This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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In the latest global PISA test, less than one in ten 15-year-olds across the industrialised world were able to distinguish between fact and opinion when cues were implicit. That’s up from 7% when PISA was first administered in 2000, but we now live in a totally different world.
Literacy in the 20th century was about extracting and processing pre-coded information; in the 21st century, it’s about constructing and validating knowledge. In the past, teachers could tell students to look up information in an encyclopedia, and to rely on that information as accurate and true. Nowadays, Google presents them with millions of answers, and nobody tells them what’s right or wrong and true or not true. The more knowledge technology allows us to search and access, the more important deep understanding and the capacity to navigate ambiguity becomes, to triangulate viewpoints, and to make sense out of content.
The fact that advancements in literacy skills have fallen sharply behind the evolution of the nature of information has profound consequences in a world where virality seems sometimes privileged over quality in the distribution of information. In the “post-truth” climate, assertions that “feel right” but have no basis in fact become accepted as fact. Algorithms that sort us into groups of like-minded individuals create social media echo chambers that amplify our views, and leave us insulated from opposing arguments that may alter our beliefs. These virtual bubbles homogenise opinions and polarise our societies; and they can have a significant – and adverse – impact on democratic processes. Those algorithms are not a design flaw; they are how social media work. There is scarcity of attention, but an abundance of information. We are living in this digital bazaar where anything that is not built for the network age is breaking up under its pressure.
This is the age of accelerations, a speeding-up of human experience through the compound impact of disruptive forces on every aspect of our lives. It is also a time of political contestation. The priority of the wider international community is to reconcile the needs and interests of individuals, communities and nations within an equitable framework based on open borders and markets and a sustainable future. But where disruption has brought a sense of dislocation, political forces emerge that are offering closed borders, the protection of traditional jobs and a promise to put the interests of today’s generation over those of the future. The fake news phenomenon can significantly amplify those forces.
The question is then how to successfully navigate this new world of information? To what extent do we approach the issue from a consumer protection angle, working on this from the supply side, or from a skills angle, that is designed to strengthen the capacity of people to better navigate information? It is interesting that we haven’t touched knowledge in the same way that we address consumer protection issues with physical products. People have sued McDonalds when they felt too fat or Starbucks when they burned themselves with hot coffee. But it seems just very hard to do anything against those who produce and deliver fake news, because tinkering with information tends to be felt as an immediate threat to democratic principles.
The result is that the market for information remains entirely unregulated. We are the products. Can and should we place certain constraints on the behaviour and pronouncements of the influential and powerful? Can and should we introduce more robust support and standards for our gatekeepers, the journalists, who play such an important role in holding power to account? Has the time come to extend consumer protection to voters? And if we do so, will this restrict freedom of speech and creativity in knowledge creation?
Transparency in political advertising in the social media space also merits closer attention given its increasingly prevalent use. The degree and sophistication of targeting techniques being deployed are overwhelming, and they are poorly understood by the majority of social media users.
Maybe major regulatory centres should tackle the problem by interrupting the business model that allows the outrage industry to flourish on major social media platforms. Perhaps it is time to consider limits on the harvesting and marketing of data on human anger and fear.
Maybe the role of the social media platforms will need to evolve also in recognition of the fact that they have in effect become publishers of news and information. They have a key role to play in stemming the flow of fake news – a role that may be best exercised as part of formal rules that address the problem at a structural level rather than as part of voluntary initiatives that may serve as more of a reputational enhancer than an effective solution. There is clearly a need for trusted brands, and a need for trusted journalists. And markets will always drive towards trusted brands. Maybe business too has a role to play in placing more stringent conditions on where they advertise, prioritising quality and credibility over clicks.
All the above issues seem worth consideration. But it seems at least equally important to strengthen the capacity of people to navigate the new world of information – particularly given the many encrypted and unmoderated online spaces that increasingly serve as conduits. This is the educational dimension of the phenomenon. As you will see when you read on, there are good examples for how schools can help students think for themselves, develop a strong sense of right and wrong and a deep understanding of how others think, whether as scientists or artists, and how others live, in different cultures and traditions.
Read the OECD's analysis on Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought: How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education
Today’s pandemic has increased both the urgency with which it must be addressed and the momentum among children, teachers and policymakers to pursue a new literacy for the digital world.
As schools reopen after months of lockdown, chaos and uncertainty run high and it is becoming clear that teaching faces new and lasting challenges that were unimaginable just weeks ago.
If time and resources for teaching digital literacy were stretched before, they are even harder to find now. Teachers tackling hybrid formats of on-site and home-based teaching report being overwhelmed. Some are dropping out. Others struggle to engage children across differing levels of parental engagement and digital connectedness. When the news-literacy project Lie Detectors works to deploy journalists to classrooms these days, we often find teachers still furloughed, particularly if they teach anything other than core subjects.
Yet when a classroom focuses on the task of making sense of content and navigating ambiguity, the interest of children - and, by extension, of teachers - is of an unusual intensity and focus. In pre-pandemic times, disinformation might have seemed to some school children - and even teachers - a remote and political concern with little relevance in the school yard or staff room. Today, the infodemic and the general unease and uncertainty it sows about basic scientific and health-related facts has captured the focus of children as young as ten – and their desire for tools and solutions.
Journalists visiting classrooms via video-conference in recent weeks to discuss the constructing and evaluating of knowledge have found children lining up to ask new kinds of questions: “What do you do as a journalist to find out if the coronavirus was made in a military lab?” asked one. “Is it true you can catch it from washing your hands too much?” asked several. There is also a new interest in the attention economy that allows disinformation to flourish on their TikTok, WhatsApp and Fortnite accounts. “Why would someone send me such a chain letter if it’s not true?” is a recurring question, as is this: “How do I know you are writing the truth if you are being paid by someone to write it?”
As international debate focuses on foreign trolls and conspiracy theorists, a moment is emerging to integrate a new digital literacy into learning and teaching, and to do so in a way that guarantees its independence from partisan and commercial influence. To begin with, such an approach will have to be tested and results measured as they emerge. In the medium term, lateral literacy – the act of stopping to look left and right before proceeding on line, checking facts before basing opinions on them – must become integrated into school and teacher training curricula and rank in importance alongside basic literacies of reading and writing. Interrogating sources of information: Who wrote this? Who made this video? Is it a credible source? Does it even make sense? What are my biases? - belongs in all school- and teacher-training curricula. It has applications far beyond fake news and disinformation - to securing the act of making informed decisions, and with that, functioning democracies.
The growing complexity of modern living, for individuals, communities and societies, suggests that the solutions to our problems will be ever more complex. In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings with sometimes global implications, will require young people to become adept in handling tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs. Being able to strike a balance between competing demands – equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process – will all hinge on 21st century literacy skills.
The good news is that the tools to develop these skills are ready, and they are being tried and tested by teachers all around the world who have understood what it means to educate students for their future, rather than for our past.
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