Digital Info Literacy & Online Learning in a Pandemic

“The professor’s role in this new digital learning environment is not to play the role of the master of content; it is to be the master of resourcefulness. In this role, the teacher models how to think in the face of an endless torrent of information.” Richard E. Miller, “On Digital Reading,” Pedagogy, 2016, vol. 16, issue 1, pp. 153-64.

Driving 600+ miles to South Carolina yesterday gave me ample time to reflect on useful, open-access web resources that instructors from a wide variety of disciplines and academic backgrounds can use over the next two weeks however long of remote teaching and general societal uncertainty.

First, a few definitions that may be helpful to keep in mind:

  • digital (information) literacy: “Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.” (Ellen C. Carillo, MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, 2019.)
  • reading laterally (or “lateral reading”): Coined by educators Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, lateral reading describes an approach to reading in which one “leaves a website and opens new tabs along a horizontal axis in order to use the resources of the Internet to learn about a site or its claims” (Wineburg and McGrew, “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,” 2017). Examples include using Wikipedia to investigate a source or performing a reverse Google image search to find the origin of a suspicious-looking pic or meme.
  • problematic information: A catch-all or umbrella term that includes all forms of information considered to be problematic or manipulated in some form or fashion. Examples include misinformation, disinformation, mal-information, propaganda, improperly- or misleadingly-framed news stories, “fake news,” manipulated media or memes, information warfare, spamming, jamming, deepfakes, cheap fakes, and even some forms of advertisement. For a quick glossary of these terms that would be excellent to share with students, check out Caroline Jack’s “Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information.”
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Now for the resources. The list below includes only materials I’ve personally vetted, viewed, and/or used in a classroom context.

Sifting Through the Coronavirus Pandemic  (Washington State University Vancouver)

The resources on this site use the SIFT method of digital fact-checking developed by Mike Caulfield to engage students in parsing out fact, fiction, and farce in the face of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. You can use these resources as a standalone introduction to SIFT or as a supplement to other materials. These are also a great start to examining the epistemological issues related to the pandemic.

“A Handy List of Reputable Coronavirus Information” (Melissa Ryan, Medium.com)

This curated post includes links to sources of reputable information like the CDC and the WHO as well as a smattering of resources for detecting and debunking misinformation online, such as Media Matters, FirstDraft Resources for Reporters, and more.

Mind over Chatter: Skills for Navigating the Post-Truth Era (Indiana University Kokomo)

Mind over Chatter is a series of six interactive, Canvas-based learning modules designed specifically for first-year college students but useful for students at any level. Grounded in cognitive psychology and reflective pedagogy, this digital intervention provides students with a set of digital skills, habits, and a basic working knowledge of how to navigate web and ferret out problematic information in all its subtle and multifarious forms. Imminently practical and self-contained, the six modules that make up MoC may be completed in order or as stand-alone, roughly twenty- to thirty-minute activities.

The six modules in Mind over Chatter include

  1. Initiation into MoC: This module is a general overview of the nature of knowledge, facts, and truth, and how higher education works to help students form an understanding of truth in a world full of complex information and diverse perspectives.
  2. Framing Effects: This module introduces students to the elements of messaging, persuasion, and rhetoric that shape our understandings of the world
  3. Paradox of Authority: This module sets the table for the others in that it explores the relationship between knowledge and trust of authorities and experts, as well as how our shared epistemological reliance on information can both help and hinder our comprehension of reality.
  4. Mere Exposure Effect: This module explores with students a psychological phenomenon that influences what we believe and how committed we become to certain beliefs.
  5. Confirmation Bias: This module engages students in an interactive activity meant to reveal how our brains form rapid understandings of things and then work to preserve those understandings in the face of both confirming and disconfirming evidence.
  6. Mindfulness, Media, and Misinformation: This module helps students understand how mindfulness, reflection, and simple web-based search techniques can help them guard against skewed, incomplete, misleading, improperly framed, or inaccurate beliefs about reality

Check, Please! Starter Course (Michael Caulfield, Washington State University Vancouver)

Check, Please! is a three-hour online module on source and fact-checking that can be dropped into any course or taken as a self-study experience. Designed and developed by Mike Caulfield, the godfather of web literacy and fact-checking as well as author of the open-access textbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, the activities in this set of modules are top-notch and can easily be adapted to virtually any course, any focus, any discipline. Don’t just take my word for it. You can read reviews of Mike’s work on this page at his highly readable and useful blog.

Data & Society is an independent nonprofit research organization that produces original research, reports, and teaching-related documents to support evidence-based public debate about emerging technology. The podcast page is chock full of useful podcasts students can listen to and then engage in debate and discussion via online discussion boards.

Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life (Rand Corporation, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich)

This report from Rand explores the causes and consequences of what the authors term “Truth Decay” and how they are interrelated, and examines past eras of US history to identify evidence of Truth Decay’s four trends and observe similarities with and differences from the current period. It also outlines a research agenda, a strategy for investigating the causes of Truth Decay and determining what can be done to address its causes and consequences.

Truth Decay is defined as a set of four related trends: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

In the context of a public pandemic like the coronavirus, some of these readings may prove useful with students, particularly in terms of giving them a vocabulary with which to analyze and discuss distrust of media in the post-truth era.

Four Moves: Adventures in Fact-Checking for Students (Michael Caulfield, WSU Vancouver)

Sometimes you have great ideas for exercises related to problematic information, but you don’t have time to scour the web for prompts. Luckily, at this blog, that work has been done for you. Introduce students to “the four moves” and/or “SIFT,” then ask students to pick a prompt, analyze it using the moves, and report back on what they find.

At this link you can find four videos from 2018 that introduce students to the four moves and a habit method of fact-checking on the web.

SIFT: Stop, Investigate the Source, Find Better Coverage, Trace Claims to Original Source

Also developed by Mike Caulfield, SIFT replaces the original four moves as a quick and easy-to-internalize heuristic for fact-checking on the web.

The New York Times coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage

So, there are a couple of caveats to the NYTimes‘ free coronavirus coverage (i.e., you have to first set up a free account with NYTimes.com and the articles are limited to those deemed most essential by the editorial board), but it’s still useful in a classroom setting; plus, most universities and colleges, like mine, offer free, full access to NYTimes.com.)

Snopes.com

The granddaddy of urban legend fact-checking sites, Snopes has been ferreting out problematic information on the web since 1994.

PolitiFact.com

Recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, this fact-checking website uses its patented “Truth-o-Meter” to rate the accuracy of statements made by politicians and other public figures as true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, or pants on fire!

FactCheck.org

Published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, this nonpartisan, nonprofit fact-checking website monitors the accuracy of statements made by politicians and others in positions of power.

Media Matters for America 

Launched in 2004, this nonprofit site is openly liberal in its political bias and its commitment to fact-checking “conservative misinformation” (“About”).

News Busters 

This site is a project of the conservative-leaning Media Research Center. Their mission is “to provide immediate exposure of national media bias, unfairness, innaccuracy, and occasional idiocy” (“AboutNewsBusters.org”).

The WayBack Machine

Composed of nearly half a trillion indexed webpages, this site is the archive of the internet. Here you can find screenshots from old and defunct websites going back to the earliest (or corniest) days of the web.

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Last updated at 9:30am EDT, March 26, 2020

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