Campus speaker says fact-checking could be a weak spot for new generation of students


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Due to the coronavirus pandemic San Diego State has transitioned to primarily online instruction using Zoom, Canvas and Blackboard.

by Michael Cline, Staff Writer

Despite living in an age where information is easily accessible through technology, a Stanford University professor said he’s found that a large number of students have displayed an issue that demonstrates a fundamental problem in sourcing and digital literacy.

The issue, he said, is fact-checking.

Professor Sam Wineburg guest lectured at San Diego State on Nov. 15, discussing the importance of learning history at a time when smartphones give easy access to much of the world’s knowledge.

“Why even teach history?” Wineburg asked. “What is its use when we have an external memory aid far more powerful than our own brain?”

Wineburg’s doctorate research, informed by his own experiences as a student of history, compared AP students to historians with specialized focuses on their ability to analyze primary-source documents related to the War for Independence. Wineburg discovered that, although the historians lacked the specific facts surrounding the event that students had learned during the course, they incorporated sourcing into their responses.

Wineburg defined sourcing as a “fundamental challenge to the authority of the textbook” and as “epistemology crossed with agency.” He said consumers of information have an “absolute responsibility and right” to question information and sources.

“The agency is in you; that you have the responsibility not to swallow information but to judge it and render a thoughtful view on whether it is worthy of your belief,” Wineburg said.

Wineburg introduced additional research to demonstrate this fundamental issue in sourcing and digital literacy. The study tested 7,804 students across 12 states on their ability to analyze internet news articles. The research found that 84 percent of middle schoolers could not differentiate between news articles and paid online content. In a similar study, 80 percent of high schoolers never asked where online information came from.

Additionally, when testing Stanford students, historians and media fact-checkers, Wineburg found only fact-checkers could completely distinguish reliable sources of information from those with an inherent bias. Wineburg said media fact-checkers were successful since they engaged in lateral reading. When given a website, fact-checkers immediately left the site to gather information about the source.

Wineburg encouraged future educators to root out any pessimism over the fate of critical thinking in the digital age. He also urged audience members to avoid vertical reading on a single webpage and to distrust their intelligence when determining the reliability of information.

“The future of the past is on our screens, but its fate rests in our hands,” he said. “It is not hyperbole to say that the very democratic pillars of this country depend on our educational response to this challenge.”

Interim provost Joseph Johnson also spoke of the university’s mission to graduate “compassionate leaders, ethical innovators and global citizens” who might craft solutions addressing contemporary problems facing public trust in digital information.

Among the 500 attendees included third-year computer science major Paige Doherty. She found Wineburg’s lecture raised important questions in the way some college courses are taught.

“I found the lack of ambiguity in teaching to be really thought-provoking,” Doherty said. “Purely speaking to slides doesn’t allow students the chance to challenge information and question sourcing.”