I have been a fan of Mike Caulfield’s work in developing new tools for helping students learn the skills of digital literacy and fact checking for quite some time. I even put an exercise in The Writer’s Practice built on Caulfield’s “four moves.” When I found out he has a new project that is freely available to instructors and highly adaptable to any course, I wanted to do what I can to get the word out. We talked about both the new project in specific and his bigger project in general. – JW
Q&A with Mike Caulfield on Check, Please!
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John Warner: Why should we be worried about the issue of online information literacy?
Mike Caulfield: Lots of reasons. There’s the whole “fake news” thing, of course, but that’s just one sliver of a bigger problem. Almost any question that you want answered today, you’re going to go to the web for the answer. Even if you’re a passive consumer you’re going to absorb beliefs about medical care, climate change, public policy, the safety of vaping, immigration, whatever. You’re going to be exposed to processes of radicalization and various forms of manipulation. Bad actors — from corporate astroturfers, to snake-oil vendors, to state actors fomenting civil unrest — have all thrown themselves into this new environment, and developed very web-centric ways to pursue their interests. Yet too often in education we’ve assumed that some generic training in “critical thinking” or “deep reading” will help our students navigate this world. It won’t.
JW: And this is different than in the past?
MC: There’s no golden age of information, but there are certain moments in history when newer technological capability comes up against older culture and crucial systems break down. I believe we’re living through one of those moments now, and governments, corporations, and educational institutions have to reconsider their role. For education, that piece is coming to terms with how online information literacy differs from what we taught in the age of print and broadcast.
JW: What is your approach, and why do you think it’s a better fit for the demands of online discourse than other tools, like the CRAAP test?
MC: Checklist approaches like the CRAAP test actually come out of old library collection development criteria. They are the questions you would ask as a librarian when deciding whether to purchase a book or journal for your library collection. Over time those questions have been refined to create a student tool for thinking about documents. But it’s never really worked online.
When we’re online nowadays we’re the filter. Stuff is reaching us with minimal gatekeeping. The most pressing need is making decisions along the lines of “Should I take the claim in this headline seriously?” or “Is this source what I think it is, or something different?”
If you’ve applied CRAAP to that sort of problem, well so did I many years ago, and the results were shockingly bad. There’s an overwhelming number of things that CRAAP asks you to think about. When you push students to apply it in a real world situation they get overloaded and apply it mechanically in these reductive ways. So you give students a link to a natural healing center proposing to cure your cancer with baking soda IVs instead of drugs. And you ask hey what do we think about this? Well, it’s a dot org, they say, which is good. The person writing it has an NMD, that’s probably a doctor’s degree, that’s good. It’s a medical center, that’s good.
Now if you do a thirty second search on this center you’ll find that the center has been criticized directly by multiple academics as being quackery, that the American Cancer Society has debunked the treatment, that the inventor of the treatment was sentenced to five years for manslaughter after a patient died in his care.
The CRAAP approach assumes that students need to learn, for example, that authority on a subject matters, that funding matters, that conflicts of interest matter, and asserts if we train students in a twenty minute catechism that reviews these issues each time they’ll make better decisions. The reality is checklist or no checklist we know most of these issues when we see them. Most people get intuitively that Russian state media is not be the best source on whether Russia was involved with the downing of MH17. The difference between the professional fact-checker and the student is a set of digital habits that quickly reveal that RT is a Russian propaganda arm, or that a particular naturopathic cancer center has a reputation for quackery. The gap isn’t the understanding, it’s the missing context.
So since 2017 I’ve been pushing a set of four “moves” that students can use every time they come across an unfamiliar claim or source. And we tie those to specific web techniques like news search, organizational lookups on Wikipedia, etc. And the result is we’re seeing students come to better judgments about sources and claims in ninety seconds than they used to in twenty minutes. And the exciting part is because these are taught as habits, we actually have a shot at changing behavior outside the classroom.
JW: They really do seem to grasp it quickly. In my experience, they’re up and running with it right away and each moment of doing it makes them a little better at the moves.
MC: Yeah, this is the amazing thing to me. We’ve tied the moves to specific things to do when you hit a claim or a source. So you land on a source or claim and you go through the process. Researchers Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew have talked about it as “taking bearings.” The metaphor is that you parachute into the middle of an unknown land. Do you take off in a random direction, or do you pull out your compass and your map and your sextant and try to figure out where you are first? The moves are that process of zooming out, of understanding where you are before you move forward.
