Wading through ‘digital sludge’

How colleges are helping students discern what is fake news

According to Edward Owusu-Ansah, dean of William Paterson University’s David & Lorraine Cheng Library, “The notion of fake news is the language we use at the time but libraries have always been at the core of the dissemination of quality information and knowledge. Not all information is news.”-(AARON HOUSTON)

In an era of ever-increasing fake news, colleges like Stockton University are placing an increased emphasis on teaching students to differentiate truth from falsehoods by directing them toward academic sources, according to several librarians at New Jersey colleges.

Stockton University senior and literature major Raymond Dudo used to use Google to find whatever information he needed.

Having grown up in the era of the internet search, Dudo is among the new crop of college students who are taking extra steps to conduct research by using academic sources.

In an era of ever-increasing fake news, colleges like Stockton are placing an increased emphasis on teaching students to differentiate truth from falsehoods by directing them toward academic sources, according to several librarians at New Jersey colleges.

“As soon as I opened up to finding credible sources, I took Introduction to Research,” said Dudo, 21, of Mays Landing. “The professor’s objective was to sway us away from doing a Google search. She wanted to show us that the internet is not just a screen of truth, to keep away from Google and then to conduct our own research.”

While he still uses search engines for personal use, Dudo said he has learned how to properly conduct academic research.

“I think Stockton has done a strong job of opening students’ eyes to research,” Dudo said. “We have cool programs with an emphasis on the library. Growing up in the time of mass media, whenever I read any article, I keep an eye out for [the phrases] ‘sources show’ or ‘sources have shown us.’ Research helps in life.”

Dudo is working an internship to prepare for Stockton’s 50th anniversary and is also involved with Stockpot, a student-run literary magazine. In both endeavors he has learned to use proprietary databases to do academic research.

“I had an internship in the archives in the Stockton University library. A few years ago Stockton got invested in special collections,” Dudo said. “I heard about it from a professor who wants to put together a collection of stories about Stockton’s founding. I go through the archives of The Press of Atlantic City and the Stockton student newspaper the Argo.”

Davida Scharf, the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s director of reference and instructional services at the school’s Van Houten Library, gives a Power Point presentation warning students against fake news sites that are designed to look real.

Scharf tells students to consider the source, check the author and date of a story, examine one’s own biases, ask a librarian for discernment and consult fact-checking web sites such as SNOPES.com and Politifact.com.

“NJIT reference librarians work on this every day,” she said.

Edward Owusu-Ansah, dean of the David & Lorraine Cheng Library at William Paterson University, said libraries have always looked for sources of quality information and taught students to be critical thinkers.

“President Trump did not invent the concept of the veracity of information,” Owusu-Ansah said. “The notion of fake news is the language we use at the time but libraries have always been at the core of the dissemination of quality information and knowledge. Not all information is news.”

“When you get into a politically charged environment where the notion of anybody can invent their facts pops up, then you begin to realize that to get your message across to 18-, 19,- 20-year-olds, it is much more effective to say fake news,” Owusu-Ansah said.

Joseph Toth, Stockton University’s library director, said New Jersey colleges are making a deliberate effort to teach students how to conduct academic research. Stockton prioritizes information literacy and research skills as among the essential learning outcomes it expects all students to achieve by graduation.

“We have created a resource guide on various subjects,” Toth said. “We teach information literacy and teach a freshmen seminar in which librarians make an appearance. Fake news tends to be a generic term that cuts across subjects. We teach in the context of students learning in their major. They want to become proficient in their major. We teach those tenants within the context of students learning to become researchers in their field.”

Professors ask Stockton librarians to their classes. The freshmen seminar courses include an introduction to library resources so students become familiar with the research tools available to them.

“It is no small service that we have a subject librarian on every subject,” Toth said. “Students realize they are not on their own. One of our primary lessons is to talk about the difference between a proprietary database versus Google. We talk about the peer-review process and how it is pertinent to their field and how it is necessary to use proprietary databases. We teach them how to sculpt the search, save the material. We do not denigrate Google.

“I ask our undergraduate students how many plan to attend graduate school. Once they are confronted with assignments that require materials that require research resources, the students’ light bulbs go off.”

Maurice Hall, dean of The College of New Jersey’s Schools of the Arts and Communication, is experiencing a similar trend as many students arrive on campus as digital natives.

“They have grown up with the internet, search engines and YouTube at their fingertips,” Hall said. “We do not assume that they arrive prepared to distinguish between information based on the best knowledge we have available and urban myths/conspiracy theories. One of the things I find most exciting about working at TCNJ as a liberal arts institution, is that TCNJ puts a significant premium on critical thinking skills for our students.”

TCNJ students are required to complete a liberal learning curriculum that features courses outside of their area of study that emphasize integrative and critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning, Hall said.

First-year students are required to take First Seminar Programs, a small workshop-style class in which students work closely with a professor outside of their major, and many of the courses are directed at helping them evaluate the rigorous processes by which knowledge is created and tested.

“This semester two of the courses, ‘Skepticism: Myth-busting, Pseudoscience, and Baloney Detection’ and ‘Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy and Global Citizenship’ are focused on helping students differentiate between nonscientific versus scientific thinking and reasoning, as well as media/information literacy,” Hall said.

Within the School of the Arts and Communication, several departments require students to complete courses such as “Methods of Communication Research and Analysis” in the Communication Studies Department, Hall said. Students learn the steps for completing a research project and how to explicitly differentiate between scholarly and nonscholarly sources, he said.

Many TCNJ students complete research projects with faculty members in courses such as “Student Faculty Advanced Research,” and they present the results of their research at peer-reviewed professional academic conferences or in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, Hall said. TCNJ faculty members have won national awards for this kind of student mentorship.

In TCNJ’s journalism department, students take courses in data-based journalism that introduces them to both scholarly and public policy research as a way of helping them grapple with the specifics of selected public policy or scientific issues.

TCNJ funds an annual student-faculty partnership, a mentored undergraduate summer research project, where they complete rigorous collaborative research projects, Hall said.

“Using several, integrative methods, we help prepare our students to effectively deal with the onslaught of digital sludge that greets them every day,” he said.

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: dhutter@njbiz.com.

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