Last week, we finished a group assignment in my f2f classes that I think might migrate nicely to the online classroom.
The assignment asks students to think critically about web sources and has two parts: a larger group component and a partner presentation.
The first task is completed in even numbered groups of 4 or 6 students. Students first must define “information counterfeits” such as propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and alternative facts. Students then are to find an example (either a general example or a specific item from a web site) of each.
The first term they must define is information, which is sneakingly challenging. Last week a group identified statements such as “My flip-flops are black” and “Your hair is blond’ as information, and their discussion about how they might verify these statements led to more and more questions about how we verify facts—how do we agree on primary sources and where do we have consensus of basic facts? In f2f classes, this activity generates much engagement and laughter and (hopefully) critical discussion.
The final part of this first component asks students to define the terms gullible, skeptical, and cynical. They then write a brief paragraph answering the following question: Using these terms, describe how careful consumers of information should approach what they see, hear, and read.
This activity culminates in a large group discussion in which I ask questions about how students normally seek out information. Where do you usually go? (A: Google, Yahoo, social media sites.) How do you know you can trust the information—that is, how do you know the information you’re consuming is not propaganda or disinformation? (A: never really thought too much about it, unless it’s obviously a spoof.)
This discussion leads nicely into an introduction of the partner presentation part of the assignment. The goal of this component is to simulate “real life” research. Students partner off and choose a topic to research. Topics are important: I let them choose anything . . . as long as it is one with competing viewpoints. The assignment asks students to find one trustworthy source and one untrustworthy source. A secondary objective if to find “gray area” web sources—ones that are not obviously trustworthy (like academic papers) or obviously untrustworthy (like a page with dancing gifs).
The presentation portion of the assignment is low key: the pair tells us what topic they are researching and then silently previews each of their sources—in no particular order—by slowing scrolling through the page. The class has to vote on which is the trustworthy source and which is the untrustworthy. After we’ve voted, the pair explains which is which, outlining at least five reasons why they found the source trustworthy or not. There are a few “rules”: no .edu, .gov, no sources found via the databases, and no Wikipedia sources.
In f2f classes, the first part of the assignment is completed using Google Docs and the second via the Discussions in Canvas.
I can imagine migrating this activity into an online classroom. I think it already features some of the key points from Janette’s video.
I think it has “buy-in.” The subtext of the activity (i.e. not being duped by stuff on the internet) offers buy-in, and students love the idea of researching anything they want and of finding tricky web sites.
I’ve finessed this assignment for a few semesters, modifying it make sure it more accurately reflects “real life” scenarios, making the expectations realistic (I originally had students find three sources for each—too much!) and specific. I’m sure I can be more clear, though. If there is only one thing I’ve learned from teaching, I can never be clear enough!!