There’s a bit of a relief the students feel. They are so used to being asked to think immediately about things, react. We delay that, and say hey, try doing these couple of things first, see what you find, then think.
What happens over time is that bearing after bearing you start to build a mental map of the landscape. You learn that something is a local source, not a national one, and you ask yourself when is a local source valuable and when is it not? As you scan search results you start making better guesses on which stories are original reporting and which are commentary. You learn what an advocacy group is, and how it differs from a news source. You notice when a search query goes sideways and think about why that happened. There’s a sort of virtuous cycle that happens with the do-reflect-do approach that was not happening with reflection-first approaches..
JW: What is your new project?
MC: It’s called Check, Please! And it’s a remixable version of the course materials I’ve been developing over the past few years to teach students the “moves” of online information literacy. These materials are a major refresh of the ones we’ve been using here at Washington State University Vancouver and in the cross-institutional Digital Polarization Initiative. We’ve got data that shows that teaching students these moves can dramatically increase their ability to evaluate online credibility, reduce cynicism, and increase student use of behaviors professional fact-checkers use.
The new part is we have released these materials on the Notion platform, a wiki and discussion platform that allows users to create their own version of the materials, and easily edit it to their own needs. So the first module — a three hour course — is sitting up there, free for anyone to grab, edit, modify, extend. And the plan is to write other remixable modules that touch on different disciplines that build on that. And a third piece, funded by an award from RTI’s Misinformation Solutions Forum, is that were giving both students and teachers the ability to make their own little fact-checking screencasts that they can share. So the shift is from curriculum to a curricular community.
I should be clear here — if you want to just link students to the site, you can do that! You don’t have to remix or rewrite anything, and most probably won’t. But the functionality is there.
JW: Why are you doing it this way?
MC: It’s really about coherence. You’ve got dual issues in this pedagogy. On the one hand, our method is very new, and faculty really do need prompts and guidance, and other materials to teach it effectively. It’s a heavy lift. So in that way a shrink-wrapped curriculum initially appears attractive.
Except it’s not. Because the second thing you find is that teaching this stuff is very contextual.
I’ll give you an example. Right now we have thousands of teachers that want to teach these skills in a variety of disciplines. We’ve done this in neuroscience capstones. We’ve done it in first-year courses. We have a nursing program that is using our previous iteration of materials. So you can get away with some breadth of materials initially, but eventually the treatments has to bend to the needs of the class and interests of the students. So the challenge is to create materials that can drop into a wide variety of courses but still provide a coherent course experience.
What I’ve come to as I’ve talked to both the campuses in our pilot and those using the original textbook is that the best structure is a quick general induction, followed by easily remixable and extendable modules focused on different subjects. So I’ve released the base module, and we’re talking with others about building add-on modules suited for particular sorts of classes. And we’re building it on this wiki/discussion platform where you can literally copy each module to your own space with a single click then edit it to meet the specific needs of your class.
JW: We should tell people how to access it.
MC: Yeah, that would make sense, right? The way Notion works, the internal links change as the page titles change, so you want to make sure you come in through the front door: our link at http://lessons.checkplease.cc will always forward you to the most up to date version. That brings you to the induction course, the three hour introduction.
To learn how to create your own copy or embed the materials in a course, see the Teacher’s Notes linked from that front page. The teacher’s notes will also let you know about new modules we release. First up is probably a module on state actors (and the misconceptions around how they wield influence). But we also will be working on materials with the National Writing Project over the next year. And in my dream world we start to convene small groups of educators and experts to write these modules for a wide variety of classes.
JW: It’s a work in progress, but the best way to keep the progress going is to put it to work.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. I guarantee there are typos in there, and there are prompts we’ll swap out and explanations we’ll revise. But what I’ve learned in this space is there’s a huge community of talented folks out there that want to make a difference on this; they just need somewhere to start. And they want to start now. So this is where it starts.
Bio: Mike Caulfield’s Twitter profile states he is “radically rethinking how online information literacy is taught.” Since 2006, he has worked with college faculty to build civically engaged, net-enabled curriculum. Since 2016, he has run the Digital Polarization Initiative, a cross-institutional project to improve civic discourse by developing web literacy skills in college undergraduates. His popular open textbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers is used by faculty at hundreds of institutions, and his work has been covered by NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. He is currently working on a set of open teaching materials on digital civic literacy that can be ported into many different college disciplines, with the goal of making citizens more resilient against corporate/political disinformation and junk science. His work is notable in its teaching of network-based reputation heuristics to students instead of traditional close reading and critical thinking approaches.