Currently, there are not that many compelling initiatives or reams of data around what institutions of higher education are doing to instill digital citizenship in their students, or minimally, discussions about what digital citizenship values might be fundamental. A popular sentiment I hear often is that “college students are tech savvy” and “today’s students are the first social media generation.” In truth, these sentiments are factual only if you judge the world by select data. Younger people are in fact, by the numbers, “early adopters” of social media according to the Pew Research Center at pewinternet.org (see below.) And Pew Research Center data also illustrates that many social media users are not just a younger-skewing demographic but that these users have more education than we imagine and higher levels of income too.
Given these data-informed facts, it would be easy to stick with the conventional wisdom that these particular social media users are better equipped to participate in communication in the 21st century and sort through the gigabytes of information released into the world each day. But do the data and the conventional wisdom lead us to the right conclusion? Does all this tech-savvy digital media participation really translate into the digital literacy and citizenship skills we take for granted in younger users? One of the many questions can be: was everyone really prepared by the education they received before they got to a university or community college to analyze what is published on the technology platforms today? Where were they prepared for the world of Twitter posts and Facebook stories disguising themselves as fact? Who taught them how to spot ‘fake’ news or identify a spoof email or how to tell when a trending story is created by bots? It might be, in the final analysis, still reasonable to speculate that no one taught them. That they might have a few holes in their knowledge. And that while they are the masters of knowing how to do a great many tasks in the digital world, analyzing the content they encounter might need to be more a part of the mission of higher education than people in the bubble of conventional wisdom realize.
If we look at social media activity, certain platforms resonate with users, despite the hype surrounding newer and edgy places on the web. Facebook, for example, is currently still the most visited and used social media platform and is the place where 68% of the US adult population log on to get news, interact with friends, shop, discover and live their lives. This bodes well for Facebook as a stellar place to create friendships, sell products, trade services, discover non-profits and find local businesses to the benefit of the people on the platform. Still given the demographics of Facebook in the United States, it can also raise the question, “why is Facebook a great place to push spoofs, fake news and conspiracy theories?” Because it’s ubiquitous and easy to use? Maybe.
After all, any place where large groups of people spend time will make it a tempting target regardless of who is logging on. Still, logically, there is also a possibility that this large-sized, tech-forward demographic group is susceptible and open to being influenced in not just productive ways but in potentially negative and dangerous ways too. And that maybe those of us working in higher education and those of us who remember the upside of the era of gatekeepers need to think more about a broader group of digital skills university students need to have reinforced in all their curriculum from environmental science to languages. And perhaps it’s a conversation more of us should have in future conclaves, at conferences, and in casual conversations.
If you want to read more about digital citizenship or look for teaching resources, here are some excellent places:
First, through Emory University there are great teaching resources located here on the: Nature of Evidence: How Do You Know.
Second, one of the best open resource whitepapers on the subject of digital literacy (and something of mission statement for educational technologists) is by Henry Jenkins, formerly of the MIT Meda Lab and now at the USC Annenberg School for Communication: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.
Third, two professors at the University of Washington set up an interesting website to accompany a course that delves into Fake News and provides numerous resources: Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World. How does ‘fake news’ manifest in different subject matter and fields?
Fourth, read about what Columbia Journalism Review is doing to raise awareness of fake news.
WHO USES SOCIAL MEDIA: AGE
WHO USES SOCIAL MEDIA: EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT
|High School or Less||Some College||College Graduate|
WHO USES SOCIAL MEDIA: INCOME LEVEL
|Less than $30,000||$30,000 to $49,999||$50,000 to $74,999||$75,000+|
Pew Research Center, 2016