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U-M librarians battle fake news with new course

By Alan Piñon

Nancy De Los Santos self-portrait. Circa 1975. Photo courtesy Nancy De Los Santos.

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Library, which has a long record of improving the way students go about finding, evaluating and using information in their academic work, is fighting back against fake news.

A marked increase in the online dissemination of intentionally false information has led librarians to join with campus partners at U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to create a class aimed at helping students develop better critical evaluation skills of news items.

The one-credit course, called “Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction,” will be available to students starting in fall 2017.

“Recent concerns about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ has us looking for ways to expand our professional efforts to help students become more critical and reflective information consumers,” said Laurie Alexander, associate university librarian for learning and teaching.

“Libraries have a long-standing commitment to helping users build skills to locate, evaluate and effectively use information. In this increasingly complex and dynamic information environment, we hope to further promote and advance information literacy so that students learn to approach information with a critical and questioning mind.”

The course takes a granular approach to a topic that has always been layered into the larger curriculum at U-M, says Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education and the Earl Lewis Professor of African and Afro-American Studies.

“Teaching students to be critical consumers of news and information is part of a good liberal arts education,” Dillard said. “Students are learning this skill in all their classes. But today there is so much information that learning how to assess its validity is more challenging than ever. This course addresses that need.”

Doreen Bradley, director of Learning Programs and Initiatives at the U-M Library, works with her colleagues at the Library on designing a course to help students identify fake news. The course will be offered through the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts in the fall.

One of the course designers, Doreen Bradley, director of learning programs and initiatives at the U-M Library, says misinformation, disinformation, half-truths and propaganda have always been around, but are these days so readily sharable that students encounter a much greater volume than ever before.

To make sense of what is true and what is not, students need a robust set of skills that can be applied in all of the venues and environments they frequent, she says.

“We want students to develop their own personal strategies for evaluating all of the types of information they encounter,” Bradley said. “Knowing how to fact-check statements and claims is a valuable skill that will last them a lifetime.”

Students taking the class will:

  • Learn how to find trusted sources of statistics.
  • Be challenged to confront their own biases.  
  • Consider how their opinions, and the opinions of others, can affect the interpretation of news items.  
  • Practice dissecting a news graph in order to understand the message that graph is trying to convey.
  • Assess how their social media feeds influence their views, and make a plan to adjust those feeds to improve their understanding of the world around them.

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