Why digital literacies are an important part of every class

by | Jan 2, 2020 | Blog

Digital literacies, including media literacy, are essential skills across all disciplines in the 21st century. The News Co/Lab believes digital literacies should be reinforced across all content areas. With support from the Rita Allen Foundation, we developed a series of lessons for use in college and university science classes. We’ve been piloting them with instructors and in classes at ASU’s School of Life Sciences, and they invited me to write this post for their TeachTech Lab blog. I’m encouraged by how enthusiastic the school’s curriculum and instructional designers and faculty I’ve met are about incorporating digital literacies into their programs. It’s been a pleasure working with them thus far, and the News Co/Lab is looking forward to a continued collaboration.


The path to quality information is not straight

A recent survey from Project Information Literacy explored how college students engage with news. Most survey respondents encounter some news every day, but more found out about news and current events through conversations with peers, family and instructors than from professional news sources. Researchers found class conversation about world events can provide important context and practice for engaging with credible information sources. Further, students who discussed news and public issues in the classroom were more inclined to investigate the topics on their own.

Research and exploration are important components for any learning endeavor. Students dive deeper into a subject area to gain new knowledge, and instructors often help guide them toward credible, authoritative sources in their subject area. But what is often overlooked in most classrooms is the experience and habits students bring to the table for finding and evaluating information. I regularly hear instructors grumble about how their students first turn to Google or Wikipedia to find information for a class assignment — even when, chances are, the instructors have the same habits for accessing quick information on a subject. Certain habits are already so ingrained in our personal media use that it’s time we accept and expect (and maybe even encourage) them as foundational to information-seeking.


Here’s how you can help in the classroom

I’m not suggesting students should conduct research only from sources they find through a basic Google search. However, it is important to realize that students will utilize search and, likely, Wikipedia to supplement what they are learning in class. They are also likely to find information — both accurate and inaccurate — from these sources and on social media, through friends and family, etc., that may influence their opinions about topics discussed in class. Ignoring this and assuming that what they learn in class will automatically carry more weight can lead to misunderstanding and frustration.

One of the most useful approaches I’ve encountered to help students manage the influx of information and misinformation comes from Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. It’s a simple four-step process incorporating routine search techniques to assess credibility. He calls it SIFT:

  • Stop
  • Investigate the source
  • Find different coverage
  • Trace claims, quotes and media back to the original context

Source: Facebook/Like Donald Trump

Caulfield’s technique gets students reading laterally — that is, reading across a variety of sources of information as opposed to digging too deep into one story or source to determine its credibility. It’s a technique used by fact-checkers, a group that researchers at the Stanford History Education Group found to be the best at evaluating information online.

The basic premise for SIFT is that when you come across a claim you want to verify, the first step is to search Google (or Bing or your search engine of choice) to learn more about the source. If it’s a news item in question, a quick Google News search can tell you right away if other reputable news sources are covering the story.

Techniques like reverse image search can also help students trace images and memes back to their original context, like this crowd scene once purported to be a Trump rally but really was a crowd gathered to celebrate the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the 2016 NBA championship.

Caulfield’s book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers and his blog offer more information and examples for incorporating SIFT into any classroom.


Why digital literacies matter in every classroom

The ways in which students engage with news and information, and the aptitude they have for doing it well, is known by several related names: media literacy, information literacy, web literacy. The names have origins in different disciplines, including library science, journalism and literacy studies, and each has traditionally had its own approach. At the News Co/Lab at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, our focus is on using and creating media in a digital environment, and we teach these literacies as a collection under an umbrella of digital media literacy.

Digital literacy skills are fundamental to 21st-century learning, but because they are not the domain of one subject area, they are not consistently taught at any grade level. Young people have picked up many of the techniques through personal media use, but this does not necessarily make them discerning media users. Digital literacies can be reinforced across all subject areas in simple and quick ways that boost skills and enhance classroom conversation.

I see two key reasons for faculty to practice digital literacies by bringing popular media resources into the classroom.

1. For faculty, conducting scholarly research is a regular and social practice. Increasingly, students come to college with little experience in this arena; however, they have spent their lives accessing information via online search (and now voice assistants, smart speakers, etc.). We can help students become better academic researchers by directly connecting these information-seeking behaviors. Instead of decrying students’ use of Google to find scholarly research, why not help them develop a path that begins with the general and ends with appropriate peer-reviewed research (or whatever fits the criteria for the assignment)?

2. I know from experience that scientists often view science journalism with skepticism, and I can understand why. Negative encounters with reporters or an article that misrepresents a study may contribute to this view, which may also translate into classroom discussions about media. There’s an opportunity here to discuss how and why information takes the shape it does in popular media. Doing so helps students — and faculty — better understand the news production process, reinforces important communication skills and may contribute to better interactions between scientists and journalists in the future.