Unless you have been living under a rock, the last several months in the U.S. has meant an onslaught of news stories around our election and the political aftermath that followed a Trump presidency. As someone who works closely with students and teachers, I’ve been traveling to various schools both in and out of my district to talk about a great many things surrounding social media. Lately, many of these talks have turned towards “fake news” and the premise of what is real and what isn’t.
As kids learn and grow up in the 21st century, they quickly realize that information is cheap. Unlike hundreds of years ago, where only the literate could relay information (sometimes with their own spin), now we have everyone, including the leader of our country sending messages directly to the masses in 140-characters or less. While this level of direct communication may seem like a great way to filter out the “fake news” types, it also means that news is not being vetted as it reaches our inbox or Twitter feed. Students (and adults) today now need to take every post, tweet, or website with a grain of salt. Kids may be able to get information freely and instantly, but it takes work to determine what is real and what isn’t.
“Fake news” isn’t new
In 1938, Orson Welles decided to get behind the microphone of his radio show and realistically re-enact an invasion from aliens in a show he called “The War of the Worlds”. As people believed that anything from the radio was true, hearing this tale of aliens taking over the planet created a state of mass-hysteria. Back then, as the radio was the only means of mass communication, it meant that intermingling news with entertainment happened from time to time. People not privy to this fact were indeed sent into hysterics as they ran outside their homes looking up for the UFOs that would surely be landing at any moment. Making it seem real was what made it so believable.
Images drive historical and modern media
Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations told their stories by drawing pictures on walls in the form of hieroglyphics. We are now experiencing a revitalization of that image-driven movement on the web. Memes, animated gifs, and infographics now clog most of our social media feeds as an eye-catching way to get a click. Look on most major websites and you’ll see links to several stories with sensational titles and an image to make us click. Headlines like “What happened next will shock you” with an image of a man with a shark behind him seem to crowd my “recommended stories” section of most websites I visit. This too, isn’t a new thing with mass media. The National Enquirer in some ways was the original “click bait” before the internet even existed on a wide scale. Grocery store shoppers standing in the check-out isle would see the headline about batboy or the latest from Brad-gelina and be tempted to purchase just to see more details inside.
Most sources have a spin
Between the direct messages we can receive on social media, there are also professionally published news stories that reach our stream one way or another. A couple of months ago this image went viral as it broke down various news agencies based on range of complex to sensationalist vertically and liberal to conservative viewpoints horizontally. This is a great image to share with students because it shows that while all of these websites, newspapers and broadcast shows are technically “news” they do come with their own biases. Vanessa Otero actually created the original infographic and has a great breakdown of the Reasoning and Methodology Behind the Chart that really is worth the read. She even points out that she created the graphic because we are in a day and age where we don’t read everything and that we are more and more visually driven (see previous point).
So how do we teach kids about all of this?
Teaching kids to think critically about all of this can seem like a monumental task. During my talks with 4th and 5th graders this month, I’ll show them a series of websites and images and ask them to determine if they are fake or real. One of the best recent resources I’ve discovered comes out of a study taken last year from Stanford University. The study (executive summary here), shows a variety of activities shared with high school students to determine whether or not a news story is real or not. One example that I’ve used from the study is the Fukushima nuclear flower picture and post below:
Many students immediately say the picture is fake or photoshopped. When I reveal to them that it is actually a real photograph, most claim that it must be a true photo and probably happened new Fukushima, Japan. However, when I ask them how they know it was near Fukushima, they realize that they poster of the image could have made that up, especially given that the site imgur lets anyone upload and comment on images without vetting the sources.
Having these sort of activities with students can cause them to pause and be skeptical of sources and not just take them at face value. And while sites like Snopes are essential in the critical thinking tool kit, students should still check multiple sources before validating and image or resource. Need help getting the conversation started in your class or school? Check out this 2:10 video on how to quickly fact check fake news sites via Channel 4 FactCheck to help kick off discussion.
As I’ve shared, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but now the variety of channels of mass media and a contentious presidential election has brought this issue to the forefront and it’s time we started having these discussions with our students. Seriously. Let’s get real.
Other resources on this topic:
My slides from my Elementary “Tech Talks” with 4th and 5th graders
The Problem with Fake News (and how our students can solve it) – (video via John Spencer @spencerideas)
Every year I since 2013, I like to take a few risks and attempt to predict which new trends will catch on in the world of education and ed tech. Some years I’ll get it right, some I’ll get wrong. Among my best predictions were:
2015 – Pearson will lose its massive testing contract in Texas. (100% accurate prediction)
2015 – Drones will make their way into education (mostly true and happening now)
2015 – I will finally publish a book. (took until 2016, but it happened)
2014 – The “21st Century Skills” will be renamed something more appropriate and clever – (sort of happening now with “Future Ready” skills)
Of course, they ain’t all winners folks. Some of my more famous failed predictions were:
2013 – A non-Apple tablet will rule them all (Chromebooks now surpassed iPads in sales in schools, but they aren’t technically a “tablet”)
2015 – A human battery level app will be invented (not yet….)
All in all, I feel like my track record is about 50/50 on these. With that said, let’s see how I did on this past year’s bold predictions sure to be wrong:
Prediction – A school will try a self-driving bus
Outcome – not yet
I know this prediction seems completely unfeasible, but when you think about the practicality of it, should they get the safety part down, I think this will happen in the next 5-10 years. In fact, this year in Helsinki they actually have the world’s first self-driving bus, so it’s only a matter of time until education catches on.
Prediction – MYOT (“Make Your Own Textbook”) Becomes a Reality
Outcome – trending in the right direction
This is actually getting closer and closer to being a reality. With colleges like Rice’s Openstax and MIT’s Open Courseware now entering the fray, I think K-12 will continue to travel down this path sooner rather than later.
Prediction – A “Teen Social Media Prediction” app will be invented
Outcome – Wrong
The truth is, even if there was an app that could predict what kids were doing online it wouldn’t matter. As I wrote in this post (Everything is Social Media) last spring, technically, everything that kids do online can be social. From making comments on Amazon to chatting with friends on XBox, social media is here to stay and it doesn’t really matter if we can predict the next big platform or not.
Prediction – In a district far, far away….someone will develop Star Wars school.
Outcome – NO
Wishful thinking on my part. Learn we must. Create we will.
Prediction – Speaking of Star Wars…the Learning will awaken at iPadpalooza this summer
Outcome – True
We had one of our most engaging iPadpaloozas ever this past summer. With the theme of “May the Learning be with You”, the event featured lightsabers, stormtroopers (in the bathroom even) and a bantha’s worth of high quality speakers and sessions. Can’t wait until 2017! Here’s a highlight video of this year’s event:
Prediction – The Election Will Be Televised…via Periscope
Outcome – Mostly True
While I was right about the fact that social media would play a large role in the election, I was wrong about the tool. Periscope and Facebook Live did play a role in the messages online, but in the end, it was the president-elect’s use of twitter to sway the masses that ended up tipping the tide in his favor. Whether you like him or not, in an age where “who ever says it first must be right”, the reality TV star played that card masterfully to craft his message and sway people into his camp. Now comes the hard part for him….actually being the president.
Prediction – The “Undead” learning movement will happen!
Outcome – Still hopeful
As much as I would have loved a protest of broken #2 pencils being tweeted, snapped, and instagrammed out, this movement never quite took off. That said, more and more schools (like these in San Diego) are seeing the damage of too much standardized testing and thus reducing it from their daily practices.
Prediction – A School will go 1:1 cardboard
Outcome – Almost a reality
With the launch of Google Expeditions spreading like wild fire and the addition of Nearpod’s VR box, we are seeing more and more of these cardboard modeled phone-based VR goggles. Zapbox even makes a headset that does mixed reality. I’m a sucker for cool kickerstarters!
Prediction – I’ll Write a Children’s Book
Outcome – I still have a couple of weeks left
I’m in the middle of finishing my 6th book in the 6-book Mobile Learning Mindset series, so my time is very short here. That said, I have some early leads and a couple of ideas that might help me self-publish my first children’s book in 2017. Here’s hoping!
So there you have it. Some winners. Some losers. Some that remain to be seen. Now comes the hard chore of researching trends from 2016 and attempting to gather them into some sort of coherent list for 2017. Come back in January to see what crazy ideas come to fruition then and place your bets on which I’ll get right or…more than likely….wrong.
