Schools Key to Solving Fake News Problem, Says UConn Expert

'If I were going to invest in one thing, that’s where I would invest – giving teachers the instructional tools they can use to teach kids to think critically about online information.'

School children using computers. (Tetra Images – Erik Isakson/Getty Images)

UConn researchers will lead a national effort to improve multiple aspects of how gifted children are identified and educated. (Tetra Images – Erik Isakson/Getty Images)

Fake news and questions about its role in the outcome of the 2016 election have thrust concerns about internet literacy to the forefront. It’s an issue Neag School of Education professor Donald Leu has been studying  for years; and the findings of a 10-year-old study he led demonstrating the inadequacies of classroom instruction in “new literacies” has been getting renewed attention.

The 2006 study, conducted by Leu and a team of researchers at Neag’s New Literacies Research Lab, asked 25 seventh-graders attending middle schools across Connecticut to review a website devoted to a fictitious endangered species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. The results were troubling.

  •  All 25 students fell for the internet hoax;
  • All but one of the 25 rated the site “very credible;”
  • Most struggled when asked to produce proof – or even clues – that the website was false;
  • Some students vehemently insisted the tree octopus really exists.

 More recent research by the lab shows that little has changed in the ensuing decade, and the rise of fake news and online misinformation has given new urgency to confronting the problem. To head it off, schools must move quickly to make internet literacy a priority if they are to provide students with skills needed to evaluate online information critically, Leu says. In a recent interview with UConn Today, Leu shared his thoughts on the fake news phenomenon and some steps schools can take. Here are a few highlights.

Q. Why is internet literacy so important?

A. The internet is the most powerful tool we’ve ever had available to us in our lives. It will enable us to do great things, but it also leads us to catastrophes if we’re not careful. So we have to get on top of it in our schools to figure out appropriate policy and instruction. This business of fake news, that’s the catastrophe we’re headed for  if we’re not already there. Facts matter, yet it’s very easy for anyone to publish anything and they do. If we are going to take advantage of this incredible information source, we can go down one path or we can go down the other path. It’s incumbent on all of us to support changes in schools that enable us to prepare a generation of students who can take full advantage of the information and not be swayed by falsehoods.

Q. How does your Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus study inform what’s going on now?

A. It was over 10 years ago, and it was an attempt to try and highlight the nature of the problem. It’s not the only study – there have been others, too – so we have wasted 10 years.

I don’t necessarily like to use this term in public, but … we have a generation of digital natives who are also digital doofuses. They are natives when it comes to video, social networks, and texting, but they are doofuses when it comes to information. They do not know how to locate information or evaluate information, and they do not know how to communicate information in a richer context beyond text messaging.

Q. What is the current state of instruction around online literacy in schools?

A. It is hardly taught in schools. If you look at the reading standards, what we call the anchor standards – the eight central standards that all the grade-level standards are derived from – the words ‘internet’ or ‘digital’ or ‘online’ do not appear. And if you look at our assessments, our national assessment – the gold standard of reading assessments – it’s all offline reading tasks.

The basic problem is that our educational system has not been moving fast enough in this area. Library media specialists are being laid off. Those are the people who have the information and can share it with teachers, yet they are being laid off because they are seen as superfluous. These are people who know the online world and know how to teach critical evaluation skills, know how to teach kids how to locate things, but districts around the country are eliminating positions here to save money.

Q. Why is so little being done?  

A. There are so many reasons not to do this – the cost, the time, the lack of understanding, the tests that don’t represent this because everyone is teaching to the tests now. So there are so many reasons not to do this, but ultimately I believe it’s our schools that are the leverage point for solving this fake news problem. It’s not just news, its fake facts. You’ve got fake news, sure, but it’s also false information. So how do you judge the reliability of that source? That’s what we want our kids to be doing.

Q. Has the fake news phenomenon changed the conversation?

A. Fake news has gotten everyone’s attention. They understand it has consequences, and that we’re seeing those consequences and we’re seeing them now. But it’s not just on the right, we have fake news on the left too, and the point is do you want a society that makes decisions based on facts not made-up stuff? So the light is shining now on that issue and providing some entry into the role schools can play, and it’s hugely important.

Q. How can schools get up to speed in a way that’s effective and that counters this influence?

A. There is no silver bullet. It’s complicated. We need to attack it on a number of levels. We need assessments that include this and we need additional professional development. If I were going to invest in one thing, that’s where I would invest – giving teachers the instructional tools they can use to teach kids to think critically about online information. Teacher education programs need to start paying attention to this issue. We need now, not 10 years from now, new teachers who are working this into the curriculum.

People are paying attention to the fake news, but what we do in our schools is what’s really important. That determines citizens who make thoughtful decisions at the ballot box, who are not swayed by propaganda or falsehoods on the right or left.