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Evaluating the Credibility of Sources in the Age of COVID-19

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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“Digital literacy skills focus on preparing students to succeed in the global, competitive, and connected world in which we live.” (Education Technology UK) This was a core message from Turnitin’s Senior Instructional Innovations Specialist, Kristin Van Gompel, back in March of 2019. That was long before the global community and its institutions, including education, were essentially capsized, changing our collective need for more effective digital literacy education. In the continuing fall-out from COVID-19 and a widespread shift to learning online, there is a growing understanding that digital literacy might be more important than ever as all our lives are simultaneously more connected and more remote.

The Background

One year ago, to support teachers in building absolutely essential 21st-century and digital literacy understandings and skills, Turnitin released its Source Credibility pack, full of lessons and videos, activities, and assessments and more. The reaction was swift and enthusiastic. Dr. Marie Roberts of Meridian Community College told us, “It is amazing to see how few students have experience in analyzing source quality and credibility - these materials are helping our students find better sources, vet information from a more holistic standpoint, and have a more critical eye.” Later in 2019, we joined forces with our partners at NewsGuard, to hold a joint webinar, and even presented at the National Council of Teachers of English.

Fast forward to April 2020, and the world, including education, has been turned upside down. Students around the world are learning from their homes, and teachers are struggling to adapt their instruction to the new realities. In the midst of all of that, students from their first year in formal education all the way up to higher education are spending hours online every day, and their learning context is a lot less structured than it once was. Students are directing themselves far more broadly, and vast spans of information are at their fingertips. As they read and write independently across all content areas, they encounter bias, innuendo, fact, fiction, and everything in between.

Outside of education, the news is full of statistics, medical information, and scientific studies, and the breadth of misinformation is staggering. Nearly every social media outlet has announced efforts to warn users and/or correct sometimes life-threatening advice, conspiracy theories, and home remedies. Average citizens of all ages are left to fend for themselves, trying to determine what is real, what is fiction, and what is some combination of the two. In yet another layer, the United States presidential election season has begun, and if history has taught us anything, it is that here, too, information and misinformation abound.

The Case for Universal Source Credibility Instruction

What does it all mean? It means that today, more than ever, the importance of having the critical thinking skills and tools necessary to evaluate the credibility of sources, and the information they provide is paramount. No longer is it a “nice to have” curriculum concept; it’s not a question of “Oh, they’ll probably need this.” In this new world, students absolutely must have the skills to evaluate the credibility of sources and the tools to help them make judgments about the information that surrounds them. The implications for academic work across every discipline, personal health and well-being, and public safety are too important not to arm students with the knowledge and skills required. In fact, the reality is that educators, ever tasked with helping to form an educated citizenry, are once again on the frontlines of the work.

It’s important to note also that this work must be addressed early, by at least adolescence. Although formalized research projects in secondary and higher education have often been the home of instruction related to evaluating the reliability and credibility of sources, our younger students are a part of a digital age where they, too, are inundated with information streams, and those information streams are the same chaotic mix of truth, fiction, biases, and objective facts that every other age group faces. As a result, the need to educate primary and early secondary education students is just as imperative as any other group.

The Turnitin and NewsGuard Partnership

The Source Credibility pack, developed by Turnitin’s team of veteran educators, is a vital asset in these efforts, but more is needed. Since its initial release, the team has continued to add to the pack, but for an even more powerful coalition, Turnitin is partnering with our allies at NewsGuard to provide one more tool in the effort to identify reliable sources of information and to weed out those proven to be risky. While the Source Credibility pack helps to build the cognitive skills needed to assess and evaluate all sources of information, NewsGuard’ s nutrition labels offer a much more thorough dive into information that might be hard for students to even find, including assessments of sophisticated technologies that can be used to “trick” consumers of information.

Starting today, Turnitin customers will have free access to NewsGuard until the end of 2020, with the option to extend access until the end of the school year in 2021. When the power of Turnitin’s resources and products are combined with NewsGuard’s tool, the result is a well-armed individual, ready to think critically about information. Those equipped with Turnitin and NewsGuard transform from passive consumers of information into thoughtful, strategic digital citizens who produce research and writing with integrity, across every subject area.

For many years, teachers, schools, and districts have worked to make a place for digital literacy and 21st-century skills in modern curricula. Educators knew it was important before the enormous shifts of our present-day circumstances. We spoke of preparing students for the new, technologically advanced world, and we spoke of preparing students for the rapidly changing world of tomorrow, where this knowledge base and skill set would be absolutely essential. Now, though, we know that there is no more time to wait.

Interested in learning more? Click the link below for more details about the partnership and visit this page, which contains free resources to help educators incorporate media literacy lessons into their classes, including Turnitin's Source Credibility Pack and NewsGuard's COVID-19 Media Literacy Teacher Packet.