A recent study by Stanford University Graduate School of Education paints a very bleak picture about students' ability to spot fake news and low-quality sources.
The study received responses from 7,800 students, ranging from middle school to college, and asked them to evaluate the quality of the information presented. The findings, according to them, were "shocking".
Among their findings:
They found that more than 80% of middle schoolers believed that "sponsored content" was a real news.
Nearly 40% of high school students felt that a fake photo of flowers near Fukushima was "strong evidence" supporting the article. Less than 20% provided a "Mastery" level response, one that questioned the source strongly.
More than half of college students failed to click a link provided in a tweet to look at the veracity of its information. Further, only a few questioned the motivations of the political organizations providing the survey.
The researchers were alarmed at the struggles students had in trying to parse real news from fake news and it is a problem that permeates into other areas of academia. Wikipedia, despite being widely known by educators as a low-quality source, remains at the top for Turnitin matches and poor sources permeate all levels of student writing.
The problem is simple. Though students are better than ever at searching for and finding information, their ability to vet and verify the information they get has not kept up with the amount of fake and low-quality sources online.
This leaves a difficult challenge for educators: How to teach students the art of spotting credible sources and citing them.
There are many class plans available for exactly this including one by Annenberg Classroom, which teaches students through a series of exercises how to evaluate the credibility of a web site.
However, the focus is on reaching students as early as possible. Students are often researching topics online before they reach middle school and poor quality study habits may stick with them for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, this doesn't help students already in high school or college that lack the skills to tell fake and low-quality sources from reputable ones. They may need remedial education on the subject, including how to determine the author of a piece, how to spot conflicts of interest (including sponsored content) and using fact-checking resources to verify information.
While most people online realize that not everything on the internet is true, there's clearly a growing issue with students not being able to tell fact from fiction when using the web.
If unchecked, this problem is not only a serious issue for students and their academic work, but for their post-academic work as well.
After all, one of the reasons students are taught research skills is so that they can learn new things outside of their classrooms. But, if the information they are getting is false, then the research has done no good at all and may do incredible harm.