Digital Media Has a Misinformation Problem—but It's an Opportunity for...

Opinion | Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Digital Media Has a Misinformation Problem—but It's an Opportunity for Teaching.

By Jennifer Sparrow     Dec 13, 2018

Digital Media Has a Misinformation Problem—but It's an Opportunity for Teaching.

Jennifer Sparrow was nominated to share her thoughts by futurist Bryan Alexander, who wrote for the project in 2017.

As senior director for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State, I see both opportunities and challenges around where technology and learning intersect. But one of the most pressing barriers I’ve come across—on campus and off—has to do with processing the information we read online everyday, and teaching students how to think critically about sources as well as how to share and articulate credible information.

Research has shown that 50 percent of college students spend a minimum of five hours each week on social media. These social channels feed information from news outlets, private bloggers, friends and family, and myriad other sources that are often curated based on the user's interests. But what really makes social media a tricky resource for students and educators alike is that most companies don’t view themselves as content publishers. This position essentially absolves social media platforms of the responsibility to monitor what their users share, and that can allow false even harmful information to circulate.

Students at all levels will continue to consume information digitally, whether that’s in class or at home. As educators, our responsibility is to begin to answer questions such as: “How do we help students become better consumers of information, data, and communication?” Fluency in each of these areas is integral to 21st century-citizenry, for which we must prepare students.

What’s more: if we are to discover the next steps for edtech, we must first understand the challenges that students face in today’s digital and tech-enabled environment.

At Penn State, particularly within the Teaching and Learning with Technology, we strive to focus on understanding human problems and using available technology to solve them. In the same way that high-performing athletes achieve success in their sport by practicing skills often, we must provide students with ample opportunities to process information and data and then communicate their new knowledge to appropriate audiences. Employers frequently cite written and verbal communication skills among the most desired qualities in college graduates, and digital technology unceasingly gives us new ways to distribute and receive information.

Here is where technology and pedagogy comes in. When coursework provides students with opportunities to consume information, assess its accuracy and usefulness, derive knowledge from that information, and communicate their findings to an audience, they build skills that will serve them well in their personal and professional lives. If students understand what it takes to publish verified and trustworthy content, they can apply critical thinking to any kind of media that they consume.

At Penn State, we employ many different technologies that help students practice their 21st-century digital skills. In English 202C, a technical writing course, students use our Invention Studio and littleBits to practice inventing their own electronic devices, write instructions for how to construct the device, and have classmates reproduce the invention. With this project they can gather information to inform their design, develop technical skills, and learn to articulate their design and product to users.

The proliferation of mobile devices and high-speed Wi-Fi have made videos a common outlet for information-sharing. To keep up with the changing means of communication, Penn State campuses are equipped with One Button Studio, where students can learn to produce professional-quality video. With this, students must learn how to take information and translate it into a visual medium in a way that will best benefit the intended audience. They can also use the studios to hone their presentation or interview skills by recording practice sessions and then reviewing the footage.

In our current climate, college graduates continue to struggle under the weight of student debt, the cost of attendance continues to outpace the rate of inflation, and confidence in how America’s higher education system operates continues to decline. While we must address these issues with urgency, it is imperative to keep creative, relevant pedagogy at the forefront of education and learning. Ample faculty support and co-curricular opportunities for students to grow their digital skills will help 21st century teaching strategies come to life.

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