by Frank W Baker, MLN South Carolina chapter leader and media literacy education consultant 

The inability of many of today’s so-called “digital natives” to judge information online has become a crisis in American education.  In 2000, Stanford researchers labeled student’s lack of critical thinking when it comes to web resources as dismal. [A more recent study finds college age students are similarly deficient.]  Even though most students now use the Internet, the education system has been slow to recognize the problem and react. I hope you’re ready to do your part.

During a webinar last October, researcher Sam Wineburg lamented that no one is talking about the education interventions that need to take place right now in K-12 schools and beyond.

In early 2000, the Rand Corporation released a major report entitled  “Media Use and Literacy in Schools- Civic Development in the Era of Truth Decay.”  You may have missed some of the key details and recommendations, which have important ramifications for current and future instruction in schools.

One major finding of the report: “nearly 80 percent (of the secondary teachers surveyed) described (their students’) “limited ability to evaluate the credibility of online information” as a moderate or major problem.”  92 percent of the teachers said “students must learn to critically evaluate information for credibility and bias—it’s a crucial citizenship skill.” (Source)

Stanford University researchers, who conducted a recent major study into young people’s Internet habits, proclaimed that students’ inability to assess online information sources is a “threat to democracy.” (Source)

From my perspective, it is clear that many of students are not taking the time to verify what they consume.  Verification skills should become a priority to every educator reading this blog post today.  But you might be asking: how do I start? If you haven’t read my previous post on Middleweb, Verification: It’s The Number One Vocabulary Word of 2020, now might be a good time to read it.


In 1998, education technologist Alan November presciently noted that not enough educators were dedicating instructional time to teaching students how to deconstruct the Internet. His classic essay “Teaching Zach To Think” is a must-read for every educator. [As you read it, ask yourself if anything has changed in 22 years.]

More recently, the issue has been labeled “internet literacy.” University of Connecticut researcher Dr. Donald Leu believes teachers have not been trained nor do they have the resources. He advises “I would invest in giving teachers the instructional tools they can use to teach kids to think critically about online information.” (Source)

In May 2009, the International Reading Association published “New Literacies and 21st Century Technologies”– a report that expands on the concept of literacy and urges educators to recognize the need to embrace “new literacy” education.

The Common Core ELA standards make at least one reference to the need for students to be smarter about online information. College and career-ready students are expected to: “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.” (Source)

The Future Work Skills 2020 report recognized the “New Media Ecology” we live in and recommends the key skill students need. The New Media Ecology demands that educators acknowledge the “new communication tools require new media literacies beyond text.”

In my previous blog post, I noted that some science teachers have reported that students trust YouTube videos more than the instruction they receive in class.  It appears students believe misconceptions about climate change, the flat Earth, and vaccine safety—and are now challenging conventional science facts.  This latest Rand report seems to confirm that, finding that teachers reported students have made unfounded claims in class based on unreliable media sources.”

Starting Down the Path to Media Literacy

How do we help students become better thinkers about everything they consume?  One answer is “media literacy,” which provides learners with the critical thinking skills to analyze, question and create media messages. [Do your students receive any media literacy instruction?]

According to this blog post, “understanding how to identify credible sources is a critical skill for today’s students, and a key aspect of digital citizenship.”

Evaluating the Credibility of Information

Latrobe University’s library website has an excellent guide for students. To evaluate information, students need to consider several factors:  Author; Currency; Accuracy; Purpose and Audience.  I recommend you introduce your students to each of the concepts and accompanying questions they need to consider when evaluating information. As you begin to help students become better critical thinkers, you may wish to consider printing their page as a handout or enlarging it as a poster for your classroom.

Some experts are suggesting that this type of evaluation may already be outdated. Instead they recommend Mike Caufield’s SIFT model: STOP, INVESTIGATE, FIND and TRACE. Read how to incorporate it here.

Many education organizations are already on-record urging schools to teach digital literacy and digital citizenship and several now offer curriculum, including Common Sense Media. ISTE—the International Society of Technology in Education—has promoted teaching standards and offers educators guidance.

Why Are Students Weak?

