Tag Team Tech: Wrestling with Teens and Technology December 2014
Teach Students to Evaluate Information
This year, I began teaching a section of my school’s Sophomore Seminar, a quarterly class that all sophomores are required to take. My section, simply called Research Seminar, aims to instruct students on the fundamentals of research, including searching for information, organizing your findings, brainstorming, asking good questions, analyzing sources, etc. So far, some of the most interesting work I’ve seen my students do centers around mapping their interests, identifying research questions, forming hypotheses, and narrowing down their topics. Because this class exists “outside of the curriculum,” students can identify any topic they like and use it as the foundation of their research. As a result, their topics vary from pop stars to race in fashion to Ebola.
At the beginning of the course, I asked students to both assess their own research skills and to set individual skill-based goals for themselves. Many of them claim to struggle with finding reliable, accurate sources of information (specifically websites) and set that as one of their goals. I knew I had to spend significant class time on it. The first part of this unit centered around the CRAAP test. Students break into groups and work together to evaluate different information sources on the same topic (thanks to Buffy Hamilton for inspiring this activity and making her terrific course materials available to use as a jumping-off point).
I thought that this was also a chance for me to talk to students about the information they come across every day, too–not in terms of academic research, but in terms of personal learning. With that in mind, we again formed groups, and this time each group explored one of the following information sources:
The students who explored Snopes initially thought it was “weird,” but after spending a full class period exploring the site, began to understand the significance of the content posted there. While some rumors are too crazy to be true (warning: gross), others, like this one, were more nuanced. Some of the rumors on Snopes were ones that my students had heard. When I do this activity again, I will ask the students to find content on Facebook or Twitter that they could search for on Snopes.
After reading this contentious interview on BuzzFeed with the creator of Uber Facts, and another about debunking science “facts” on Twitter, I got interested in how some of these Twitter accounts generate content . . . and don’t cite their sources. Students in this group each selected a fact and then researched it on their own. All of them found information to back up the facts, though some of them, like this one, deserve further analysis:
Though this was tweeted on September 15, 2014, the tweet links to an article on the the UberFacts website published on February 7, 2013. The article’s source is this 2008 article on BBC News, and the study itself was published in 2005. In other words, while the study does exist, the information tweeted in September was nearly a decade old.
To expand the lesson, students could spend days exploring the Uber Facts Twitter stream, prefaced by reading the interview linked to above, and do an in-depth analysis of the information presented there.
This article, published in the New York Times Magazine, is a fascinating glimpse at how consumer health information changes over the years. Students in this group each selected a topic with conflicting studies and dug for the source material. They then shared their findings with the class, which led to a great discussion of health literacy. Since many teens pay attention to health, diet, and fitness trends, this was a great opportunity to discuss not taking health information at face value.
Finally, I asked the entire class to read the above article, which discusses extremely popular Twitter parody accounts. In brief, the author explains how Tweet Like a Girl, an account with 1.22 million followers, is authored by a twenty-one-year-old male college student. Gender aside, the students also learned that many of the parody accounts have an agreement with each other to retweet each other’s work, increasing the amount of exposure a tweet can get. This heightened exposure can lead to the account owners being paid for individual tweets promoting products. What the article doesn’t touch on, but my students called attention to, is that many of these parody accounts also get much of their content from Tumblr. We didn’t have time to prove this point, but it would be great to spend the time doing so.
“I thought that this article was very shocking,” wrote one of my students. “I had always sort of thought that these famous Twitter accounts were run by teenage girls, because they are very relatable. I think it’s kind of creepy that these older men are running accounts that are targeted at teenage girls. The other thing that I found to be shocking was that these people are making so much money off of Twitter.”
Taking the time to explore these resources connected the concepts of information literacy to the students’ lives in a more authentic way. They were able to explore content presented via platforms that are a part of their daily lives–content that they often (like all of us) accept for what it is, without thinking critically about what they’re reading. I don’t mean to imply that teens are any worse at evaluated information than anyone else . . . just take a look at my Facebook feed to see otherwise. However, when we teach our students about information literacy, we have an opportunity to include the information they’re consuming on a daily basis.
Sarah Ludwig is the dean of Digital & Library Services at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT. She comes to this position having managed two independent school libraries (Wilbraham & Monson and Hamden Hall Country Day), as well as multiple departments at the award-winning Darien Library. ABC-CLIO published Sarah’s book, Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program, in June 2011. In 2010, Ludwig was selected as an American Library Association Emerging Leader. She is an instructor for Simmons College’s continuing education program and speaks locally and nationally on topics such as promoting reading, digital and information literacy, and integrating library skills into the curriculum.