CU Denver Professor Explains Why Students Suck at Identifying Fake News

CU Denver Professor Explains Why Students Suck at Identifying Fake News
Creative Commons / Flickr user Federico Feroldi
Surely you've heard about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

There's an entire website dedicated to the rare and endangered species, complete with news articles, FAQs, tree octopus sightings, even a store. According to the site:

The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America...Reaching out with one of her eight arms, each covered in sensitive suckers, a tree octopus might grab a branch to pull herself along in a form of locomotion called tentaculation.

Sounds legit, right?

If you're scratching your head, you should be. Created in 1998 by Kyle Zapato, the tree octopus and the website dedicated to it are both a hoax.

Still, researchers have found that most middle- and high-school students have trouble recognizing the hoax when they're asked to visit the website and take notes.

In November last year, another study conducted by researchers at Stanford University, who collected over 7,800 responses from middle-school, high-school and college students, revealed a dismal ability among students to identify credible news sources. For instance, more than 80 percent of middle-schoolers believed that a "sponsored content" story was a real news story.

The findings underscore a broader national conversation currently raging around information literacy, especially the ability to discern “fake news” from well-sourced and accurate reportage. As President Donald Trump confuses matters further by labeling entire media organizations like the New York Times and CNN “fake news,” questions are being raised about what schools are doing to teach students about being responsible consumers – and creators – of information.

University of Colorado Denver associate professor Scott McLeod is well-versed in this subject. As a technology advocate who teaches school administrators how to utilize and increase access to technology, McLeod says that “schools are behind” when it comes to making students information-literate.

This, despite the amount of time that young “digital natives,” as McLeod calls them, spend on the Internet and social-media networks in their spare time. "If you're a young person these days, you never remember a time when there weren't computers and the Internet and smartphones," he says. “That's like the air they breathe."

But when it comes to teachers and administrators at many schools, including those in Colorado, McLeod says, “there's a lack of familiarity with these tools in general. And even when they know about them, they're very afraid to use them [in the classroom], because in their heads – since they're not very savvy — the negatives far outweigh the positives."

click to enlarge McLeod doing a talk for Tedx Des Moines. - YOUTUBE
McLeod doing a talk for Tedx Des Moines.
Since accepting a position at CU Denver and moving to Colorado from Iowa in August 2016, McLeod has been conducting an assessment of technology in schools in the Centennial State. He says that because of Colorado's home-rule system and vast socioeconomic disparities, regular access to technology like Chromebooks and laptops inside the classroom is far from uniform.

What ends up happening, many times, is that students only use computers when they're taken to a school library or computer lab.

"Usually information and media-literacy work has been relegated to librarians," notes McLeod. "What happens is that a kid can go through an entire year of coursework, but they'll get marched down to the library a few days a year, where there's some kind of librarian-driven curriculum.”

A common curriculum used by librarians is the “Big6,” a six-stage process that's designed to guide problem-solving and information-gathering.

"But for students, that's not super meaningful work, because it's not attached to anything else they're doing," McLeod explains.

The history of media literacy goes back to the advent of mass media, McLeod notes. “In the early days, it was: How do you recognize the spin coming at you from the four major television networks and handful of national newspapers?," he says. "It wasn't a super-huge concern, primarily because there were so few channels, so they had to cater to a mass audience."

"Now, of course, there's a million channels to pay attention to," he adds.

And because anyone can create viral content through platforms like Facebook and YouTube, most educators have shifted from “media literacy,” which concerns consumption, to “information literacy,” which includes consumption and creation of content.

McLeod explains there are significant structural barriers that are keeping Colorado schools from improving the information literacy of their students. When he worked in Iowa, McLeod helped push a statewide movement to get Internet-capable devices used regularly inside classrooms. “In six years, we went from six districts to 220 districts giving kids laptops, Chromebooks and iPads,” he says.

Once the devices became a normal part of the workflow, McLeod says that students and teachers started conversations around sourcing information and determining credibility and bias.

"I think, as more schools start to solve basic access problems, hopefully we'll see a lot of those conversations being natural and organic," he says.

As for politics, so intricately tied to the “fake news” conversation today, McLeod notes that many educators are hesitant to bring it up for fear of retribution from administrators and parents.

Still, he says, "I think the election brought this to the forefront. At least people are talking about it. But it's going to be up to each school and each district to decide: Do we care?"

At the moment, McLeod says, most schools' administrators aren't the ones leading the charge for information literacy. "Really, it's being driven by these national associations like the American Association of School Librarians and National Council for the Social Studies saying, 'This is really important.'"

McLeod feels that this is not enough, and that there needs to be a push for access to technology and information literacy at the state and district levels.

"Until that happens, we're not going to get a lot of traction, other than a few local pockets,” he says. "It'll be interesting to see what's done in the coming months and years."

For those who want to know more about information literacy, McLeod recommends checking out the following resources:

-Media Literacy Now
-The Big6 Curriculum
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker