Considerations for Digital Literacy/ies in a Climate of “Fake News”


Google homepage for MLK Day 1/16/17


For me, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is always a day for both remembrance and for action. Dr. King was a visionary who sought justice. Who fought for equality. Whose spoken and written words stand the test of time and slice through to the core of humanity. MLK Day was even more important and meaningful 8 years ago, on the eve of President Obama’s historical Inauguration. And today, I feel the magnitude and power and significance of this day, perhaps even more than I did in 2009, as we approach the inauguration of President-elect Trump on Friday. Today is a reminder that the work I, and so many other brilliant scholar-activists, do is timely and evolving and increasingly needed. It’s a reminder of how much there is left to do. And it’s a testament to the possibilities that can result from perseverance, adversity, speaking up and acting out. Below I share some thoughts on an event I was a part of last week that today is serving as an example of the necessity of dialogue, access to information, and commitments to critical thinking and authentic, culturally responsive education.

The Winter Symposium on Digital Literacy in Higher Education

Last week I spent 24 hours at an invitation-only symposium exploring digital literacy in higher education, hosted at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus and co-chaired by Renee Hobbs, Julie Coiro, Sandra Markus, and Maria Ranieri.


Why we’re gathering for this event: More and more faculty in higher education recognize the need to advance their own competencies in digital literacy and see the potential for how it may improve teaching and learning for students enrolled at colleges and universities. But at the present time, we do not yet have a good sense of “what works” to address faculty needs regarding the use of digital media texts, tools and technologies for teaching and learning activities, career advancement, and scholarly research communication, collaboration and publishing.

Read more of the symposium’s description here. This event was unique for a number of reasons:

  • The group of participants, carefully curated by the symposium’s co-chairs, were selected because of shared interests, commitments, and contributions to the field of digital literacy at the level of higher education, though we came to it from a range of disciplines, roles, and interests. Half of the group came from institutions in Rhode Island, the other half, from Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, from Virginia up through Boston, Canada and Italy. Participants were primarily faculty members, as well as researchers, administrators, and a handful of doctoral students. I talk about digital literacy all the time, but in the scope of my work, the conversations are often bounded within the K-8 (sometimes K-12) landscape. And while I also often speak with my peers and colleagues in higher ed. about research, scholarship and pedagogy involving digital literacy, in the last 24 hours I realized that I have very little idea about how “digital literacy” is thought about, taught, and importantly, implemented into instructed at the college and graduate levels.
  • Additionally, in the spirit of embracing and promoting the authentic digital literacy practice of open-source information and transparency, links to the symposium program, events, documents, etc. were open and well-tweeted-out, so while physical attendance was by invitation, our activities, keynote talks, and group notes were and will continue to be available online as a living archive of the event. In the spirit of democracy and disrupting corporate and institutional structures and controls over information, it was powerful to be a part of this event, knowing just how intentional the openness of the event was every step of the way.

Noticings & Takeaways

  • One of my top highlights from the symposium occurred within the first 30 minutes of the event when Dr. Renee Hobbs cold-called on about a dozen participants to define “digital literacy” (below is a selection, h/t to @lucyappert for her diligent recording via the Twitter hashtag). It was powerful to hear so many succinct, yet diverse, interpretations of a concept, field, and movement that is undergoing rapid growth, change and debate amidst a constantly evolving online/offline landscape.
  • At the same time, throughout the symposium, the topic at hand and phrase used was “digital literacy.” I had a few conversations in small break-out groups where other literacies (media, new, critical, multimodal) were mentioned, but I later noticed that I didn’t hear much talk about digital literacies or digital literacy/ies. That’s not to say digital literacy wasn’t framed as multifaceted and nuanced in the definitions, pedagogies, and practices we exchanged throughout the event (as noted above). In fact, right before we defined “digital literacy” as a group, we were reminded by Dr. Hobbs not to make assumptions that we were all aligned in our definitions and beliefs based on the premise that we’d all been invited to this event; that in fact we were all bringing different perspectives, experiences, and approaches to the table to diversify the conversation and get a better understanding of the digital literacy climate at the higher ed level. Reflecting on it now, however, I’m curious as to whether this was an intentional decision or not. Perhaps it was in the spirit of streamlining  the focus and scope of the topic at hand; perhaps it was meant to mirror how the field is currently understood and discussed in places of higher ed. When I talk about literacy in my work, I most often pluralize the term particularly when thinking about critical and multimodal literacies as they are hybrid, evolving and interdisciplinary. Because my work also focuses on the power of language–literally how the choices and valuing of particular words over others can reinforce power structures and inequalities–I tend to be sensitive to singular phrasing of a clearly complex topic.
  • One of the symposium’s last sessions was an hour-long unconference (or “Birds of a Feather” session).

