Fighting misinformation with media literacy
“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 while reporting my last story, about teaching in a time of misinformation. 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 these forces play out among its students.
“They are overwhelmed. They don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “I think this is going to be a very big problem in higher education.”
As an associate professor who has taught a range of topics, including solving public problems and reinventing citizenship, Kerby struggled with confusion and skepticism in her classes.
In a 2019 class she taught on fake news and civil discourse, students shared stories about terrorists who hid in caravans of immigrants crossing the border into Mexico. “They have these really dark places where they get their news,” she said. “They come up with these outrageous things that don’t even make sense in my head. What I fear is that it will continue to get worse.
Kerby, who has a position in the Department of Criminology and Sociology, has found effective strategies for teaching information literacy to students, including Web Knowledge for Student Fact Checkers, which describes ways to trace information back to its original source. “It works 90% of the time,” she said. Still, she admitted she had no idea what long-term impact such training would have on students’ mindsets.
“Being a college professor is not like being in construction, where you build a house, and in six weeks you can drive by and look at it,” she said. “It’s more like 30 years later.”
Kerby also serves as deputy provost, overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in academic affairs. She spends a lot of time thinking about the importance of producing graduates who are civic-minded and media-minded. Three years ago, she and a few colleagues began an experiment to determine the most effective way to teach these skills to students. For example, can a class session focused on information literacy make a difference? And what kind of changes happen when students take a full course on the subject, like the one she taught on fake news?
Researchers are now analyzing the data from the experiment, she said, and are finding, unsurprisingly, that the more time you spend learning literacy strategies, “the better off you are.” She hopes researchers can also find that “sweet spot” — perhaps a class or two — where students could learn enough skills to help them become more discerning consumers of information.
In the meantime, Kerby hopes to write a book about reinventing higher education that places greater 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 of the University of Louisville Libraries, who pointed out that librarians are well placed to support faculty who feel ill-prepared to navigate these waters.
They fear that too few colleges are paying attention to the importance of teaching these skills to all students. “Most institutions are like us,” Detmering said, “where it’s piecemeal, but it’s not systematic.” Yet, he noted, “it’s now much easier to talk to professors about information literacy because misinformation is so much a part of the national conversation.”
Detmering and Willenborg have put together a series of citizen literacy guides that cover a variety of topics, such as how to assess expertise, understand the influence hidden algorithms have on what we see online, think as a fact checker and to identify misleading reporting. .
Other Information Literacy Resources
- A number of teachers besides Kerby have told me that they use Web Knowledge for Student Fact Checkersa free textbook by Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University in Vancouver.
- Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has conducted research showing that many strategies taught to students for evaluating online sources are outdated. Read Beckie’s informative story from 2019 to learn more about her work and her endorsements.
- Science instructors may want to read about the work of Douglas Duncan, faculty member emeritus of the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Duncan wrote to say that for the past 20 years he has taught a mini-course, “Real vs. Fake. Science vs. Pseudoscience,” which trains students “to tell who is trying to deceive them when it comes to change. climate, astrology, medicine, etc. But as the misinformation got more serious, I expanded that to a full freshman seminar.
- The 2020 Debunking Handbook, written by a group of 22 academics, summarizes the problem of misinformation and how to counter it. It was recommended by David Dunning, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who studies disbelief.
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