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My Best Friend Google: the need for media literacy

January 3, 2010

As the first decade of the 2000s comes to an end, what do you think are the most significant changes?

For me, I cannot believe the improvements in technology. My children cannot comprehend a world before the internet. How difficult it must have been for my parents to answer my youthful, incessant “but why?” questions without access to the web. No wonder they were simply left with “because I said so.” Nowadays, I don’t need any pre-existent knowledge because of my friend Google. My kids aren’t under the impression that I have all the answers — they know better — but they know where to find the information. Gone are the days of Encyclopedia Britannica. We can access all information everywhere on my tiny iPhone. “Just look it up” is an often-heard expression in our house.

The definitive answer to every question is out there. Or is it?

We used to get our information from library books written by experts in the field and daily news from unbiased sources. Libraries have changed with people now embracing the ease of ebooks with the Kindle and the Nook. Newspapers are no longer delivered because people can access the news online for minimal (or no) cost. Besides, the internet can provide information on everything… and everyone has the ability to post their own opinions without the need for fact-check or resources.

Interested in the implication of a world without books? Check out the book Feed, which envisions a world where people don’t even need to know how to read because they get everything they need to know from the internet “feed”, surgically implanted in their head. Of course, the information in this future world is controlled by the companies who supply the feed. Unimaginable? Have you watched the news lately? The same story is reported in several different ways depending on what channel you tune in (thank goodness they tell us they are “fair and balanced” or how would we know?).

In today’s wired society, students of all ages have access to virtually unlimited and unfiltered information on the Internet. Can our children understand and evaluate the information out there? Will they become passive learners who simply absorb what Google provides?

Schools everywhere have embraced integrating technology into the classroom. We have discussed podcasts, smartboards, online learning. The internet has broadened the learning opportunities for our children. Students can Skype with a classroom in another country, post blog comments on homework assignments, or work team projects without ever physically being in the same room. They believe that there are no questions without answers, no limits to the information they can obtain.

There are drawbacks to providing technology without including instruction on evaluation skills. The article “Critical Thinking and the Internet,” examines the problem with students doing their research online with “the often over-whelming quantity of raw, unfiltered information.” The students discussed in the article were to research the Holocaust online, and they ultimately concluded that it must have been a hoax. Shocking and sad, but perhaps not surprising. This article was written in 1999, but I imagine the results wouldn’t be that different today. Type in any historical term on Google and you will receive many hits that may be historically based, personal agenda, or a combination. Can we expect our children to distinguish the truth?

We can’t simply turn off the computer and send the kids to the library for their research papers. These kids need real skills to address the influx of information they receive every day. We have to teach our children media literacy, critical thinking, and internet safety to help them navigate all the information that inundates their lives. Suggested questions that aid evaluation of any information:

  • Who made — and who sponsored — this message, and what is their purpose?
  • Who is the target audience and how is the message specifically tailored for that audience?
  • What are the different techniques used to inform, persuade, entertain, and attract attention?
  • What messages are communicated (and/or implied) about certain people, places, events, behaviors, lifestyles and so forth?
  • How current, accurate, and credible is the information in this message?
  • What is left out of this message that might be important to know?

Technology is moving faster than ever before, and still gaining momentum. During the next decade, let’s resolve to embrace this new wave of information — with a critical eye.

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