Down the Rabbit Hole: what are the stakes, sorts, & sites of digital/info literacy? (provocation)

I was excited for this week’s readings on digital/info literacy as a teacher and as someone who works in adult literacy, where the stakes of these questions are very high. Unlike k-12 or undergraduate education, the only baseline our students meet before they enter into our program is taking an exam to assess their reading, writing, and math. This exam is created by the Data Recognition Corp and can either be taken on the computer (which DRC prefers for instant demographic and scoring info shared with them) or on paper. Because of the age range of our adult students, differences of national origin and subsequent schooling, and computer accessibility, we chose paper and these considerations in incoming students digital literacy is reflected in their classes as well. I bring this up because considerations on digital literacy can mean very different things depending on the site of your work and the populations you work with (i.e. digital literacy probably means something different to you if your job is to help people with HRA applications online).

Focusing a bit more on the content of our readings, in the adult literacy classroom’s I’ve been in the last few years, it has been a real challenge to moderate conversations with the heavy dissemination of conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudoscientific information because of what student’s have engaged with online. “Informational hubris,” is something I often encounter and this over-estimation of our ability to navigate the internet can lead to a lot of struggle over basic premises in the classroom. 

I am a huge advocate for close and critical reading, but agree with many of the pieces we’ve read that these analytic tools cannot be the main training and response for students and non-experts to detect disinformation, as written about in “Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole,” “4 Steps Schools Need to Take to Combat Fake News,” and the challenges stated in “The Black Box Problem.” As an educator, I agree that students are often taught, either explicitly through a digital literacy curriculum or implicitly through modeling from their teachers that, as Michael Caulfield tells Charlie Warzel, “you’ll get imperfect information and then use reasoning to fix that somehow. But in reality, that strategy can completely backfire.” 

I’ve witnessed this strategy background in many of the observations I’ve done in the adult literacy classroom (in writing, science, and social studies classes) where a teacher will be engaging in a meaningful lesson about taking sources critically only to be surprised when students still uphold sources that confirm their ideas at best, or worse, information that is (deeply) factually unfounded. 

A few years ago I went to a series of trainings at Facing History & Ourselves, an organization that does social justice oriented curriculum development, school workshops, and professional development. When I went though, I had some difficulties with the workshop. While many of the historical case studies used were great pieces to bring into classrooms, the facilitator seemed hard-pressed to throw in as many words around information literacy as possible, making slippery comparisons between confirmation bias, implicit bias, biased sources, and bigotry. After the workshop I spoke to her at length, where she explained that the whole organization was struggling with their central mission of creating lessons that address racism, anti-semitism, and prejudice historically, and their financial needs. The schools that hired them for workshops wanted them to talk about “bias”— biased news, biased sources, biased attitudes, and how to combat that, easily in a few hours. The close reading exercises for media literacy were supposed to be about detecting the bad apple of “bias” and what students often came out of the workshop is something along the lines of “everything but Nat Geo is biased one way or another.” With the directive from the schools and the “language” that was both safe and popular for seemingly progressive educators seeking out these trainings, the Facing History staff were still trying to figure out how to shift from conversations about bias to the values embedded in different pieces of media: political values, social values, values around information accessibility and sourcing, etc.. The market the facilitator talked about was one I was reminded of this weekend in the NY State mandated workshop on Dignity for All Students (DASA) for NY state certified teachers. In the 6 hour workshop, every conversation about “difference” was followed by how to cultivate school climates of kindness for bullying, bias, and harassment prevention. 

This treatment of media/information literacy is often about the glitch that Ruha Benjamin articulates for us where, for students, the “glitch” is that they “accidentally” clicked on the fake news, uncredited forum, or biased article. This accident or glitch obscures that tech companies have a financial interest in giving white supremacist, transphobic, sexist, pseudoscientifc, and violent content movement and easy sharability on their platforms and students need transparency on this. And while I agree heavily with the advocacy for lateral reading and Michael Caulfield’s prescription that (for the average person), “Whenever you give your attention to a bad actor, you allow them to steal your attention from better treatments of an issue, and give them the opportunity to warp your perspective,” there is also huge algorithmic risk as the uncredentialed, racist, pseudoscientific, or other sources of disinformation will be increasingly advertised to you. Those risks, of what happens when media literacy doesn’t also focus on the social and infrastructural conditions that information proliferates in, as (Ruha Benjamin highlighted) Christina Sharpe tells voices for us her book In the Wake: On Blackness & Being:

“In the United States, slavery is imagined as a singular event even as it changed over time and even as its duration expands into supposed emancipation and beyond. But slavery was not singular; it was, rather, a singularity—a weather event or phenomenon likely to occur around a particular time, or date, or set of circumstances. Emancipation did not make free Black life free; it continues to hold us in that singularity. The brutality was not singular; it was the singularity of anti-blackness.

Singularity: a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole. (Merriam-Webster Online)

In what I am calling the weather, anti-blackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.” (You can read more here).

While I agree heavily with curricular frameworks on lateral reading and SIFT, I wonder about how we as educators navigation attempts at ideological neutrality of information/digital literacy curriculums. Additionally, even these don’t address the complicated ways student’s get information. Here are a few:

  • A friend who is a HS biology teacher has been trying to develop a curriculum around pseudoscience when she realized her students primary Covid and sexual health information has been gained through TikTok. 
  • According to a recent study done by the Anti-Defamation League: “Our data indicate that exposure to videos from extremist or white supremacist channels on YouTube remains disturbingly common. Though some high-profile channels were taken down by YouTube before our study period, approximately one in ten participants viewed at least one video from an extremist channel (9.2%) and approximately two in ten (22.1%) viewed at least one video from an alternative channel.2 Moreover, when participants watch these videos, they are more likely to see and follow recommendations to similar videos.” 
  • For anyone navigating the internet, there are deep issues with both user’s data, privacy, and consent being exploited, and issues of data as a public good, freedom of information, and the need for it to be accessible to oppressed communities as highlighted by Data 4 Black Lives and in their Open Letter.
  • Besides navigating the internet in informed ways, we know especially during remote learning that reliable internet access is not equally distributed and many low income students struggle for access.
  • Accessibility on the internet also means different things depending on the user’s abilities. Digital literacy could also be connected to something like a campaign to make sure all images has alt text, all videos have captioning, etc.. 

I am super excited to see what ya’ll bring to the table re: your own educational and work spaces. Any and all responses are welcome and I am looking forward to seeing whatever stood out for you in the readings.

If you are looking for a question to structure your response, some things I am curious about are:

  • What values and topics need to be central to a digital/information literacy curriculum (For everyone? For you?) This will probably not look the same for each student age-group, or each discipline. What about for yours?
  • If you teach, in what classes do you teach would a module on digital/information literacy be most meaningful?
  • Depending on your institutional teaching home, is there a particular location that should be responsible for digital/info literacy? For example, in an imaginary world where these sites could receive extra funding, would it be your school’s Teaching & Learning Center, the IT department, the library, etc.. 
  • How would you evaluate a good or well-rounded digital/info literacy curriculum? Is it multimedia based, does it culminate in a research project, a quiz or test, and art project, is it group-based, or something else?
  • Do these workshops happen at the schools you’ve taught? What have you witnessed; what do you think of them?
  • Should the standards you’ve suggested be university/school/district wide? Or should departments have control with their digital/info literacy curricular formation and dissemination?