National study of high school students’ digital skills paints worrying portrait
A new national study by Stanford researchers showing a woeful inability by high schoolers to detect fake news on the internet suggests an urgent need for schools to integrate new tools and curriculum into classrooms that boost students’ digital skills, the study's authors say. In the largest such study undertaken, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Education devised a challenge for 3,446 American high school students who had been carefully selected to match the demographic makeup of the American population. Rather than conduct a standard survey, in which students would self-report their media habits and skills, the research team came up with a series of live internet tasks. The results, published online this week in the journal Educational Researcher, highlight what the researchers say is an urgent need to better prepare students for the realities of a world filled with a continual flow of misleading information. In one of the study’s tasks, students were shown an anonymously produced video that circulated on Facebook in 2016 claiming to show ballot stuffing during Democratic primary elections and asked to use Internet-enabled computers to determine whether it provided strong evidence of voter fraud.
Students tried, mostly in vain, to discover the truth. Despite access to the internet’s powerful search capabilities, just three of the study’s more than three thousand participants — less than one tenth of one percent – were able to divine the true source of the video, which actually featured footage of voter fraud in Russia. In another task, students were asked to vet a website proclaiming to “disseminate factual reports” about climate change. Ninety-six percent failed to discover the publisher’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. Overall, the researchers found that students were too easily swayed by relatively weak indicators of credibility—a website’s appearance, the characteristics of its domain name, the site’s “About” page, or the sheer quantity of information available on a website, irrespective of the quality of that information. The researchers suggested potential remedies that might right the ship, including teaching students strategies based on what professional fact checkers do--strategies that have been shown in experiments to improve students’ digital savvy.
It is possible to develop students’ digital literacy skills, Wineburg said. Given the risk to our democracy, it will be critical for schools to integrate these skills into all subjects, from history to math, and at every grade level.