Shana Ferguson: research stay reflections

1 Apr 2019
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Research stay reflections

by US-UK Fulbright visiting scholar, Shana Ferguson

“Fake news!” a student at Leith Academy shouts as we examine an example of pro-Brexit propaganda in a Digital Literacy class. It would appear that the label “fake news” is as overused in the UK as it is in the US.

As a high school teacher librarian, I have guided students through countless lessons on how to evaluate a website’s credibility. But a few years ago, those lessons no longer applied to how information is viewed and shared on social media platforms. During the 2016 US presidential election, it became apparent that Americans could no longer find middle ground, in part because social media has deepened ideological divides to the point that we can no longer agree on what is fact, what is fiction and what is manipulation.

Having received a grant from the US-UK Fulbright Commission, I worked this winter with the Centre for Research in Digital Education to develop lessons for high school students that would help them navigate their use of social media. In my role, I often observe students skipping class to check their smart phones, playing games and texting under their desks as teachers are lecturing, and watching YouTube while sitting at a school computer to work on an assignment. While I use Twitter as a professional resource and Instagram to post holiday pics for my family, social media is the primary source of information for teenage students. And yet, within my own school, we do not explicitly address social media beyond a lesson on cyberbullying that the kids may have already heard before.

In an age when students have a constant connection to the world through their phones, educators have been given a golden opportunity. How can we help students to become more critical users of the information in their pockets? Over the past three months, I have gathered ideas and examined resources for secondary schools in the US and the UK. I have also drafted lesson ideas to help students grasp the ways in which algorithms, data and media design shape what they see and, by extension, what they know. Whether this was looking at Brexit propaganda with students in one digital literacy class or researching myths about vapes in another, I have started working more deliberately on ways to bring social media into the pedagogical foreground. This project is in its infancy, but I take comfort in knowing that educators around the world are tackling the various types of misinformation and manipulation that spread through social media.

Of course, at its deepest level, this is also a project that probes human psychology. We enjoy being engaged and connected within our own families and digital networks. We post resources to colleagues, share moments with friends, and express our frustrations along with our celebrations. Young children have become increasingly conscious about approving images of themselves before they are posted on their parents’ social networks. Teenagers are savvy media producers, capturing perfect selfies and expressing themselves in 280 characters or less. Social media is both a forum for our shared humanity as well as an addictive platform that can shape our perceptions of the world around us.

At times, it is easy to forget that social media also prods our worst instincts. We spread rumors, post hurtful messages, react in fear and anger, and silence voices who disagree with us. When we analyze news outlets and what we post and repost to other users, we need to be more conscious of what drives our media decisions. As Hans Rosling points out in Factfulness, “The fear instinct...most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and gets presented to us as consumers.” In the US, where news outlets are competing for clicks to generate ad dollars, the more sensational news stories rise to the top while more serious and thoughtful stories disappear.

Often, it is in the public school classroom that we encounter the most diverse range of voices and perspectives, an environment that can help students reflect on the ways in which their online world may be working against our ability to work together at a local, national or global level. While social media means we can witness events as they occur in real time, “Serious reflection on the past is hijacked by the urgency of the current moment; serious planning for the future is derailed by never-ending distraction” (Singer and Brooking). While teachers cannot follow their students into adulthood, they can lay a foundation for the reflection they will need as they sift through the never-ending deluge of information in their feeds.

As my time at the Centre comes to a close, I plan to continue my collaboration with fellow educators to improve the ways our students manage their media rich world. I will be sharing some of my curriculum at the Oregon and Washington Library conference this April, which will help other public and school librarians to serve as resources for digital literacy. I also plan to continue to share ideas with teachers at home and in Scotland as we work together to empower young learners. By making curricular materials freely available to be adapted as needed, my goal is to better integrate critical skills into a variety of subjects and classrooms.

I would agree with Eli Parisier, author of The Filter Bubble, that “Learning is by definition an encounter with what you don’t know, what you haven’t thought of, what you couldn’t conceive, and what you never understood or entertained as possible. It’s an encounter with what’s other….” As we help young learners navigate digital platforms, we should instil within them a desire to explore and examine the vast world that they hold in the palms of their hands.