Although I could not locate any current research that answers this question, I have some ideas. I believe that today’s students may be weak in this area because: 

  • teachers themselves have had little, if any, “professional development” (training) in how to teach it, so they don’t
  • the teaching standards may reference critical thinking about web content, but this standard is not a part of every discipline
  • some educators have the mindset: “it isn’t part of what I’m responsible for teaching”
  • many librarians, who teach “information literacy”, are doing it, but their approach may be ineffectual
  • colleges of education don’t offer courses so new teachers don’t get instruction
  • the existing “digital literacy” curriculum has been judged to be insufficient or weak
  • parents, for the most part, who may not monitor their student’s online habits,  don’t recognize their child’s critical thinking weakness and probably have no background or understanding so they can’t/don’t address it

Can you identify with any of these? In a recent webinar I hosted, one teacher offered one more reason: she said her students are a part of a generation that wants things fast, so they hurry and don’t bother to verify because it would take too long. Does this sound familiar?

Call to Action

So now that we know what the problem is, what is one thing you can do? My colleague Chris Sperry of Project LookSharp recommends an integrated approach that has teachers from all disciplines and grade levels engage their students in the practice of asking key questions for media analysis  as part of content area instruction. 

Through constructivist media decoding (Project Look Sharp’s approach), educators can teach both core subject area knowledge and media literacy habits.  “If teachers use this engaging methodology across the curriculum,” says Sperry, “our students will be better prepared to manage current and future epistemological threats to our democracy.”

Consult Your School Library Information Media Specialist

If we need to add another “hero” to our growing list in 2020, I nominate the nation’s school librarians. They are the “go to” educators for teaching the so-called “digital natives” how to not only use the Internet, but also how to think critically about that use at the same time.  If you’ve not yet collaborated with your library/media/information specialist to help your students get “up to speed” on verification skills, now would be a good time.

Professional Development

Most teachers tell me they need more expertise and training in order to feel comfortable teaching students how to read and analyze online information. If you have not participated in digital literacy/critical thinking/media literacy training, scheduling something soon would be recommended. [Note: I’ve been teaching standards-based media literacy, via professional development, for more than 20 years. I welcome inquiries at email]


Do you feel prepared or overwhelmed?  Where will you go for advice and assistance?  How will you proceed?  I hope this post provides you with some answers and some direction.  Providing opportunities for our students to be engaged in critical thinking about online content is not only important, but also relevant and timely.  What action will you take? Only you can prevent media illiteracy.

Recommended Resources

Why Can’t A Generation That Grew Up Online Spot the Information In Front of Them?

Why Learn History (When It’s Already On Your Phone)  (University of Chicago Press)

Reading The Web (2nd Edition) Strategies For Internet Inquiry  (The Guilford Press)

Media Literacy Starts with SEARCHing the Internet

The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Source Credibility

Teaching Adolescents How to Evaluate the Quality of Online Information

Civic Online Reasoning (free curriculum developed by Stanford History Ed Group)

Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News

Misinformation in the Information Age: What Teachers Can Do to Support Students, Joe Kahne and Erica Hodgin (2018),

 Rx for an Infodemic: Media Decoding, COVID-19 and Online Teaching, Chris Sperry and Cyndy Scheibe (2020)

Civix News Literacy/Canada Helping Students Fight Information Pollution

Project LookSharp   provides over 500 free lessons for this work, searchable by keyword, subject, level or standard, as well as  video demonstrations for leading media decoding activities (online and in person).

Teaching Digital Citizenship Across the Whole Curriculum

Google Partners with ISTE & Others To Create Digital Citizenship Game

New Literacies and 21st Century Technologies (International Reading Association)

Note: This blog post was also published by and can be found here


Frank W Baker is a frequent presenter on media literacy at SCCTE conferences. He continues to conduct professional development workshops both face-to-face and via webinar. He maintains the internationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse (MLC) website of education resources. His most recent book “Close Reading The Media” was published in a collaboration between Middleweb & Routledge. A reviewer wrote that the book  “is an incredible resource for any middle or high school humanities teachers looking to teach students how to think critically about the media they regularly consume.” He invites educators to follow MLC on Facebook and on twitter @fbaker. Contact him at email 

Share This Story!