The Fast and Frugal Needs of the Online Reader

I’m writing a couple framing documents for some events coming up. This is one that I’m still drafting, but I thought I’d throw the draft up and take any comments. Note that this is already at max length. Also, one site name has been removed in an effort to not attract the trolls. And citations haven’t been added (although I will need to be strategic with what to cite given length limits).

The Fast and Frugal Needs of the Online Reader

Many educators believe the solution to our current dilemma is to get our students to think more about the media that reaches them. But what if the solution was to get them to think less?

I say this partially to be provocative: as I’ll make clear momentarily, thinking “less” is meant here in a very specific way. But it’s evident that many of the sorts of academic investigations for which we train our students are a poor fit for the decentralized, networked environment of the web. Years ago, I used to teach students to look deeply at documents, and wring every last bit of signal out of them, performing a complex mental calculus at the end: does the story seem plausible? Does the language seem emotional? What is the nature of the arguments? Any logical fallacies? Is it well sourced? Does it look like a professional website?

Such approaches fail on the web for a number of reasons:

  • Students are really bad at weighting the various signals. A clickbait-ish ad on the sidebar can cause students to throw out the website of a prestigious news organization, while the clean interface of xxxxxx, a prominent node in the disinformation ecosystem, engenders confidence.
  • They don’t work under time pressure and at volume. Most of the online information literacy taught in higher education is built around students choosing six or seven resources for a term paper, where students may have several hours to spend vetting resources. In the real world we have minutes at most, seconds at worst.
  • Engagement with these sources is problematic in itself. The traditional academic approach is to evaluate resources by reading them deeply. This is a profoundly inappropriate tactic for disinformation. There is ample evidence that reading disinformation, even with a critical eye, can warp one’s perspective over time. From the perspective of bad actors, if you’re reading the site, they’ve won.

At the college level, online information literacy methods initially grew out of slow methods of print evaluation. Methods still in use, such as CRAAP and RADCAB, grew out of decades-old procedures to evaluate the purchase of print materials for library collections. It’s time to develop new methods and strategies suited to the speed, volume, and uncertainty of the social web.

Heuristics provide an alternate solution

In cases where individuals must make quick decisions under complexity and uncertainty, rules of thumb and quick standard procedures have been shown to outperform deeper analysis. Competent decision makers reduce the factors they look at when making decisions, and seek information on those limited factors consistently and automatically. This pattern applies to online information literacy as well.

As one example, imagine a student sees breaking news that Kim Jong-un has stated that any future nuclear attack would focus on Los Angeles. The student could look at the source URL of the story, the about page, and examine the language. See if the spelling exhibits non-native markers or if the other stories on the site were plausible. Alternatively, she could apply a simple heuristic: big, breaking stories will be reported by multiple outlets. We select some relevant text from the page, and right-click ourselves to Google News Search. If we’re met with a number of outlets reporting this, we’ll take it seriously. If we don’t see that, we dismiss it for the time being.

This process takes five seconds and can be practiced on any story that fits this description. It makes use of the web as a network of sites that provides tools (like Google News search) to make quick assessments of professional consensus. In this example, should the story turn out to be well reported, the results present you with an array of resources that might be better than the one that originally reached you, putting you on better footing for deeper analysis. In part, we reduce the complexity of initial vetting so that students can apply that cognitive energy more strategically.

Online information literacy built for (and practiced on) the web

Over the past year and a half, the project I am involved with has been developing a toolbox of techniques like this, relentlessly honing them and testing them with college students and professors. Our techniques tend to fall into various buckets that are not entirely different from traditional online information literacy concerns: Check for other coverage, find the original, investigate the publisher. But unlike much information literacy, these concerns are bonded to quick web-native techniques that can be practiced as habits.

The techniques encode expert understandings of which the students may not even be aware: our Google News search technique, for example, is meant to filter out much of the echo-system that Kate Starbird’s team has investigated. It does that by using a somewhat more curated search (Google News) instead of a less curated one (Google). While teaching the students about the echo-system may be beneficial, they don’t need to know about it to benefit from the technique.

What do we need to do as a community?

Despite the novelty of the problems and solutions, our process for developing educational approaches grows out of standard educational design.

  • Start with the scenarios. Any reasonable strategy we teach students to sort and filter media must grapple with authentic scenarios and work backwards from there. What do we expect the student to be able to do, under what conditions? How does that inform the strategies we provide?
  • Address the knowledge gaps the process foregrounds. Media literacy and news literacy remain important, but broad theories of media impact are often less helpful than domain-specific information students need to quickly sort media they encounter. What is a tabloid? A think tank? What is the nutraceutical industry and how do they promote medical misinformation? How does state-funded media differ from state-controlled media?
  • Learn to value efficacy over accuracy. Higher education is not known for valuing speed and simplicity over deeper analysis, but if we wish to change the online behavior of students these need to be core concerns. Any approach to uncertainty which seeks 100% accuracy is wrong-headed, and likely harmful.
  • Use the web as a web. For years, approaches have treated the web as an afterthought, just another domain in which to apply context-independent critical thinking skills. But the problems of the web are not the problems of the print world, and the solutions the web provides are distinct from print culture solutions. Approaches need to start with the affordances of the web as the primary context, pulling from older techniques as needed.

In short, develop new solutions native to the context and the problem that are lightweight enough that they have a chance of being applied after the student leaves the classroom. These are not new educational insights, but are ones we need to turn towards more fully if we wish to make a difference.

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