Beyond the Tree Octopus – Why we need a new view of k12 (digital) literacy in a Cambridge Analytica world

I’ve been very fortunate the last few weeks to have the opportunity to co-design (with learners who happen to be master teachers) a course on digital practices for education. It’s kind of like cheating. Small classes, very engaged and intelligent people, with a real desire to get to the bottom of what the digital means to the education system. These are the folks who write the curriculum, work with principals on school goals and work with teachers on their teaching practice here on Prince Edward Island. The digital strategy committee has done a ton of work here getting the systems part of things ready for a digital world and have developed some interesting ‘shiny projects‘ but the work of this course is where the important stuff happens. The day to day. If we’re going to prepare our students for the world that they live in, if we’re going to give them the habits of mind for a generation that has so many new demands on it, these are the kind of people who are going to figure it out. It’s been a real privilege.

Session 1&2 – Abundance and trust
The core premise of the course is that the digital moves us from a societal position of scarcity to one of abundance. There was a time not so long ago that a student (in a school) could only access the information from his teacher, from books within arms reach and from their friends. A teacher could only access the resources they had squirrelled away, their own experience, the experience of their colleagues and the hours of professional development that could be provided by their educational authority. This is no longer true. I can reach into my pocket right now and get just about any ‘information’ that I want.

Or can I?

There are any number of structures that were in place in the pre-digital world that made it so that ‘a’ piece of information became ‘the’ piece of information. And that’s a critical distinction. It used to be that our publishing industry, our faculties of education and our educational authority had a near stranglehold on information in our system. And I don’t mean this in a bad way. The advent of paper, of schools and of education systems did amazing things for our culture, they allowed us to take the human voice and move it around in a way that changed us from mostly illiterate farmers at constant risk of losing most of the knowledge we had (see. Dark Ages, fall of Mayan cities etc…) to groups of cultures that can build upon the past. That’s awesome.

But the controls that were in place, the publishing cycle, the education and selection of faculty, the balances of an education system, meant that the information that made it to the classroom was heavily filtered. That’s good and bad. It meant that tons of smart people had looked at the things you were going to use before you used it. That’s good. It also meant that you got less practice (and your students even less) learning how to filter. (it also means that dominant narratives stayed dominant, but that’s a discussion for a different day)

There’s a ton more to ‘learning how to filter’ than just picking information, its also about learning who to trust. If you’re information comes to you through limited sources, finding out how to evaluate those sources is fairly standardized. National Enquirer – uh… probably not. New York Times – uh… sure. That guy at the conference who everyone said was a nutball (mostly referring to myself here :)) might want to take that with a grain of salt. The professor that won all the awards? Sure, I’ll trust her. That approach has weaknesses, but on the whole, it works.

In a world of abundance, those filters are no longer in place. Pre-digital systems of adjudication for turning ‘a piece of information’ to ‘the piece of information that i need’ simply don’t work anymore. The processes that we did have for filtering were not built to handle the onslaught of stuff that we receive on a daily (or minute by minute) basis on facebook, from our google searches or in our increasingly splintered media. We retweet without thinking about it. We post a comment by reflex on something that makes us mad – thereby increasing the noise. And people are taking advantage of us.

Cambridge Analytica
I’m not suggesting that people have just started taking advantage of us. Robocalling during elections apparently started in the sixties where people would call you during an election and ask questions like “if your candidate was a murderer, would you still vote for them?” This kind of nudge suggestion doesn’t necessarily work on each individual, but it can start rumours, start conversations and suddenly a candidate has a reputation that was totally fabricated. Advertising IS the attempt of people to try and shape your opinion about things. That’s what’s happening now, the difference is the scale or, to put it in the language of this post, the difference is abundance.

Cambridge Analytica is a election data firm in the news when this post was written for helping shape the feelings voters during the US election and the British Brexit vote. Information like the things you ‘like’ on facebook and the results of personality tests you do create a profile for you. It tells the database what kind of things attract your attention. Companies like CA use this data to target you with the exact message that is likely to impact your feelings in the way they’ve been paid to do that. Take a look at how they made ‘Crooked Hillary‘ a thing. Unlike the robocalling, these approaches can affect millions of users at the same time creating a web of messages that look like something that ‘could’ be true.

It’s much, much easier for us to just pretend this is an internet thing that doesn’t effect our lives. The Trump election should convince you that this isn’t the case. Cambridge Analytica isn’t alone… not even close. There are simple tools at work like remarketing (think of how all your ads start to match up with what you last viewed on amazon). There are also much deeper tools that are constantly trying to ‘nudge’ (see Behavioural Economics) your attitudes in one direction or another. They’re not trying to make you believe that something is ‘true’ they’re trying to move opinions by 5%. That 5% gets you elected. It shapes public policy.

Why the tree octopus is not helping
In 1998 a website called the Tree Octopus was created to help students identify real information on the internet. Thousands of school children (millions?) have been assigned this activity as a way of building their skills in identifying what’s ‘true’ on the internet. It’s an initial step to building the kinds of skills that will allow students to identify ‘reliable’ data. They are going to judge ‘is it the piece of information’ is it ‘true’ or is it something that I can safely ignore. It is, in a sense, a digital ‘book’ that they are going to add to their library or not. This is an analogue view of information.

Think of it this way. Most kids will say that the wikipedia is not a trusted source. For that matter, so will most teachers. It was not created using the filters that created the items of trust from before the digital era. “anyone can just go on there and edit it.” It’s not been validated by a publisher, by a professor or by another system. Here’s the thing, wikipedia is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’. Its a place in a large network of bits of information. It’s part of a wide abundance of information around any topic you might have a question about. No particular entry is likely to be perfectly good or perfectly bad. It’s a really great place, however, to get started building your own thread of knowing. You can read the introduction, if you’re fancy you can look at the history of the edits, but most importantly you can look at the references page to get a sense of what others have said. It’s a FANTASTIC tool if your in a world of abundance. It doesn’t pass muster if you’re still using the filtering tools of world of scarcity.

Our friend the tree octopus is one page. Isolated. Artificially created to make a point. It’s not part of a larger ecosystem of knowing, its not connected to other things that help you understand it’s background. That connection to understand, that ability to build a path of knowing IS THE 21ST CENTURY LITERACY. I would suggest that the octopus takes us down an analogue path, building habits were just going to have to break when we’re doing ‘real’ work on the Internet. We’re not building the skills that will allow the students in our system to deal with the world of nudging and data that is shaping our world.

What does this mean for the classroom?
That’s the real question here. How does this change what we actually do on a regular basis in our school systems? I’m going to leave the two questions we’re working on now here. Feel free to help us with your thoughts.

1. How does this change the interaction between faculties of education/educational authorities and teachers? How do they account for the loss of hidden controls (again, no blame here in the word hidden) that they had over the information teachers had access to?

2. How does it change how a teacher should filter information that goes to students? If we accept that students need to build their own tools to deal with a world of abundance, how does that change the way we work with our students?

The world has changed around us. You can forget teaching students for a future world of whatever. We’re going to struggle to teach them for the world we are currently in right now.

Note: a huge debt goes out to all my colleagues working on this, but especially @holden who’s work has been central to our course. Check out his book

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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