Digital Illiteracy Is a Rising Threat. A New Department of Education Program Seeks Solutions

Contributing Writer

With more students relying on technology tools than ever before, educators face the increasingly important challenge of helping them identify what’s fact-based and credible, and what’s not.

The office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education has launched a new accelerator program focused on digital literacy — the ability to find, evaluate, and communicate quality information found online. The program provides financial support to teams of teachers, academic researchers, and others who design projects meant to address the issue, promote civil discourse, and combat online misinformation. 

Educators have grown increasingly worried about the inability of students and the public to critically interpret what they see online, fearing that it undermines their participation in democracy, their grasp of events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and their career prospects. Many policymakers and advocates of responsible tech use share those concerns.

The new federal program began last fall after 10 teams were selected to participate. Teams earn $500 for each milestone they complete in the design process, and they have a chance to win a minimum total of $2,000 in prize money.  

The digital literacy accelerator program is funded by the agency’s office of elementary and secondary education and its office of ed tech. Teams retain their intellectual property and grant the agency’s office of ed tech a few select rights to reproduce and talk about the projects.  

All participants are adults who come from a range of professional backgrounds. Teams are led by current teachers, work in higher education, or are professionals unaffiliated with a higher education institution. 

Drawn from Students’ Lives 

One of the teams, the Learning Media Collaborative, was created by a group of four teacher-researchers at the University of California’s Irvine and Santa Cruz campuses. 

That team began running workshops in the fall of 2020 for teachers across districts in southern California, focusing on how to teach students to consume media responsibly.

The team currently works with eight teachers, designing lessons to help students determine what reliable sources are, and how to reproduce media responsibly.  

“We find sources from students’ lives, about vaccine information or what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Jacob Steiss, one of the founders of the Literacy Media Collaborative.  

“When students find a post about this content, we teach them lateral reading — how to leave the page and do a quick Google search about the source to see whether it’s good or not.” 

When students find a post about this content, we teach them lateral reading — how to leave the page and do a quick Google search about the source to see whether it’s good or not.Jacob Steiss, Literacy Media Collaborative

In the future, the team is looking to build a tool to visualize student progress in understanding media literacy and apply those principles across an entire district. 

“Not a lot of districts have systematic approaches to teaching media literacy,” Steiss said. “It’s still quite rare for there to be a course in a district.” 

All 10 accelerator teams are meeting virtually over three sessions: an orientation, user testing workshop, and showcase. The interim periods will be filled with learning circles — meetings among the participants that are comparable to professional learning communities or informal discussion groups, says Kristina Ishmael, deputy director of the office of ed tech.

“They will continue to have those learning circles for the smaller group touchpoints along the way, to workshop with their colleagues and our counterparts that are doing this work alongside them.” 

The goal of the accelerator is to identify interventions that can improve digital literacy for grades 6-9, 9-12, and adult learners. Figuring out how these digital and media literacy tools can actually have a broad impact on the public is an important consideration to make, said Alice Huguet, a policy researcher at the RAND Institute. 

“Schools provide a really great place for us to reach students in a formal educational setting,” she said, “but I’m really interested in how we reach adults who really need some content.”  

Sometimes, Huguet added, the people “who could benefit most from the content are probably not going to be seeking it out.” 

Including Adults in Literacy Efforts 

There are very few services for adults to develop sustainable and healthy ways to live with digital technologies, according to Katie Good, co-founder of an accelerator team called Little Tech.

Good, a strategic communications professor at Miami University, and her research partner, behavioral psychologist Katherine Rathbun, are developing a website where people can access information about digital well-being. They’re also seeking to create online support groups where adults can talk about the challenges and benefits of living with technology. Little Tech is focusing its efforts on adults who have exited the formal education system.  

The accelerator focuses on building digital literacy among middle and high school students, as well as adults.

The existence of accelerator programs like this is one of the more important strategies for addressing misinformation, according to Jevin West, co-founder of the DataLab for Data Science and Analytics at the University of Washington.  

“It’s another way to try to find a home for all these great ideas that exist out there,” West said. Often those ideas “come from educators and people outside of education.”

The accelerator will end in April. Ishmael says whether, or how, the program will support the participants when the program ends is “a big TBD right now.”

She added that “we will certainly amplify the projects that come to us in the showcase.”

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Image credit Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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