In the movie Harry Potter, one of the most fantastical moments happens when Harry receives his invisibility cloak, passed down from his father. It was a powerful moment in those movies and a tool that Harry would utilize many times over in the following films to help get him in and out of trouble.
While this magic may seem like fiction, I have news for you. Most of us now harness the power of invisibility in the palm of our hands. My wife and I began to refer to the magic of what we called the “Invisible Cell Phone Shield”, or ICPS, back before smartphones were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. I remember my first encounter with this phenomenon back in 2004.
I had recently purchased what I then described to my wife as “the last cell phone I’ll ever own” —the Motorola RAZR. It was so cool and slick and shiny and even looked like it could be some sort of weapon. At any rate, we were waiting for a friend outside of a University of Texas basketball game who was supposed to bring us some tickets. Texting wasn’t really wide-spread at the time so I was stuck with this RAZR attached to my head trying to get a hold of him. We wandered around outside the arena for about 20 minutes, my wife’s foot tapping impatiently with every passing minute.
At that moment, I captured my first glimpse of the power of invisibility. As I wandered over by the “Player Will Call” door, phone still firmly planted on my ear and a furrowed brow across my face, the door magically opened. An usher, seeing my stress and now doubt high-status phone had surmised that we must be trying to get in. However, rather than bother me with a question like “can I see your tickets?” he instead let us wander right in through the back door and practically onto the court.
When we got inside my wife looked at me in dismay and said, “what just happened?” I didn’t have an answer for her, but somehow we were now sitting court-side at a basketball game in seats we had no business being in. We both began to get nervous. I called my friend again. No response. The game was about to start. An usher, looked in our direction and started walking toward us. Carefully and purposefully, I picked up my phone and placed it on my ear. This time, I acted like I was in a deep conversation. The usher approached, paused for a moment, then moved on with a sort of dumb-founded look on his face. It worked again!!
After tip-off we were able to finally locate our friend and go to our actual seats, but that moment stuck in both of our heads. What was this witchcraft that made us invisible? Could it work anywhere else? (short answer- no, something I would find out the following year when I tried to use it to sneak into the 2005 National Championship game)
We had discovered a secret power this mobile technology held. It made us not only somewhat invisible, but also protected us from harm or questioning. It was the Invisible Cell Phone Shield and it was a great thing to behold.
That was 10 years ago. Today, you see this ICPS as common place throughout modern society. People walking down the street, holding the phone up to their ear to avoid real conversation. Hanging out near a grocery store exit around Girl Scout cookie time is a great time to watch this phenomenon in action. Even the Girl Scouts can’t seem to penetrate its defenses. Common waiting areas like bus stops, elevators, doctor’s offices, etc seem to also have a case of widespread ICPS. I even witnessed our beloved former UT football coach Mack Brown using the Invisible Cell Phone Shield recently when I saw him walking through the airport.
What started out as a magical tool, a cloak that could help me get in and out of trouble, has now become a means of social isolation. It has become a necessity when going out into the world and mixing in public places with strangers. And now that these are all smartphones (update: the RAZR was not the last phone I ever bought) it seems as if we don’t even have to press the device to our ear to gain the power of invisibility.
This video called “Look up” was released recently and has gone viral on social media (ironic considering the content).
In the video the author demonstrates a situation where he chose to make himself invisible and in doing so, misses the opportunity to interact with the future love of his life. While I think this is an extreme example of how too connected/not connected we are as a society, it demonstrates perfectly what’s happened to this once magical power. It’s almost like Harry got the cloak, put it on, and never took it off again, especially when it came to being a crowd of strangers.
So my new challenge for all of the world is not to just go out and be ‘visible’ by detaching yourself from your phone. Instead, I challenge you to break someone’s Invisible Cell Phone Shield and actually interact with them. It will seem uncomfortable and almost like an invasion of privacy. But it isn’t. You’ll probably get a perplexed look that says “can’t you see I’m on the phone?” or “seriously, I’m texting someone now, why are you bothering me?” but I encourage you to fight against this disease that I once considered magic.
After all, you never know who you might meet….
Note: This post is the fourth installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.