Facebook and Fake News: Esther Wojcicki On Teaching Digital Journalism...

EdSurge Podcast

Facebook and Fake News: Esther Wojcicki On Teaching Digital Journalism in High School

By Jenny Abamu     Oct 10, 2017

Facebook and Fake News: Esther Wojcicki On Teaching Digital Journalism in High School
Esther Wojcicki

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

At times 2017 has seemed like a new era for reporting, where newsrooms have had to question and reevaluate their purpose for existing. For the mainstream media, technology has been both a friend and an enemy. So how do we prepare today’s high school journalists (and tomorrow’s mainstream reporters) for such an era?

Our guest today: educator, journalist and author of the book "Moonshots in Education," Esther Wojcicki, who most of her students call Woj, has some ideas. Esther has been teaching for more than 30 years and was an early adopter of edtech in her classroom. Today she's turned her classroom into a multi-million dollar media center. And she's one of the few educators with her own Wikipedia page. You might call her the hipster teacher since she embraced collaborative learning, flexible seating and student autonomy before it was trendy.

This week I'll talk with Esther about the state of high school journalism, how technology is changing the game for journalists in the field and the classroom, and all the things that she's doing with her multi-million dollar media center in Palo Alto. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

Jenny: Esther, welcome to the EdSurge On Air podcast. Where do educators begin?

Esther: Well, thank you so much for including me and inviting me to this podcast. I'm honored and excited to be here. So your question about where do educators begin? Well, one thing that they should think about is whether technology is a support for the teacher in the classroom as opposed to technology as a problem or something you want to ban. Students will use technology effectively in your classroom if you show them how to do it and tell them what you're expecting. So that, I would say, is No. 1.

I have a student who's working on a crazy idea. It's going to be available on the iTunes store and the Android store soon. It's an app for teachers who don't understand how to use a particular type of technology We have this app that's going to be called The Moonshot Squad. And so teachers can type their needs into this app and then within a very short period of time, a kid who understands how to use that app can come and help the teacher fix the problem they're having.

Students Working in the Media Lab in Palo, Alto

So students are making apps in your media lab. What else is going on there? Because I thought it was mostly for journalism.

I should tell you a little bit about the program. In this media center, we have ten different publications. And there are six other teachers there who are really amazing. And we have a newspaper. We have multiple magazines, television, radio, websites, graphic design and video production. We try to make students excited about learning, and we're using journalism as a platform to do it. Because journalism and all these platforms, they're simply just that. They're a way to get information across.

We're giving a voice to students and a way for students to get their ideas out there. We teach them all the rules and ethics of the press. Kids are always very careful about making sure all their stories are correctly sourced. And if there's a problem they apologize for it. It's a way to get kids to be prepared for the 21st century.

And yes, it is a huge program. There are over 600 kids in this program. There are multiple classes. The center is 25,000 square feet. And if you come over, you would see that it's just a hub of activity all the time. The front of the building has a ticker tape. They want it to be kind of like New York. And so they announce every day the new news on the ticker tape. It's pretty cool, to be honest. I wish I would've been a student in this program.

It sounds like an amazing, huge media center and a big change from what your old classroom used to be like. But it also sounds really massive. Do you miss anything about the old classroom?

You know, it is different for me. Because first of all, they put me upstairs in the corner room in a building that is now 100 years old. So you can imagine that was quite different. And then that was followed by putting me in a lecture center because my class got so big. And so that of course was a very different thing because the chairs never moved. And so I had to figure out how to make that one work. And then that was followed by putting me in a portable. There were just too many students, so they put me in lots of different portables. And so, yes, this is all really different because today I have the state-of-the-art equipment. I have this incredibly wonderful building.

But I have students that come back and visit all the time, and they say things like, "Oh, we loved being smashed together." Eighty kids in the portable, you can imagine what it was like in there. It's not exactly your typical class—kids sitting on the floor, on the counter—but the culture of the class was one of excitement. It was learning for them. Learning controlled and directed by students. I'm kind of like the orchestra director out there making sure that the orchestra's doing what it should be doing. But they were the ones playing the instruments. And they loved it. They do miss the crazy things that we used to do when we were back in a very small place. Or actually we were in multiple small portables, and we had to run between one portable and another portable. I got a lot of exercise doing that. But it is far better the way it is today.

I think other schools could do this as well or do something similar to this if they give kids some control in the classroom. And I think one of the problems is that the testing is really forcing everybody to be very directive. And as a result, teachers want to make sure kids are always covering what they're supposed to be covering, and then there's very little control in the classroom. In fact, the classroom is completely directed by the test.

I've heard you say this at a few different events that you've been at: talking about the testing system and how it's hampered teachers and also advocating for student autonomy. How do teachers balance the need to make sure that certain skills are taught but also, if they wanted to, offer students the autonomy that you talk about?

I think my technique is a combination. I propose teachers do the traditional lecture, textbook method for 80 percent of the time. And then the other 20 percent of the time it should be an opportunity to apply whatever it is that they're teaching in the classroom. It's that other 20 percent of the time that seems to be hard to implement for most teachers because you're giving up control. The kids are in control.

So the ideal is to have it 50-50. It's called the blended learning method that we're doing in Palo Alto Unified Schools. But it is hard for most people even to conceptualize moving in that direction. If you want to give up total control, which is basically in many cases what I do for the newspaper, then they come up with ideas that I haven't even conceptualized, and they're great. I mean, I want to know what kids are thinking today. And I will never know what kids are thinking today if I'm doing all the talking.

Esther Wojcicki working with students

I'm want to pivot to talking specifically about teaching journalism. You've been through quite a few different eras in journalism. And thinking about the new publications that are popping up—individual blogging capabilities, coupled with strong criticisms of the mainstream media—has that affected students' perception of what journalism is?

