My teachable moment: Learning how to evaluate online information effectively

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YEN MAKABENTA

First Word
THE moment comes to everyone who strives to accomplish something, and then along the way is waylaid by a problem, and is consequently disappointed.

To get my feet back on the internet after the Nikki Haley fiasco: I am treating the entire affair as a teachable moment. I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the intricacies of surfing the net, and to imbibe habits for using digital information effectively. The process is not simply learning how to use a computer for writing.

My big discovery so far is that to evaluate online information effectively, one needs news literacy and civic online reasoning.

Absent this knowledge and skills, we are at the mercy of media fakers or fake news.


Teachable moment
First, let us get a grip on the concept of a teachable moment.

A teachable moment, in education, is the time at which learning a particular topic or idea becomes possible or easiest.

The concept was popularized by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. In the context of education theory, Havighurst explained:

“A developmental task is a task which is learned at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment.’ It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur.”

The term sometimes denotes not a developmental stage, but rather “that moment when a unique, high interest situation arises that lends itself to discussion of a particular topic.” It implies “personal engagement” with issues and problems.

These moments can come when least expected.

In July 2009, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home, his arrest garnered media attention throughout the US. Then US President Barack Obama expressed the hope ”that as a consequence of this event it ends up being what’s called a ‘teachable moment’, where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.”

An article in Wikipedia says that “A teachable moment is often best demonstrated with a significant emotional or traumatic event, the emphasis being on the ‘moment’ versus the lesson. An example would be, after a high-speed motor vehicle accident, when the use of a seat belt has obviously saved a life, or conversely, when the lack of a seat belt has caused loss of life.”

The Nikki Haley affair is one such moment in my writing life. Rather than treat it as a calamity. I view it as a learning experience.

Civic reasoning and news literacy
My learning program has consisted of two tracks of study: first, I have undertaken a crash program to learn how to evaluate and use online news and information; and second, I have developed a keen interest in news about how some countries are combating the fake news epidemic.

One big discovery is a research project by the Stanford Graduate School of Education. It contended that being conversant in using the computer does not equate with processing information effectively.

The Stanford researchers found that young people who are “digital natives,” are at ease on the Internet and in consuming news and information flowing through the various media channels. But they’re not very skilled at evaluating what they see and read. They lack what scholars call “civic reasoning”.

The Stanford researchers spent a year evaluating roughly 7,800 students in middle school through college to discover how they assess the information they read on the Internet. What they found was alarming.

No matter how deft they were at “digital processing,” many of the students revealed a dismal ability to make distinctions in content, distinguish between facts and non-facts, and measure the reliability of sources.

They were often unable to distinguish advertisements and articles, “fake news” and fact-based news, and they were often oblivious to political bias.

“Digital-savvy students,” concluded the study, “can easily be duped.” Without gatekeepers like rigorous editors, who have largely disappeared everywhere, and others to vet subject matter for them, Internet readers and viewers are on their own, untutored and ill-equipped to make sense of the complex world they confront.

Disinformation, distortion, tweets, and memes can offer satisfying shortcuts for those afflicted with short attention spans.

What was missing, said Stanford, was the ability to evaluate online information in order to make informed decisions.

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) developed and administered assessment tasks for civil online reasoning.

Civic online reasoning consists of three core competencies in asking: 1) Who is behind the information? 2) What is the evidence? and 3) What do other sources say.

In increasing order of complexity, these competencies will improve performance in the use of online information.

The point of the Stanford project is to help students become informed participatory citizens. As the methods of receiving and processing information change in the 21st century, teaching approaches must keep up.

Media accuracy or media fakery
In the second track of my study, I was stunned to discover at how extensively fake news is being used today both as a weapon and a defense in contemporary communications.

Myanmar’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi branded as “fake news” and “misinformastion” all charges against her and her government regarding their indifference to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the country.

Against charges that the Russians had interfered in the US 2016 election in his favor, Donald Trump responded that it was all “fake news.”

Similarly, here at home, Sen. Antonio Trillanes labeled as fake news every charge leveled against him.

The recent social media attacks against seven senators for not signing a Senate resolution on the drug killings have been dismissed as fake news; these are now being turned around into a weapon for a counter-offensive.

Is there no reliable measure for determining what is legitimate fake news and what is not? That, in my view, is the craziness of it all, when the public is forced to distinguish between legitimate fake news and counterfeit fake news.

More reassuring in my research is what is happening in America today. Americans increasingly blame Facebook for fake news, according to a recent survey.

In a report from Washington on September 28, the McClatchy Washington Bureau reported that the social media giant needs to stop fake news.

According to a new poll commissioned by the Factual Democracy Project (FDP), a group trying to fight the spread of intentionally fabricated news stories on social media, 73 percent of voters say Facebook should not allow foreign powers to run ads targeting Americans during an election.

FDP used public policy polling (PPP) to conduct the survey. The Democratic firm interviewed 865 registered voters from September 22 to September 25, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — in part responding to criticism earlier in the day from President Donald Trump — said he had hoped to “create a platform for all ideas”.

“Trump says Facebook is against him,” Zuckerberg said. “Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what’s running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

The fact is there was no fake news problem until Facebook and social media came along.

An American educator who works and lives in the Philippines has written me to say that fake news is just a “social construct”. But World War 1,he said, was started by fake news.

In an earlier time, what we had was mainly misinformation and propaganda, and good, old-fashioned falsehood.

Today, because of modern technology, and the bewildering speed of communication, fake news is many times more potent and deceptive.

Which will prevail in contemporary communications, media accuracy or media fakery?

It all depends on what a nation really values.

yenmakabenta@ yahoo.com

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