I could not be more pleased with the reception to my latest piece at Smithsonian on spotting fake news and its implications for how we teach history. It has been shared over 50,000 times on Facebook and other social media platforms and it led to an interview with The Washington Post for a related story. With all the attention on spotting fake news and problematic websites it is important to remember that we are only addressing half of the problem.
The vast majority of what has been published in recent weeks on the subject, including my own, is focused on the consumer end of the equation. History teachers and others are being urged to educate their students on digital media literacy, including how to spot fake news websites and other problematic websites. In a sense we are asking for students to think about the ethical responsibilities that producers of online content owe their readers. This is all well and good, but we are missing an opportunity to drive these lessons home by having our students put these lessons into action in their own contributions to the Web.
When was the last time you watched a student YouTube video that included a single nod to the sources utilized or a Prezi presentation that included an annotated bibliography?
I am somewhat of an old fogey when it comes to teaching history. My courses still include a traditional research paper. While many of my colleagues on the high school level have given up on it in favor of more “creative” assignments that utilize social media and other digital platforms, I still see the essay format as one of the most effective ways to encourage critical thinking and writing skills. As far as I am concerned, the more writing the better.
This is not to say that an assignment that typically extends no further than the classroom or to those who chose to pick it up and read cannot respond to online publishing opportunities. The last time I assigned a research paper students were responsible for creating websites for their essays. The move drastically changed how students thought about their work and how it was assessed. Content still mattered a great deal. They had to do the relevant research, come up with a thesis, do the research and think about the organization of their overall argument, but it was how that content was presented to the general public that was now given more emphasis.
Students were responsible for including images (always properly referenced) to compliment their text, provide hyperlinks for as many of their sources as possible and provide an annotated bibliography at the end. Students had to explain why they utilized specific sources. In doing so, their thinking shifted, in different degrees, from focusing simply on my expectations and requirements to what they believed would render their website legitimate in the eyes of a critical reader.
In doing so, students were forced to think about their ethical responsibilities to potential visitors to their websites.
This is just one small example, but it is a shift that needs to happen across the curriculum and throughout the year. Assignments that involve online publishing should encourage students to think critically about digital media literacy. The same standards that we expect students to uphold in consuming online information should be applied when it is produced.