How teachers can help young people evaluate online content in a post-truth world

How teachers can help young people evaluate online content in a post-truth world

Half of Year 8 students trust adults more than the internet for information, while about a third would accept content as true if it was repeated by multiple online sources, new research shows.

The study by the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, also found just 15% of students have appropriate strategies and criteria to help them evaluate credible sources of digital information.

The findings of the research show teachers needed urgent professional development to help students critically evaluate online content as learners in the digital age, and counter mistrust and misconceptions.

Navigating a post-truth world

Associate Professor Laura Scholes, of the ACU’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, said “the idea of universal truths has been replaced with many truths, knowledges, and forms of reason”.

“In the rapidly changing digital world, the internet is host to almost endless amounts of controversial information that young people can access at school and in their leisure time,” Associate Professor Scholes told The Educator.

“This wealth of diverse and accessible information offers exciting opportunities to be immersed in information from around the globe with multiple perspectives and viewpoints on a range of socially relevant economic and scientific concerns, such as climate change, global health pandemics, and terrorism.”

However, in the context of issues such as health contradictory information, misinformation (false), disinformation (misunderstood), and advocacy for competing theories abound, Associate Professor Scholes noted.

“Much of this ‘information’ is translated on the internet through international and government agencies, activist organisations, and blogs, but is particularly rampant via social media,” she said.

“As information is not knowledge, students often have limited literacy skills to make the evidence-based judgements needed to engage as informed and active citizens in such contexts.”

How teachers can help

Associate Professor Scholes said professional development for educators should include skills and resources to teach dialogic pedagogies in the classroom.

“These professional learnings would bring into the spotlight the role of thinking processes, understanding the fundamental nature of knowledge and how we justify the truth. Dialogic pedagogies are particularly important to advance such evaluative thinking across the curriculum,” she said.

“Pedagogies include engaging students in informed dialogic argumentation about alternative perspectives and scaffolding them to justify their claims – leading to a better grasp of how competing claims can be evaluated and what kinds of arguments are relevant to evaluating them.”

Associate Professor Scholes said dialogic argumentation is an avenue for developing competencies in identifying and weighing positive and negative attributes of conflicting perspectives on a particular issue, judging reasons and evidence from different perspectives.

“This is an essential feature of reasoning – the ability to construct arguments that relate claims to evidence is also important where students need to make rational judgements about controversial issues,” she said.

“So, teacher professional development would include learning the skills to engage students in controversy using strategic pedagogies, to specifically teach disagreement as a genuine, unresolved controversial issue on which even expert views diverge that can be applied to literacy practices.”

Associate Professor Scholes said this approach is particularly important for developing a dialogic reading stance which can be fostered as students and teacher co-construct meanings, generate multiple interpretations of texts and engage in fruitful critique.

“Such teaching can be challenging and requires positioning texts as contestable as critical reading evokes readers to probe the text’s argument and assumptions.”

Silver linings

A separate study from the University of Wollongong has found that young people in Australia are becoming increasingly more curious, critical and ambitious to detect fake news and media sensationalism.

Associate Professor Scholes said findings such as these represent a kind of silver lining, as being cautious of misinformation and disinformation “is the first step in developing student critical perspectives related to competing information”.

The second, and most crucial step, she adds, is teaching critical thinking strategies to evaluate competing information on the internet.

“While the study noted above is promising in terms of developing students’ historical consciousness, the study considered the pedagogic choices of teachers and the inclusion of multiple sources that included photographs and stories along with the use of hands on activities and open-ended project work,” she said.

“When students engage on the internet to evaluate competing information related to issues such as health, climate change and so on they need a specific set of tools.”

‘Students need a specific set of critical thinking tools’

Associate Professor Scholes said pointed out that as a student approaches the task by googling mobile phone health risks on the internet, for instance, they need sophisticated understanding of how to read, decode texts, navigate hyperlinks, and construct personal reading paths to then access, synthesise, and evaluate findings in a multimodal digital space.

“There are many demands, as such a task in a hyperlinked space requires complex skills and navigation,” she said.

“As students engage in the task, they will need to draw on print-based skills such as previewing the linear text, making predictions while reading, interpreting the meaning, making connections within and between texts and integrating textual clues with background knowledge.”

At the same time, says Associate Professor Scholes said, students will also need to self-regulate their personal reading pathways amidst endless amounts of information available on the web, avoid distractions by hyperlinks, videos, pop up advertisements and the tendency to skim and scroll through texts, and evaluate the sources. 

“There is much to coordinate and navigate online, particularly as companies spend billions to bring users biased information and interfere with the results which appear on search platforms such as Google,” she said.

“Algorithms may change results based on artificial intelligence promoting sites, and results adapt according to personal, political, and information biases.”

Associate Professor Scholes said as students select their first web page, the journey involves making decisions about which hyperlinks to navigate, and in which order, with efficient navigation influenced by sequencing pages that are relevant to the reading goal to maintain logical coherence between the current and the linked page and avoiding big ‘semantic jumps’.

However, students may also decide to just follow interests or scan aimlessly, she notes.

“Once they are confronted by several mixed modality sources representing different perspectives, or contradicting information about mobile phone health risks, they will then need to evaluate and integrate the information across multiple sources,” she said.

“This requires a specific set of critical thinking tools.”