    The concept is fairly simple. At an unconference, no topics have been predetermined, no keynote speakers have been invited, no panels have been arranged.  Instead, the event lives and dies by the participation of its attendees. They decide what topics will be discussed and they convene the individual breakout sessions. In other words, an unconference has no agenda until the participants create it. – Rebecca Bagley, Forbes

    With the full group, participants suggested 10 topics that either furthered a conversation that had already started at the symposium or that they felt was missing and in need of discussion. Topics included digital literacy as it relates to: teacher education, socioemotional learning, curriculum integration across disciplines, and faculty development. I suggested/requested a table to discuss digital literacy in/and “social justice,” and hoped the topic would resonate with a few others. When I arrived at Table 10 a few minutes later, it was almost full and we ultimately had to pull up a few additional chairs. We introduced ourselves by way of explaining how/why we came to this particular discussion, you can find our notes here. The notes may not be extensive, but for me they’re a testament to the interest and need for more of these conversations in the landscapes of media and digital literacy. This session gave me life and afterwards I left the symposium with a full heart, knowing there is work to be done but so proud that the 8 of us carved out this space to sit with issues and challenges not often historically discussed in the field of digital literacy.

The Complicatedness of “Fake News”

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 11.37.35 AM.pngSitting in a room of 50 academics involved with, interested in, and deeply committed to digital literacy/ies, I knew the inevitability of the mention of the recent buzzy phrase of “fake news” was high. And while it was touched on a few times–primarily in T. Mills Kelly’s keynote talk on Friday morning–it didn’t dominate conversations, which I’m torn about. On one hand, making ‘fake news’ a focal piece of the symposium could have derailed or sidetracked the real purpose and focus of the event; at the same time, the reality that we as a society need to be educated on how to identify, assess, and critique information both online and offline has, and will continue to be, a fundamental component of digital literacy.

Let’s be clear: When I say fake news I’m not talking about different viewpoints, left versus right or Republican versus Democrat. What I mean are people who create fake stories on purpose—not as satire, either. When someone writes the sun is blowing up next week, that’s not a news story or even a polemic about climate change. That’s a fake article. – Scott Laband, Market Watch

I take issue with the phrase “fake news” because like so many other important issues that merit social attention and conversation, it’s a serious topic that quickly became diluted and misappropriated by pundits and politicians through mainstream media and news outlets to refer more to stories that portray someone or something in a bad light rather than as a tool to identify incorrect information. So from my media and digital literacy standpoint, I think “fake news” is a crucial topic in need of continued discussion and action amongst educators and with young people. At the same time, it’s imperative to first understand how it has been co-opted in various arenas and what that means when we talk about it across different factions, disciplines, and platforms.

A few resources to foster understanding and further the conversation:

Truth and Lies in the Age of TrumpNew York Times

The Surprising Origins of Post-TruthThe Conversation 

A Finder’s Guide to Facts, NPR

How to Teach High School Students to Spot Fake NewsSlate

A Brief History of How Fake News Spreads So Easily on FacebookMother Jones

Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study FindsNPR

10 Tech Issues that Will Impact Social Justice in 2017Ford Foundation 

I also recently re-watched the film, Wag the Dog (1997), with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman, in which a political team creates and stages a fake war between the US and Albania to take attention away from a scandal involving the President of the United States sexually assaulting a woman in the Oval Office weeks before the presidential election. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or ever, do yourself a favor. It’s incredibly timely.



And in honor and remembrance of the importance of today, I leave you with this:

Education must enable one to sift [through] and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…Intelligence, plus character–that is the goal of true education. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.