fire hydrant water fountain

Image licensed under Creative Commons by Wally Gobetz –

Remember when there were just a few national newspapers, a local newspaper (or two if you lived in a bigger city), and only three national TV networks with local affiliates? Like Pepperidge Farm, I remember. It seemed like there was plenty of information available, but the media landscape wasn’t very expansive or egalitarian. And then the Internet happened, or as the kids call it these days, the internet. I still remember my first exposure to it in 1993 clearly.

I was at one of the many student computer labs at Missouri University, probably taking a break from writing something when I minimized Word to see my desktop. On it, there was a shortcut to a program called Mosaic, which I launched. I was just curious. On the pages I browsed, the rather unsophisticated graphics and dry information barely held my attention. All of it was very academic and not at all interesting to me. All of the information I found was hosted at universities or government institutions. I clicked on text that took me to other pages, hopping from one rather dull page to another rather dull page and another until I was at a page at Cal Tech. “Cool,” I thought, I’m actually on a computer in my home state. On that page, there was a link to information hosted at a university in Australia. I clicked it, and suddenly, within seconds, I had traveled from a desktop computer in the middle of the U.S. to a computer on a completely different continent, a very distant one, about 9,000 miles away from where I was sitting. At that moment, I knew sharing information was never going to be the same again.

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who created TCP/IP, the code that allows the internet to exist, received the Media of Freedom from President George W Bush in 2005.

But I was hardly a pioneer. The earliest version of the internet (minus the web) had been around since the 1970s, when Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf developed TCP/IP, the DNA of the internet. And before that, it was ARPANET, way back in 1969. But at that time, the internet wasn’t for the public, only for connecting universities and scientific research centers, specifically ones working with the US Department of Defense, which commissioned and funded the creation of ARPANET. (I highly recommend Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet by Lyon and Hafner). Had I been studying computer science or engineering at MU instead of journalism, I probably would have happened on the internet earlier than I did.

But still, I knew then that if anyone with a networked computer could access information that was being stored on a connected computer literally anywhere in the world, then the internet had completely revolutionized information sharing. Fast forward 26 years (yike!) – now we’re drowning in information.

I come from a journalism background. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life. I graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, which was the world’s first school of journalism. Over 110 years later, the School is still vibrant, active, and well-respected in the field, regardless of the medium. I was an photo intern at the Christian Science Monitor, considered to be one of the least biased news publications in the US. Among the many jobs I’ve had over the years, I was briefly a journalist.

Journalists are, in essence, researchers and communicators, albeit ones who work on very short deadlines. In 1943, journalist Alan Barth wrote, “News is only the first rough draft of history.” While that quote isn’t exactly complimentary, it does illuminate the fact that while the news is flawed, journalists are historians of a sort. They know something about the importance of quality sources and getting facts right even if they don’t have the benefit of having Wonder Woman’s magic lasso or an infinite amount of time to suss out the truth.

Seeing as how people rank news media rather low in trustworthiness compared to scientists and other groups (only ranking above politicians in many cases, which is damming with faint praise, indeed), it doesn’t seem like the public really trusts the group most dedicated to providing information of all types to them every day. However, while public trust of media has declined, almost a third of people have say their level of trust in their preferred sources of media has actually increased. To me, it appears as though the media landscape continues to fracture and information consumers gravitate towards sources which confirm their own biases instead of necessarily seeking out sources which are considered to provide less slanted news coverage and analysis and may provide more objective and truthful account of events. In an article about a recent study titled, ‘”You are Fake News“: Idealogical (A)symmetries in Perceptions of Media Legitimacy’,

…researchers found that people on both sides of the traditional left-right divide are equally likely to believe political news that is consistent with their ideology, and to disbelieve news that is inconsistent with their side. For instance, liberals judged the anti-Trump story as being much more legitimate than the pro-Trump story, with conservatives showing the opposite judgment.

Those on both sides of the political divide distrust sources which don’t confirm their biases and are prone to spreading unreliable or flat-out false information information from their trusted sources. Naturally, the effect is more pronounced the further someone is away from the center.

In addition, another study found social media users spread a relatively low number of fake news articles compared to the overall number of links they share. However, the study did find that one demographic group was more likely to share false news than any other group.

Our most robust finding is that the oldest Americans, especially those over 65, were more likely to share fake news to their Facebook friends. This is true even when holding other characteristics—including education, ideology, and partisanship—constant. No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news, making our age finding that much more notable.

In one of my earliest journalism classes, we discussed a “web of trust” (not to be confused with the phrase when used in the context of cryptography), where I trust you, and therefore I trust what you post since I know you’ve evaluated the information you’re passing along and there’s a high probability I can safely pass it along. This isn’t 100% foolproof, but sharing information from other people who I trust does generally work out well. I want to be trusted, even by people who don’t share my views. I think it’s impossible to have honest, constructive conversations and find solutions which will have widespread acceptance without a certain level of trust.

