The web is becoming the most important way that we learn about the world - particularly for a new generation of 'digital natives'. Schools must provide the skills needed to navigate cyberspace, and sort the good information from the bad. Such is the conclusion of a recent Demos report, "Truth, Lies and the Internet".
Does the internet liberate?
Flying the flag for the optimists are Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus and (less enthusiastically) Here Comes Everybody, and Robert Logan in The Sixth Language. Many pieces on Open Democracy too explore, rightly, the Internet as an agent of empowerment. Nicola Hughes discusses how the web enables citizen journalism, whilst Aaron Peters applauds an end to the mainstream media’s “monopoly on discourse formation and what constitutes the ‘truth’”.
More recently another band of commentators have started singing a different, darker tune. They warn that the internet can entrap and ensnare as much as it liberates. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows warns that our brains might be re-wired into shallow, skittering modes of thought whilst Susan Greenfield worries we will be trapped in an instantly gratifying ‘yuck and wow’ sensationalism.
A Demos report released on 29 September, Truth, Lies and the Internet, makes a third warning: we can be trapped under an asphyxiating avalanche of nonsense. Everything from the lazily wrong ‘fact’, to the selective half-truth and faked YouTube video breaks our line of sight to the vast amounts of great information that is surely out there.
There has always been bad information floating around, but the specific attributes of the digital world mean that bad information is probably easier to come by. We often rely on aesthetic cues (‘does this website look legit?’) that can be faked. Image-heavy sites like YouTube are prey to the Photoshoppers. In this more chaotic lawless and often anonymous arena, working out whom to trust and whom to not is more difficult. And finally, the monopolists of public discourse, the editor and the publisher, who used to (at least in theory) filter this sort of thing out, have been circumvented by the ever-growing world of user-generated content.
Dodging bad and finding good information requires skills. First, it requires general critical thinking: weighing up different kinds of evidence; recognising bias; fact checking, and source validation. Nothing new here: basic epistemology has been rumbling on throughout human civilization for over 2000 years. Also required now is net savviness, a body of specific knowledge about how the net actually works: how search engines rank results; how websites are made; how easy it is to fake videos and images, for example. So is the learned habit of seeking a diversity of different sources and opinions. It is a human weakness to seek out opinions we agree with, and the internet can look more like tight-knit congregations of the already-converted rather than freely flowing, loosely connected groups. These Balkanized echo-chambers can lead to all kinds of problems. We call these three things together ‘digital fluency’.
These skills aren’t being taught enough. Of the 500 teachers that Demos polled for our research, most rated their pupils’ critical thinking skills - checking and verifying sources, recognising bias, etc – below average. A review of other recent surveys – including the Cyber Research Unit, Oxford Internet Surveys and UCL’s CIBER Project - concurs: we do not in general engage with the internet in a sceptical, critical or savvy way. The consequences are clear: half of the teachers in the Demos poll have seen their students bringing disinformation into their classrooms. Another half have encountered conspiracy theories in the classroom. And yes, whilst some conspiracies exist, the current favourites include Rihanna’s apparent Satanism and a 14-hour long video about UFOs.
This really is a big problem for all of us. The internet is becoming the most important way that we learn about the world and we make really momentous, life-changing decisions on this basis of it: who to vote for, where to live and who to marry. It is an especially big problem for ‘digital natives’: those teens who cannot remember the pre-digital age. They both trust the Internet more than other media, and rely on it more than any other generation.
It is not that schools have never heard of the internet. Students will be summarily warned about Wikipedia, and probably asked to find out something on the internet and print it out. Yet the growth of the internet has been so explosively fast that education has not kept pace. Too often the internet is viewed as either a peripheral tool to learning, or a harmless leisure activity, irrelevant to the school's academic goals.
Indeed, schools can often ill-afford to take their eyes from the academic prize. Intent on delivering good results for their students, teachers spend almost all of their lesson time focusing on the development of exam-focused abilities. Many of these abilities are important and relevant. It is not, however, difficult to think of abilities that have key real-life applications but are not going to be assessed in public examinations. At present, these are destined to be neglected; digital literacy is amongst them.
Some heroic educators, librarians and information specialists have been fighting this lonely fight for years. It is time they were reinforced, and pedagogy responded to the information revolution. Space for digital fluency needs to be made within the National Curriculum. This is the only way in which it will be given a reasonable amount of attention. It cannot be placed within the remit of a single subject. It needs to be treated in a similar way to literacy and numeracy, as a core skill with cross-curricular relevance that all subjects have a responsibility to develop.
Empowering people to make informed, savvy decisions about what to believe: this truly is an internet emancipation.