latest story, on teaching in an age of disinformation. Many of the academics I spoke to had spent their professional careers researching and teaching about the rise of propaganda and political polarization. Kerby is on a campus that has seen the effects of those forces play out among its students.

“They’re overwhelmed. They don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “I think this is going to be a really big issue in higher education.”

As an associate professor who has taught a range of topics, including public problem solving and reimagining citizenship, Kerby has battled confusion and skepticism in her classes.

In a 2019 course she taught about fake news and civil discourse, students shared stories about terrorists who had hidden in caravans of immigrants crossing the border with Mexico. “They have these really obscure places where they get their news,” she said. “They come in with these outrageous things that don’t even make sense in my head. What I’m afraid of is, it’s going to keep getting worse.”

Kerby, who has an appointment in the department of criminology and sociology, has found some effective strategies for teaching information literacy to students, including Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, which describes ways to trace information back to its original source. “It works 90 percent of the time,” she said. Still, she admitted she had no idea of such training's long-term impact on students’ mind-sets.

“Being a college professor isn’t like being in construction, where you’re building a house, and in six weeks can drive by and look at it,” she said. “It’s more like 30 years down the road.”

Kerby is also an assistant provost, overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in academic affairs. She spends a lot of time thinking about the importance of turning out graduates who are civic-minded and media literate. Three years ago, she and some colleagues began an experiment to determine the most effective way to teach students those skills. For example, can one class session focused on information literacy make a difference? And what sort of changes occur when students take an entire course on the subject, like the one she taught on fake news?

The researchers are crunching data from the experiment now, she said, and finding, not surprisingly, that the more time spent learning literacy strategies, “the better off you are.” She hopes the researchers can also find that “sweet spot” — perhaps one or two classes — where students could get enough of the skills to help transform them into more discerning consumers of information.

In the meantime, Kerby hopes to write a book on reimagining higher education that would place increased emphasis on civic literacy and working with diverse groups of people.

Need Help Teaching Information Literacy? Ask a Librarian

For my story, I also spoke to Robert Detmering and Amber Willenborg, at the University of Louisville Libraries, who pointed out that librarians are well positioned to support professors who feel ill prepared to navigate these waters.

They worry that too few colleges pay attention to the importance of teaching such skills to all students. “Most institutions are like we are,” said Detmering, “where it’s a piecemeal thing, but it’s not systematic.” Still, he noted, “it’s a lot easier now to talk to faculty about information literacy because disinformation is such a part of the national conversation.”

Detmering and Willenborg put together a series of Citizen Literacy guides that cover a variety of topics, such as how to evaluate expertise, to understand hidden algorithms' influence on what we see online, to think like a fact checker, and to identify deceptive news stories.

Further Resources on Information Literacy

  • A number of professors besides Kerby told me they use Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, a free textbook by Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.
  • Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has done research showing that many of the strategies students are taught to evaluate online sources are outdated. Read Beckie’s informative story from 2019 to find out more about his work and recommendations.
  • Science instructors might want to read about the work of Douglas Duncan, an emeritus faculty member in the department of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Duncan wrote in to say that for the past 20 years he has been teaching a mini-course, “Real vs. Fake. Science vs. Pseudoscience,” which trains students “to tell who is trying to fool them when it comes to climate change, astrology, medicine, etc. We had fun debunking psychics, explaining how astrology works by psychology, and things like that. But since disinformation has gotten more serious, I’ve broadened this into a full freshman seminar.”
  • The Debunking Handbook 2020, written by a group of 22 scholars, summarizes the problem of disinformation and how to counter it. It was recommended by David Dunning, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies misbelief.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth

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Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching. In addition to her reported stories, she helps write the weekly Teaching newsletter about what works in and around the classroom. Email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie.