What I Learned From 5th Graders About Media Literacy

By Dan Koch      @danvkoch

So, something happened yesterday.

A teacher at one of the elementary schools in our district had requested I come by to teach her fifth grade students about web-based research—you know, best practices, how to discern good sources from bogus ones, and some digital citizenship stuff. I was excited! I love discussing these skills with students; especially since what it means to be a digital citizen continues to evolve and become both essential and ephemeral.

The day started out great—I built upon a great lesson concept by Jeff Utecht in which students would have to discern what signifies a website is a reliable source or not. We talked about the site thedogisland.com (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s a site that promises a safe haven complete with wide open beach for dogs to roam off leash from their owners—you ship them in a luxurious box, which the site provides “pictures” of, to the aforementioned Dog Island, for the canines to live out the rest of their days in peace). In short, it’s obviously fake. But to an untrained fifth grade eye, it seems legitimate. I introduced the site as one in a vast sea of websites created every minute on the internet, and we discussed what makes it look real (links that work, descriptions, photos, statistics of dogs on the island) and what looks questionable about it (looks dated, some word choices like “dogologist”).

After a great discussion, I let them in on the joke—the site wasn’t real. Some were surprised, but most held fast and claimed that they “knew it was fake all along.”

We then discussed what to look for in websites to determine validity, following Chris Betcher’s “5 Factors For Evaluating A Website:” Authority, Currency, Content, Audience, and Structure. Some students pointed out that the content of the site seems questionable on second glance, and they were unable to easily find the author of the site, much less any of the people the website was referring to. I then introduced Google’s [linkto:] syntax to them, after which you include a website’s address to see all other places linking to that site (i.e.: linkto:thedogisland.com). Students recognized that most other websites were either questions about The Dog Island’s validity, or simply the site linking back to itself. They’d never tried this before and were excited to try this technique to other sites they were familiar with.

Finally, I provided a Keynote slide with five QR codes linked to five different websites – some real, and some I knew to be fake, such as “The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.” I asked students to scan one code randomly and then apply the Google “linkto” technique and any of the other skills we had just discussed prior when evaluating The Dog Island’s website.

Students scanned with their iPads, and in teams, evaluated the random site they were met with. They had varying levels of difficulty discerning which sites were real and fake – but mostly because they had never been tasked with this before. It was fun to ask them questions about the content they were seeing and to watch them be critical about what they were seeing on their iPads.

However, something happened. One team raised their hand to share the website they had scanned and their evaluations of it’s validity, but when I asked them the name of their site, it wasn’t one of the five I had linked to with my QR codes. Upon further investigation, here’s what had occurred:

Using the “QRafter” app, some students scanned the codes I had projected, but before being taken to the website the QR code linked to, the app displayed an ad. Students tapped on the ad and evaluated that website instead.

How could I have missed this? And what a relevant, teachable moment about the way we need to be critical about the content in front of us on our screens? This led to another, “unscripted” discussion about digital advertising and how annoyed students have gotten about sites that seem to have cleverly placed advertisements that they tap on by mistake. We also discussed what companies  may do to target specific people in their ads, what sites they appear on, and what students can do to decipher their search results from advertisements.

Sometimes, the best things happen by accident.

Dan Koch is a Technology Integration Specialist for Citrus County Schools, 1/3 of the #EdTechAfterDark team, and can also be found over at DanKochEDU.com. 
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