Digital polarization – it’s all about ‘fake news’ and the deep divide that separates people into two camps of rigid bias.
At Georgia College, it’s about teaching students and the community how to distinguish fact from opinion. It’s about finding reliable sources and getting information right.
“Being chosen to lead a national digital initiative at this crucial moment in our nation’s history is a testament to Georgia College’s reputation for producing innovatively-prepared and engaged students. We are proud to serve both truth and trust – the two essential values of a healthy and thriving democracy." – Dr. Janet Hoffmann
The “Digital Polarization Initiative” to build public awareness for web literacy was created by the American Democracy Project (ADP), a program of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). AASCU selected Georgia College as one of 10 schools nationwide to develop curricular activities that build analytical web skills.
In response, Georgia College is launching its version of “DigiPo” – a yearlong effort to test and create activities that develop civic reasoning and critical thinking. The goal is to help students and community members evaluate massive amounts of information they’re bombarded with every day.
Mistakes and incorrect reporting are nothing new. But the term ‘fake news’ was coined in recent years to describe the phenomenon of misleading or outright false information rapidly spreading through social media. It seems people are pointing fingers at everyone else these days and yelling, “Fake news!” – especially when something goes against their own reasoning.
Helping students navigate their own emotions and the Internet’s ocean of opinions is crucial, said Jolene Cole, instruction and research librarian at Ina Dillard Russell Library. She’s a member of Georgia College’s DigiPo Committee along with interim library director Shaundra Walker, assistant director for faculty development Steven Jones and rhetoric professor Dr. Janet Hoffmann.
The committee has gotten reports from professors, who are seeing dubious sources and unproven notions on student assignments.
“How do you deal with students who come to class with conspiracy theories,” Cole said, “or they don’t know who to trust because they’re so cynical, and they think they can’t trust anybody?”
To combat this, faculty are being asked to test lessons and activities developed by Stanford History Education Group. One, called “Four Moves and a Habit,” is about keeping emotions in check, finding original sources, scrutinizing multiple sites and circling back to what’s trustworthy.
They’re also being asked to get creative with lessons and activities of their own. They’ll promote extracurricular events about fake news too – like library talks, public lectures, panel discussions, community forums and common readings.
About 26 faculty at Georgia College have attended early sessions to learn about the program. They’ll complete several webinars designed to help faculty incorporate fact-checking activities into existing courses. Some classes will be completely geared toward building better web skills.
By next spring, through pre- and post-testing assessments, Georgia College will report to AASCU which activities and lessons make the biggest impact and whether students are demonstrating better research skills. Data and statistics will be used to give a ‘best practices’ guide to colleges and universities nationwide.
“We’re trying to prove these interventions will make a difference in civil discourse and conduct,” Cole said. “We want students to know the truth, to know the facts no matter what side of the fence they’re on.”