Yes, it has really impacted what students think of what mainstream journalism, is. Actually, journalism, in spite of the fact that print journalism has not done as well because of the web recently. In fact, journalism has exploded because there are so many more outlets now that it's all over the web. Students are looking for information everywhere. They are interested in being a journalist, but they're interested in being on the web, as web journalists, in a variety of different ways. So it has made a huge impact on them.

The way I teach journalism today— the way I always did—is where you have to be able to understand what fake news is. If the story sounds crazy, you better check it out. And you also need to understand sources: who do you have as a source, what are sources? I've also been working with kids showing them the standard publications that you can trust—the publications staffed by professional journalists. And then there are the publications out there that are not. Some of them are excellent too, but you still need to check and make sure the sources are credible.

Kids are very excited about journalism. I don't think journalism's going anywhere. And I know people say, "Journalism is disappearing." The only part of journalism is disappearing is the paper. Everything else is there.

You talked about teaching your students how to spot fake news. I remember a study came out last October from Stanford, and it talked about how students struggled to evaluate the credibility of information they find online. Have you seen this with your students? You mentioned a little bit about your approach to teaching news literacy. What other tips would you give for educators who are looking to teach students how to read the news?

Well, there's a lot of material online for how to search effectively. Dan Russell at Google has written a lot about this. There is a lot of information, I should just say. And also, he even has worksheets for students on how to figure something out about the search results you've gotten.

There are other sources. There's the News Literacy Project in New York by Alan Miller. And in the News Literacy Project, he has something called checkology® virtual classroom, which is software that teachers can use to help students figure out whether or not the news is credible or not. The Newseum in Washington, DC has an incredible program. They have a poster, which teachers can order and it's called "Is this Share-Worthy?" I think it's a great poster. We have it hanging up around Palo Alto High School. It looks at the sources of the story. Gives students five or six different things to look at before they decide they want to share it. The Newseum program is free and open to everyone. The News Literacy Program, checkology® virtual classroom, is a subscription-based program.

I'm also thinking, pivoting a little bit again, about the social media aspect, and the role that's played for your students. A Pew Research study that came out recently said Facebook was the primary way that younger generations were getting their news. I thought that was interesting that social media has played such a big role for not only the dissemination of news but also the creation. I wonder how that's impacting the way you're teaching news in school and what skills students are seeking?

For me, I teach them that they need to be very careful. And I think that goes back to "Is this share-worthy?" You have your Facebook feed, and then people are sharing the news that they found interesting. And the question is: Is that news credible?

But I think it's important for people to realize that in their feed, they will be getting news from a group of people that might always be representing one side and that the algorithm continues to support more news on that side without checking to see whether that news is real or not. So in my class, I teach how Facebook news is generated and why there are problems with it. So my students are aware. And I have them sharing the craziest fake story that they have seen recently, which is not a good thing to have to do, but all these stories are out there.

For example, today there's a story about Uber being banned in London. And, yes, that's true, Uber is being banned in London. But if you read carefully, turns out that Uber is still going in London. Right now, there's a controversy, and they're still operating during this appeal. So Uber is still functioning in London. But if you read some of the stories online, you would think that if you flew to London today, you would never be able to find an Uber. That's an example of a story that the facts have been adjusted just slightly but enough to make you frantic.

How are students able to navigate? Are they worried about their abilities to do this?

Yes, I think they are worried about their ability. I think everybody's worried about their ability to do this. We are all worried about how to distinguish fake from real. I mean, it's a problem. We have the democratization of news media, and at the same time now we have the rise of fake news. I just think that it's something that we need to, unfortunately, worry about. And like I said, I think one of the best ways to do it is looking at those resources from the Newseum. It's really important for them to know what is fake news.

They should look at the evidence, the source, the context, the audience, the purpose and the execution. So they've got that written out on the Newseum site. And the acronym is E.S.C.A.P.E., to help kids remember. The "E" is evidence; the "S" is source, “C”ontext, “A”udience, “P”urpose and “E”xecution. I mean, just being exposed to this makes a huge difference.

And actually, many adults don't even know that there's a possibility that the news is fake. Because the consensus years ago was: If it's in print, it must be true. And I think that that still is a problem because if it's in print, it could easily not be true. We want freedom of expression. We don't want to curb that. But on the other hand, looks like there has to be some kind of controls or we're just going to be inundated with more of this fake news.

My final question is: Given the importance of news and its ability to continue educating students and adults even when they get out of school, and considering the skills that you're teaching students, such as evaluation and research, should journalism be an elective, or should journalism be a mandated course in some capacity?

I love this question because this is my passion right now. News literacy should be a requirement for every student in this country. It shouldn't just be for the privileged few. And it could easily be a four-week block that could be put into a social studies program. Because that is how we talk about physics. And this is how we talk about what's going on in our country. And all students should know that.

So I'm working on this curriculum, which should be available soon, about fighting fake news and how the facts hold up. It’s a curriculum for all students. And it would be engaging, and you could do it on your computer. I'm hoping the way it will work is the teacher can just play some videos, and then the class can have some discussion and then they could do some search online using their phone or using their computer and come up with real-world, real-time information. Should we believe this? Is this story share-worthy? Is this fake? What are the fundamentals of news that all stories should have? How do you differentiate between fact and opinion? These are things that everybody in the 21st century needs to know.

So this needs to be a required course for students everywhere. And it could be offered at the middle school level. It could be offered at the high school level. I think the earlier you offer it, the better. Because kids are consuming news pretty early, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, they're already consuming news. And then they're believing some of this stuff. And the stuff they're believing might not be true at all.

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast, Esther.

You're welcome. I hope it's helpful for all teachers everywhere. That's my goal: Make teaching easier; make learning more engaging.

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