The Independent View | ‘Truth, Lies & the Internet’ – how we need to educate our children for the digital age

The Internet can be a hugely liberating force. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers — publicists and editors — the ‘public sphere 2.0’ empowers pressure groups, citizen journalists and researchers to hold the powerful and the responsible to account, armed with far more specialist expertise, analysis and facts at our fingertips than ever before.

But the Internet can also trap and snare. Now that the floodgates of self-published and user-generated content have opened, there is also an unprecedented amount of utter nonsense floating around in the digital aether: from genuine mistakes to selective half-truths, hidden bias and outright, naked propaganda and disinformation.

The future of the Internet is staked on separating the good information from the bad. We need to become our own gatekeepers and make those quality control decisions that used to be made for us. For ‘digital natives’, the generation of teens that cannot remember the pre-digital age, this is doubly important. They both trust the Internet more than any other source of information and use it more than any other generational group.

Unfortunately, according to a new Demos report just released, young people are not being equipped with the skills they need to do this. The report polled 500 teachers, and found that most rated their pupils’ ability to check facts, verify sources, and recognise bias as below average. Other surveys paint a similar picture. In one, a quarter of 12-15 year olds made no checks at all, and only 8% check who made the website and why.

The Internet is now probably the premier source of information for young people as they learn about the world. 88% of teachers polled thought it important for their pupils’ schoolwork, and 75% for the formation of their pupils’ beliefs. Not being able to sort the wheat from the chaff therefore has important consequences. Around half of teachers polled report encountering online disinformation in the classroom and ditto for conspiracy theories.

Education has not kept pace with the rise of the Internet. It needs to catch up. What we call ‘digital fluency’ must be put at the heart of learning. This consists of both traditional critical thinking -– fact checking, source attribution — the specific knowledge of how the Internet works and its denizens behave, and also the habit of going to a diversity of different sources when forming an opinion. 88% of the teachers polled agree that digital literacy should be given more prominence within the national curriculum.

This is something that needs support from the political and policy communities. Teachers complain that they are not equipped with the things they need to adequately teach digital fluency in the classroom. They don’t necessarily have the materials, the training and above all the precious time in a crowded national curriculum that digital fluency teaching requires.

For those that are looking for ways to promote a society of free and resilient citizens, where we are all competent gatekeepers capable of engaging with the Internet on our own sceptical terms, carving out the time and space for teachers to teach the foundational skills to do this should be a priority.

* Carl Miller is an Associate of the think tank Demos. He is the co-author of the 2011 Demos report Truth, Lies and the Internet, and the 2010 Demos report The Power of Unreason.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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3 Comments

  • This is a vital subject for social and political development. Lib Dems in government could usefully beat Gove round the head with it.

    There’s an irony in the blanket instruction to university students not to rely on Wikipedia. If it’s your only point of reference that’s lazy and dodgy, but in most subject areas it seems a pretty good start.

    Teaching younger children to think critically and check facts requires
    a) good sources – experts (remember them), reputable sources and recommendations
    b) constant vigilance

  • Certainly a big issue for education and politics. There are teachers though who do not just ‘complain’ about the lack of time and resources, but are finding exciting and interesting ways to fit this into a relevent curriculum. Visit #ukedchat on twitter to follow some digital-literate teachers!

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