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Misinformation: educating the Google generation

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  • Picture of Shelley Metcalfe FRSA
    Shelley Metcalfe FRSA
  • Education
  • Digital

Misinformation has been rife during the pandemic, further highlighting why digital media literacy is an essential skill for an informed citizenry and functioning democracy. Shelley Metcalfe FRSA argues that the education system has not kept pace and children do not know how to evaluate what they find online. She is developing a tool to transform how we teach the Google generation and invites interested Fellows to participate in the research.

Misinformation has been rife during the pandemic, damaging understanding and undermining trust. And while children may be seen as ‘digital natives’, they are more often ‘digitally naive’ about the content they consume via their social media feeds and search results. Google answers 11 million questions from UK schoolchildren every day, yet more than half completely trust or ‘don’t consider’ the reliability of what they get.

Pupils are ill-equipped to deal with the conspiracy theories, distorted statistics, manipulated images, covert advertising, misleading memes, bias and spin, which they are exposed to daily.

The way that children learn about the world has fundamentally changed; what they see online affects how they think, behave and what they believe. The ability to find and effectively evaluate information also affects how children learn, their life-chances and employability. Disadvantaged pupils and those with poor literacy skills are especially vulnerable as they are more likely to rely on video – accessed through platforms like YouTube and TikTok – as their primary source of information.

Yet education has not kept pace. Teachers are not trained to tackle the scale and sophistication of online misinformation. They tell us they feel ill-equipped to guide their pupils as they navigate online information.

Many of the technologies (hardware and software) children access on a daily basis via their personal devices are absent (or banned) from classrooms. Some schools recommend pupils avoid the internet for research and refer instead to reference books. This is even less realistic now than it was before the pandemic. Consequently, pupils are failing to learn how to consume digital content with a critical eye, making them susceptible to hate filled agendas and scams.

The Digital Life Skills Company (CIC) has been developing workshops and teaching Digital Media Literacy (also known as Digital Information Literacy or Critical Digital Literacy) in schools since 2017.  The concept isn’t well understood and is often confused by educators and parents with digital safety or the ability to use or programme a computer.  We have met pupils who think the earth could be flat, that the holocaust is a hoax, and that unicorns are real.

In 2019, with a RSA Catalyst grant we developed a curriculum aligned programme of school workshops and piloted it with 300 Year 6 and 7 pupils across the northwest of England.  The sessions encouraged collaborative learning, used real life case studies and a variety of mediums. Pupils learned how to search effectively, questiondigital content and understand context.

Feedback from teachers showed significant improvements in digital skills development and life-readiness, whereas pupils reported significant development in understanding and skills: “I’ve learned how to find if something is true and found out what clickbait is”; “I now check the original source or a trustworthy site like the BBC.”All the teachers who took part agreed that pupils were less likely to be misled online; 86% said the skills would help them in their school work.

We have seen the enthusiastic response and impact of a single session, but this is a skill set which needs to become second nature.  Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, we believe digital media literacy is now an essential skill – for living, learning and working in the modern world – and should be embedded in the curriculum.

From September 2020, schools in England are expected to teach pupils 'to be discerning consumers of information online', but there is no provision or framework to help teachers achieve this. Meanwhile, a recent report by Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies said that democracy itself is threatened by a "pandemic" of misinformation online, which could be an "existential threat" to our way of life.

The committee was impressed by initiatives abroad and recommended that critical media literacy skills are embedded across the school curriculum.

Speaking to Matthew Taylor on the RSA Podcast Bridges to the Future the Chair, Lord Puttnam emphasised the need for education: “The computer is like a bicycle, you buy a kid a bicycle but you don’t teach them the Highway Code... Unless you simultaneously teach people how to deal with computers as technology but also what that technology can do - how they get fed information, what that information is - you’re in trouble”.

Taking this challenge forward, we have recently launched a research project and invite Fellows to get involved and share their expertise. With the support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we are exploring ideas to teach these skills within the curriculum, with limited school budgets and packed timetables, and – crucially – without adding to teacher workload.

Drawing on the best of existing approaches around the world and our own evidence, we are collaborating with educators to co-design an effective solution, which has the flexibility to be rolled out, at scale.

We welcome RSA Fellows to engage and collaborate with the project. Key Stage 3 teachers (of any subject) and senior school leaders are invited to join an online workshop on 13th or 17th October.  Other educators, researchers or EdTech specialists are invited to join a showcase panel later this year to evaluate and feedback on an early prototype. Please get in touch to register your interest or to find out more about the project.

There is a chasm between how we teach school subjects and how young people are learning about the world. This project will find the best way to bridge that gap.

Shelley Metcalfe is co-founder and Director of The Digital Life Skills Company, a social enterprise that equips children with digital media literacy skills to improve their chances in life.

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