Since many people in our PLNs include people who we’ve never met and may never meet in person, I think we naturally gravitate toward leaders in the EdTech community because we know that if they’re leaders, then they reached their professional positions and their position in the much larger EdTech community because they’ve proven a reliable source of trustworthy information. These leaders also act as filters, not only identifying quality information, but also significant information, especially since it’s virtually impossible to process all of it.

We now live in a world where information comes blasting out at us like water out of a fire hose. The barriers to entry for publishing online, disseminating a podcast, a vlog, etc., are so ridiculously low that virtually anyone with a smartphone and access to an internet connection can be a publisher. While access to content creation has become extremely egalitarian, the quality of the content has plunged. The staggering breadth and depth of content doesn’t mean the quality of the content is better, there’s just now a lot more of it to sift through. Proportionally, there’s a lot more chaff than wheat now. However, the guidelines and characteristics of good research haven’t changed, just the tools and the volume of information people have to sift through has. EdTech coaches have to become proficient in and knowledgeable about leveraging the power of the internet to find and verify information by not only curating good sources of information for all of their population, but also for themselves.

As I expand my research into EdTech, I’ll bring that same level of information discrimination to the process. Since I’m pretty new to the field, I’ll need to use my network to help me suss out good sources and avoid poor ones, and I’ll help my audiences as well.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

History books have to be some of the most well-researched publications available, written by people who have learned what primary and secondary sources are, how to find them, interpret them, glean answers for their questions, draw conclusions, and communicate their findings. Getting a history book published is no mean or inexpensive feat. This doesn’t mean that once even the most thorough historian writes something, that’s the last word on the subject. Often new primary and secondary sources come to light, other historians take the same information from the same sources and look at it from a different perspective. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a good example of the last possibility. Whatever criticisms some historians have leveled at it, it certainly has changed the lens through which many people view American history and made history more interesting.

Academic Resources

Despite the fact that the internet is the most awesome research tool and information repository humanity has ever been able to access from everywhere in the world with an internet connection, there’s one serious problem when it comes to researching, and it would be simply crazy to not mention it. The majority of primary sources haven’t been digitized, which means they’re not searchable online, which means you would have to actually go to the place(s) where they have the document(s) you want, assuming you can find them in the first place. I know, that’s a huge caveat and probably deserves a couple posts. I’ll tie off that caveat by saying that a good reference librarian is very useful and skilled professional who’s a researcher’s best friend for good offline and online resources.

Google Scholar and others

That said, there are countless primary and research documents online that students of every age can explore, and there are excellent academic search engines to help students find them, each with their own specialty. Google Scholar is a good place to start because it has a very familiar look and feel to the regular Google Search engine and a very wide range of documents. From their “About” page:

Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Google Scholar helps you find relevant work across the world of scholarly research.

If you grew up using a card catalog and began your university studies before the internet came to your school, you’ll understand just how amazing the above description of Scholar’s resources is and how remarkable its features really are. As researchers, what we can do now is simply unimaginable to someone who was doing academic research 30 years ago. I haven’t been a college student for a very long time, but now that I’m trying to become a resource for internet research, among many other things, this is a great time to restart and refresh my research skills. It’s never too late and one can never be too great to learn something new, especially learning an amazing tool which would help me learn a lot of new somethings.

Fortunately, Google and other sites provide some good guides to using Scholar effectively, including some tips and hacks. In the interests of casting a critical eye in every direction, even Big G, some of the criticism seems well warranted, but also not disqualifying, even to its critics.

…since Google has made no firm commitment to filtering out predatory journals and other pseudo-science sources, much of the material that will appear in your search may well be of poor academic quality. That being said, however, Google Scholar can still be a valuable resource when you are just beginning your search. (May 24, 2018)

To sum up, while Google Scholar is a great research tool, there are a lot of other great online research tools worth checking out and you probably shouldn’t rely on just one of them to do research.

Mass Media Research

As the saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Even before the 2016 elections, internet users, especially those on social media, were exposed to false information almost constantly. Mass media, even though it’s “only the first rough draft of history,” has relatively short deadlines, and its output is (literally) disposable and ephemeral (especially now that every news organization has a website and its writers and photographers post via Twitter), but even mass media does its best to fact check what they publish. In this age of hyper-partisanship, “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and spin, there are some great sites to help you check not only the facts of stories, but also what biases, if any, a publication has.

he probably didn't say itEducators and parents can help the next generation of information consumers to think critically about information, especially when they find it on sites they don’t already know or trust. Besides introducing them to the fact- and bias-checking links in the preceding paragraph, you can also share these deliberately fake (and kid-safe) sites with them to engage them in what will likely (hopefully!) be one of many conversations about how to tell the real thing from a fake.

My experiences combating false information on social media among my friends and friends of friends practically deserves a book and an adapted miniseries. It’s been discouraging to see what people take as fact and pass along. Confirmation bias really is the root of the problem. To be good researchers and educators, we have to know what our biases are and actively resist their influence on what we allow ourselves to believe and what we what we pass on. Like a scientist whose conclusions are poor due to faulty data, our viewpoints and opinions are flawed if our facts aren’t trustworthy.