Teaching Internet Media Literacy in a Digital World

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

Recall that in my last blog, we defined media as the means of mass communication. We use media to spread messages. One way we do that is through print: magazines, books, and newspapers. Another way we do that is through the internet. No one can be media literate without being internet literate. But unfortunately, after all this time with the internet as part of our lives, people are surprisingly internet illiterate.

I wrote a book, Researching in a Digital World, after visiting a second-grade classroom. The teacher had received a grant to purchase a class set of Chromebooks, handed each student one, and set them off to do their research projects. Each child was assigned a country and had some blanks to fill in on a handout: “size of country,” “famous person,” “favorite food,” “location on map,” “economy,” and so on. 

Forget for a moment that this minimal direction led to some dreadful in-class presentations: “My country is Brazil. A famous person is Peel. The economy is financial. The food is mo-something-I-can’t-pronounce…” Agreed, Pele and moqueca are tough for second graders. But what upset me more was that these students were given absolutely no instruction about the internet: what it is, how to be safe, how to search. My experience has been that this teacher represents the norm. Let’s help students become internet literate. 

Educators: Share these tips with your students.

You didn’t “find it on the internet.”

You used the internet to find some computer somewhere that is connected to the internet. The internet is not a place. It is a vast network of computers linked together. 

Every computer can create a findable site. You may have found a computer at the Smithsonian Institution. You may have found a computer in Skippy Wisnewski’s house. Information from one of those is better than information from the other. Every student needs to be taught to examine the source. Find “About Us” or “Home,” and check the credentials of the site’s creators. Always check more than one site. Know the difference between .com, .edu, .gov, and .org. Examine simple things. Does the site look sharp? Are there links to other sites (a bibliography, if you will)? Is the author obvious? The internet literate person examines every site.

It’s not all information.

Some sites are for fun. There is no Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, but someone created a site about it as a joke. Some sites make things up for perhaps sinister reasons. The Pope did not endorse Donald Trump, but WTOE News 5 reported it. WTOE News? Bogus “news” site. Some sites are designed to sell. One second grader came across a site reading, “Austria. Here are our most popular tours.” The internet literate person knows to check for the site’s purpose. 

Google does not always put the best stuff at the top of the search page.

Google makes a best guess at what you will like and places it near the top of the page just after the sites who paid Google money to be listed first. After a small amount of surfing, Google has you profiled. “Male, 18-35, interested in sports, conservative” or “Female, 45-55, educator, liberal,” and so on. 

Search results are adjusted to appeal to each individual. For our second graders just starting on Chromebooks, searching “Italy” will get pretty generic results…for adults! That’s why the kids came across content they could not understand.

There are search engines for young folks such as KidRex, by the way. The internet literate person understands that there are different search engines and a little bit about how page ranking works.

Hyperlinks and ads are death.

I sent my math students to a website that is highly touted as a place for students to learn. I asked them to get a little introduction to geometry from the site. Within five minutes, some students were looking at goulash recipes, some were watching a Korean music video, and some were shoe shopping. 

The site’s text under "Intro to Geometry" was something along the lines of: “Lots of gross things start with the letter G, like goulash [hyperlink]…but we’ll make geometry as fun as Gangnam Style [hyperlink] dancing.” At the margins were “Hover for Ad” options. I love goulash and if you haven’t seen Gangnam Style, check it out. But tell students to never get distracted by a hyperlink. The mere presence of one can derail the train of thought— “should I click on this?”—and clicking on hyperlinks destroys focus. The internet literate person understands the inherent distractibility in online reading and has been taught to stay on track.

There is more to being totally internet literate (see Researching in a Digital World), but this will give you and your students a pretty good start. And we are making good progress on the quest to become media literate across all types of media.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on HMH's new K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.