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August 5, 2020
Jessica Johnston from CIVIX on how simple digital literacy skills as the best defence against information pollution.
Tell us about CIVIX. How would you describe your purpose and what makes you unique?
CIVIX is a Canadian civic education charity dedicated to developing the habits and skills of citizenship in students under the voting age. We build experiential learning programs for use by K-12 educators that focus on electoral participation, government budgets, and elected representation. Our flagship program is Student Vote, a parallel election for students under the voting age. During the 2019 federal election, 1.2 million students cast a ballot in the Canadian after participating in a unit on democracy and elections delivered using CIVIX curriculum materials. Over the past two years, our focus has expanded significantly to include a deep emphasis on informed citizenship, a response to the current crisis around digital mis- and disinformation. We’ve built curriculum materials around themes such as reliable sources, algorithms and filter bubbles, and verification techniques. We’re fortunate to have an expansive network of engaged educators across the country who sincerely value and use CIVIX programs and resources.
We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how CIVIX is responding to the crisis?
Of course no one has been unaffected by this crisis. With schools being closed, teachers, students, and parents have been categorically impacted as education has moved to the home. This has been a huge challenge for all involved. CIVIX’s role at all times is to support educators, with quality tools and programming that can be flexibly deployed. With the shift to remote learning, that flexibility has become even more crucial. We developed new tools over the spring, specifically to address the ‘infodemic’ brought about by COVID-19 — this is the proliferation of false and misleading information online related to the pandemic, the hoaxes, conspiracy theories, faulty expertise and the like. We called this verification module CTRL-F: Find the Facts, and built it specifically for teachers to use with students at home. We created two pathways, including a student-facing site, which was an experiment for us, as our materials have always been teacher-facing first.
We are in the midst of revising the CTRL-F module for re-release in the fall. Flexibility will be even more important with the return to school, since there is still so much uncertainty around what the year will look like. The situation could also look very different in different regions. So we are building flexible tools that teachers can deploy in ways that best suit their individual needs.
Misinformation on digital platforms is a critical threat to democracy. Tell us about the Ctrl-F project – who is the target audience and how was it developed?
CTRL-F: Find the Facts is a verification module that teaches simple digital literacy skills students can use to determine the reliability of any piece of information. CTRL-F is the keyboard shortcut for ‘find’ and the idea is that we can all develop a habit of using quick strategies to investigate news and information to determine what to trust.
The project is a continuation of our work on information literacy, which we began in earnest in 2017, as the world was really coming to grips with just how much of a threat to democracy the spread of false and misleading information is. We knew electoral processes around the globe had been targeted with disinformation, and that even the accidental spread of less overtly harmful false information was creating a polluted online information environment where it’s hard to tell what is credible.
In researching how we might address these challenges in the classroom, we found a promising body of literature from practitioners who advocate simple digital literacy skills as the best defence against information pollution, with the research to back it up. The term for this set of skills is ‘lateral reading’ and the techniques involve leaving the page where you find the information — opening a new tab and doing a keyword search, or looking on Wikipedia to find context about an unknown person or group. This is what professional fact-checkers do to quickly and accurately assess new information. It may sound simple, but the strategies are pretty powerful and form the core of CTRL-F.
To develop these tools, we teamed up with digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield and Jane Lytvynenko, who covers disinformation as a senior reporter for BuzzFeed news. The learning module itself combines a series of instructional videos with hands-on examples that allow users to apply the skills immediately to a variety of real-world cases. It was designed with middle and secondary school students in mind, but the strategies it teaches are essential life skills no matter your age.
What are your goals with the CTRL-F and what has been the user response?
We have a number of goals with CTRL-F, in terms of supporting teachers and students. Ultimately, it’s our hope that this programming will help to create the next generation of informed citizens. A big-picture goal with this work is to change the way digital information literacy is taught in Canadian schools.
Lateral reading strategies are effective, but not as widespread as one might hope. When students learn source evaluation, the typical approach involves analysis of the text itself. Strategies are often packaged in the form of a checklist. Students may be instructed to look for typos, dates, about pages, authors, or URL suffixes. They may be taught that .org is more reliable than .com, for example, although anyone can purchase a .org domain name.
Checklists are time-consuming to apply and often offer conflicting signals. They can easily backfire and lead students to draw incorrect conclusions, in which they feel confident, because they’ve applied the strategies they’ve been taught. The more efficient and effective strategy is to conduct simple research to discover context before devoting time and attention to something that may turn out to be junk, or worse.
Response to our verification work has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers get it. They see the value in these tools and skills, which connect to every subject and can be used day-to-day in all aspects of our online lives. We’ve also had positive responses to the public-facing site as a tool for use in libraries and by other community groups.
What do digital literacy skills, students and teachers have to do with democracy?
A healthy democracy requires that the public not only has access to quality information but that it is equipped with the skills necessary to locate this information. Because so much of the information we use to make sense of the world comes to us through online channels — and because it’s increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction and everything in between — the ability to determine whether a piece of online information is credible has become an essential skill of citizenship.
While the problem of false or misleading information online affects people across age groups, CIVIX operates from the belief that ongoing civic education beginning at a young age can be a bulwark against the worst effects of information disorder: political apathy, cynicism, and a general distrust of institutions. Our digital literacy initiative aims to support teachers in empowering students with the knowledge and skills required to locate information they can trust so that they can make informed choices that are in the best interests of themselves and their communities.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you?
Just over a year ago, CIVIX assembled a local team in Colombia that has been working non-stop to develop and deliver civic education programming across the country. What they have been able to achieve in a short amount of time is incredible. In October 2019, more than 76,000 students learned about government and the electoral process, researched local candidates, and debated about topics relevant for them and their communities before casting a Voto Estudiantil (Student Vote) ballot in a parallel election coinciding with Colombian municipal elections. The team is also actively adapting CIVIX digital literacy materials to be suitable for the Colombian context, working closely with teachers to help them empower a new generation of informed, engaged youth.
For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
CIVIX is a national registered charity dedicated to building the skills and habits of active and informed citizenship among young Canadians. CIVIX provides experiential learning opportunities to help young Canadians practice their rights and responsibilities as citizens and connect with their democratic institutions. Student Vote, the flagship program of CIVIX, is a parallel election for students under the voting age, which coincides with official elections. In the 2019 federal election, 1.2 million students cast ballots from over 8,000 schools.
This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!
Jessica Johnston, Director of News Literacy Programming at CIVIX
Since her early days as news editor of her campus newspaper, Jessica has been dedicated to accuracy and quality sourcing. Following nearly two decades in journalism as a magazine and newspaper editor, she made the switch to education. As Director of News Literacy Programming for CIVIX, Jessica has spent the past three years coordinating the development and promotion of tools and resources designed to help students in grades 5 – 12 develop skills needed to evaluate information to determine what is credible. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.