ON MEDIA LITERACY

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM FAKE NEWS?

Intelligence agencies, politicians and businesses are using psychological profiling to publish highly targeted messages on social media with the aim of swaying public opinion and persuading people to adopt their views. Often, these messages are not based in fact but designed to provoke emotional responses that serve the agenda of the poster.

The fact that people are susceptible to these kinds of messages shows how easily we can be persuaded of half truths and falsehoods. This has been successfully exploited by the advertising industry for many years but never to such dramatic effect as we have seen over the last two years.

Photos and videos are often used to assert validity but widespread access to image editing technology means that it will become increasingly harder to tell whether they have been altered. We live in a world with abundant opinions and information but limited means of judging their quality.

A recent study on information literacy revealed that the majority of school children cannot tell the difference between a news item and an advertisement. Another asserts that false messages are more likely to be believed than true ones.

But how can we maintain democratic principles if we are unable to make informed decisions? One way to address the problem is by teaching media literacy in schools. Three years ago, I was interviewed on that topic. I am reposting an abridged English translation below. The original German text can be found here.

Why should we still be learning when there is the internet?

The Internet offers knowledge for everyone. A massive library of content with isles and isles of shelves that multiply every second. The problem is no longer availability, but the sheer abundance of information. It is therefore less about finding it but more about learning to evaluate the quality of what there is. Therein lie both possibilities and problems and media literacy should be considered in this context. However, I would like to concretise this term, because studies such as ICILS 2013 [International Computer and Information Literacy Study, editor’s note] show that students must, above all, gain information literacy, which requires like many areas of life reflecting on the own real and digital environment.

So, should we remove textbooks from the classrooms?

One thing is certain: Despite this development, the textbook is still in the classroom is still the undisputed number one source of information. Textbooks are products of professional editorial work and the tasks are adapted to these materials. Once printed however, they can no longer be extended or updated and because the world continues to move, students often feel disconnected from the content.

This often causes young people to feel misunderstood not taken seriously by educational institutions. “What do I have to learn that for,” they often ask. This does not mean that textbooks are obsolete – on the contrary. There is much to be said for the haptic experience of the book. The printed word is not only a valuable cultural asset but they are also reliable. They still work, if the power fails or the computer doesn’t cooperate. I see digital content as a supplement not a substitute to analogue content.

From your point of view, what does this mean for teaching?

There is often a gap between school and the reality of life. The more technology permeates society, the greater this gap becomes. Our task is to continuously assess the objects and methods of learning; to test and compare them with the reality our children are exposed to. The extensive factual knowledge that pupils commit to short-term memory year after year like sizes, names, dates for example can be recalled in seconds, and often more reliably with the use of technology. But the subject of learning should not be limited to the use of computers, but must include the connection between the individual pieces of information. The context is key to understanding the meaning and evaluating the quality of information.

Learning with media and in context – how does it work?

I believe that children – and incidentally also adults – learn best when learning is embedded in an exciting context. In other words, we learn best when we are interested. An original story is a highly motivating context. People love good stories. Why should we not use this passion that is deeply rooted in us? There are many digital offerings that teach children how to handle media correctly; many of which are also fun to use but probably because work at the computer is still considered an exception and therefore partly is not perceived as ‘real’ teaching. Offers that use media in a considered and targeted way are still few and far in between. If children have spend an entire lesson watching a film or using software and at the end can’t tell what it was all about, then what was the purpose of the exercise? There is a lack of products that take content seriously: this is the starting point for the idea of the real world game and its first incarnation “Professor S.”.

I believe that story telling can be a powerful driver of our intellectual development because by creating stories we not only learn to recognise a good yarn but the research that goes into spinning our own helps us to develop critical thinking. One of the most useful skills I learned during my education is the ability to judge the quality of information. Like all things worth having, it doesn’t come over night and requires exercise which is why the sooner we start to teach these skills the better our world will be for all of us.