Educating in the Age of Misinformation
By Lana Parker, PhD, editor of Education in the Age of Misinformation
Between election influencing and pandemic dissembling, the twin trends of mis- and disinformation have surfaced in the public consciousness. While these are age-old phenomena, their contemporary expression is increasingly prevalent and impactful. The vast reach of mis- and disinformation is a function of pervasive modern technologies that expand communication networks to provide unvetted and instantaneous access to an abundance of information from across the world. Given this context in the broader sociopolitical meaning-making environment, it is unsurprising that there are more questions now than ever before about how young people engage with online information, forming identities, values, and opinions. On the one hand, researchers in the field want to avoid cultivating moral panics around youth use of technology; on the other hand, there are legitimate concerns about addiction, exploitation, radicalization, and poor mental health.
The reason for concern is based on a range of complex and interrelated factors. First, young people are spending more time online and on social media from one year to the next. While the trends in the popularity of particular apps may vary, research shows that most young people start using some form of social media early and often. Second, all users of social media are vulnerable to the addictive properties built into the technology, keeping them engrossed and spiralling through information wormholes for hours on end; for youth, this means that much of their school and leisure time is susceptible to the pull of being online. Another issue is that the hidden technologies that form addictive patterns also serve to turn online communities of belonging into echo chambers that reinforce beliefs and polarize discourse. This can connect young people to new communities of affinity online, but it can also entrench or radicalize their perspectives. Finally, as a generation living on the frontiers of social media evolution and the new information environment, this cohort of young people are grappling with largely unregulated tech environments and the exponential growth of information capitalism. The novelty of context in a capitalist environment means that while the benefits of an app or technology might be broadly advertised, its potential harms are obfuscated, often appearing only once subscribership is high and the technology’s use is seemingly inevitable. Overall, while these factors are problematic for all users of technology, they have an outsized impact on young people who are in a sensitive developmental phase of their lives.
Given the magnitude of the concerns, it might seem that we should be urgently seeking new tools for making sense of the world, for parsing meaning, for forming judgments, and, indeed, for participating in democracies. It can, however, be quite helpful to take a step back and recognize that these inquiries into what it means to know, to learn, and to be are not novel—rather they are the ongoing preoccupation of philosophical study. Philosophical tools can help us analyze these emerging and persistent issues with a clearer view of the interrelated ontological, epistemological, and ethical considerations. In other words, what we need is not a list of technocratic, instrumentalist, knee-jerk, or piecemeal responses to each of the issues cited above, but rather a holistic engagement with some of the persistent, unresolved questions of how to live together well. The edited collection Education in the Age of Misinformation takes that perspective as a premise and marries it with explorations of how the issues of youth online life play out in classroom spaces and in schools.
I argue that the pedagogical implications of educating in an age of misinformation are extensive, requiring holistic, philosophical consideration in complement with strategies for better teaching and learning. Banning phones from classrooms does little to address how young people are coming to know, believe, value, and make judgments about the world. A policy like that serves to further cleave “real life” from the classroom, rendering authentic engagement with issues that students care about more distant. Adding curricular standards that focus on privacy and safety—or on the technological minefields of the new information environment alone—misses the forest for the trees. Instead, we may wish to consider the complexity of texts and online communities that students participate in as substantive, robust sites of potential learning. Teaching strategies that are born of an inclusive and responsive foundation foster multiple opportunities for bridging students’ at-home, online and school lives, without pathologizing their online behaviours and without the tone of moral panic that can decrease a young person’s willingness to engage.
Lana Parker is Associate Professor of Language Education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor, Canada. Her research examines relationality in education, with a particular focus on the intersections of literacies, ethics, and democracy. She has led nationally funded research in Canada on youth engagement with misinformation and responsive pedagogies since 2018.