Friday, May 11, 2012

Attempting to Teach Digital Citizens about PLNs, Teaching the (non)Controversy part III

This was originally going to be a blog about how kids communicate based on my reflections of the last two weeks of the #BYOTchat (Thursdays 9pm...where all the cool educators hangout).

I was going to talk about the increase in students using twitter over facebook. How a huge factor in this seems to be the adoption of facebook by the students' parents. This was going to branch into a decision making matrix about distinguishing when we are trying to reach out to kids (in which case, be where they are) from when we are teaching kids to be attentive to their communications responsibilities (in which case, set the expectation and don't coddle). I would have concluded with some tangent about developing social media policies for schools that respects the privacy of teachers but encourages interaction with students.

This will not be that blog. Instead...

Teaching the (non)Controversy, Revisited

Note: this is part three, but can be read without the other two. Of course, if you want the whole picture...

In part one of Teaching the Controversy, I discussed the big picture idea of how our modern system with infowhelm and a dissolution of the forces that shape the Marketplace of Ideas is making it more difficult to determine truth and accurate information.

In part two, we analyzed how this impacts today's students and how creating assignments which embrace controversy might help us build the tools of critical analysis and discernment in students that a) they lack and b) desperately need.

I thought that would probably be the end of the discussion (for the time being).

[Interlude One]

One of the assignments I give in the last month of the #digcit class is a weekly analysis of a technology article. This analysis serves two functions: first, it allows students some exposure to current trends in technology that interests them. Second, students are challenged to identify a claim made by the article and analyze the evidence (or lack thereof) given to prove the claim.

.02% is really small
One of my students chose Twitter's response to the leaked twitter passwords picked up by a number of news agencies last week. In his summary, he challenged the claim that "it was not a big deal" because out of 60,000 leaked passwords, 20,000 were duplicates. He pointed out that twitter was concerned with 20-30,000 accounts when they should actually be worried about 40,000.

In the class discussion, we were able to use this example to point out a few things:
  1. The source article that was cited was not very well written. It skipped a lot of information from the original Twitter talking points. (note: you would only know this if you did some digging).
  2. In terms of significance, the difference between 20,000 accounts and 60,000 accounts when there are 140 million active users, is probably not enough to sway an opinion change one way or another.
At that point, another student asked why I was critical of the information from the article...enough so that I went digging for the full statement. The answer, surprised even me: "They [the writers on that particular site] are not the best journalists -- I only use that site for product reviews...so i just assumed something was off"
[End Interlude]

Think of these levels of information analysis nuance that have to be taught to understand this:
  • Don't believe everything you read at face value -
    We teach that. Check
  • Even if that source is credible by every measure you have been taught -
    Check? (said with hesitation)
  • Understand that an expert in one sub-section of a topic might not be an expert in another -
    hmm. we don't teach that as much
  • Evaluate all the facts from multiple sources from different points of view to determine the significance of the problem -- go beyond just the ability to explain the situation -
    That is getting really nit-picky. These are freshman. There are only so many hours in the day...

The New Authoritative Source: Personal Learning Network

At this point, I went into full-on Jesuit educator mode and asked the students to put away their phones and do some reflection (this is common practice, so they did it with a minimum amount of eye-rolling):

  • What are the three sources of information that you rely on most?
  • What are the next 5 sources of information that you use? (can you name eight sources of trusted information? my students struggled)
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics that makes you put something or someone in your top 3, not your next 5?

After a few minutes we began to discuss. Some quick hit answers:
"I don't think that I have that many"
"I don't know why I trust them. I just do"
"I think it is because they say some things that I already know is true, so I believe other things"
"I like them"

At this juncture, I gave them the term "Personal Learning Network". For the purposes of the discussion, I am thinking of a PLN as any source that you believe prima facie (at first glance) unless proven otherwise -- A trusted person, agency, source.

One student volunteered to be our class case study. He explained that his most trusted source was trusted in large part because he felt they spoke about things that he felt strongly were true (similar worldview). He contrasted it with other competing sources that he felt were very biased. When pressed, he acknowledged that this bias was not scientifically determined, but a general feeling of unfairness that was confirmed by others.

If our most trusted sources are chosen in part, because they reinforce the ideas that we already have and we are likely to suspect data that comes from a source outside of our PLN, particularly if they have a different worldview, then how hard is it to change our minds about something we feel strongly about?

"It would be very difficult", our case-study student responded.
"They will just keep telling you things you want to hear."
"It would be impossible. How could you do it at all?"

It's Baaaack...
[Interlude Two]

Student 1: Is that why there are still people who believe the Earth is flat?

Teacher: Can your prove otherwise? I can only think of one way and I don't have an eclipse handy.

Student 2: It's what we were taught. There is something about the Coriolis effect.

Student 3: Well, most of us know it because we learned it in school. So teachers are part of our PLN?

Student 4: Do all teachers have to be a part of your PLN? As a group? Or do we pick and choose?

[End Interlude]

Human Development, Learning Networks, and Infowhelm

If you have read the previous two posts, I won't bore you by going into details. We had a robust discussion about how we live in a world that is set up to force their to be two sides to everything, even when it is really unnecessary, and how that becomes the source of fact for particular worldviews. From there:


The thoughts and feelings that help shape our
PLN may happen when we are very young

  • We talked about how the sources we choose to trust come from thoughts and feelings that may be developed before we even know what research or bias is.
  • We talked about distinguishing fact from opinion.
  • We talked some more about distorting facts and pseudo-controversies.
  • We talked about how most of the facts we know come to us second or third hand, from school, from our PLN, from Wikipedia.
  • We talked about how boring and difficult Peer-Reviewed journals are to read, even if you can access them.

...and then the bell rang.

One of my students stalled as the others shuffled out the room, more thoughtful than usual on a Friday afternoon. "So what is the answer? How do we solve this problem?"

  • I thought the answer could have something to do with an awareness of self - how we filter information and the blinders that we put on as part of human nature's way of dealing with the chaos of input.
  • I thought the answer might lie partly in making the conscious choice to include people in our PLN whom we respected but with whom we often disagreed.
  • I thought the answer definitely entailed developing new skills that included critical reading and rapid/regular crosschecking of facts.

"I don't know," I said, "but I think the topic is an important one, particularly as more and more information is thrown at you on a daily basis.

"You should teach this to the class next year"

Indeed. We all should.