Checkology: A Tool for Teaching Media Literacy

Despite the common impression that high school students are tech-savvy and fluent in their digital media navigation skills, time and time again we see that this is not actually the case. Although the average high school student does spend an admittedly sizeable amount of time reading and writing in digital realms, they still remain in need of the same skills they were in need of before the dawn of the digital era: strategic and flexible reading and writing skills.

It is my belief that, as teachers of reading and writing, this is our responsibility. This is one of the most important, relevant, and enriching gifts we can impart to our students: how to wield the power of the internet wisely and ethically. The wide arrays of strategies, approaches, and ideologies for doing this can be daunting; however, I would like to use this blog post to call attention to a particular tool that I have found helpful in equipping students to navigate the resources of the online world in productive ways: Checkology. But before I get into the beauty of Checkology, allow me to explain the particular problem that Checkology attempts to address.

One of the larger subcategories of teaching digital and online literacy is educating students on how to insightfully and critically approach information presented to them through digital media and news sources. This can include Twitter, Facebook, news sites, blogs, advertisements, and a wide variety of online media compositions that are designed to have very specific impacts on their audiences. Sometimes that specific impact is honestly intended to inform; however students need to understand that, more often than not, informing an audience is not the only or not even the primary goal of online media sources. Very frequently these pieces are intended to persuade, sell, entertain, or accomplish things very different from strictly informing. And our students are, as it turns out, unable to tell the difference.

A recent study by Stanford university assessed middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to evaluate the credibility of information and data presented through a variety of forms of online media, and the results were concerning to put it mildly. The data from over 7,800 surveyed students over 12 different states showed that MOST students were unable to determine when online news sources were fake, intensely biased, or attempting to sell them products. Students did not know when or how to evaluate author credibility, bias, sponsorship, or a long list of factors that would impact how they should interpret an apparent fact or set of information. Articles by NPR and The Wall Street Journal elaborate on the results of this study more thoroughly, but suffice it to say that your average high school student is easy prey for a well-composed online piece that aims to manipulate them. If we want our students to be able to competently read and interpret the things they find on the internet, we’re going to have to take the time to teach them how.

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This is where Checkology comes in. Checkology is a creation of the News Literacy Project, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with educators and journalists to teach students “how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age.” It is essentially a FREE interactive platform for classroom use that walks students through a set of lessons geared towards effectively approaching the complicated world of media literacy. In Checkology’s own words, “It equips students with the tools to interpret the news and information that shape their lives so they can make informed decisions about what to believe, share and act on — and ultimately become active members of civic society.” The 12 lessons focus on topics such as identifying rhetorical goals in a piece, recognizing bias, understanding personalization algorithms and sponsored content, and a variety of other tools necessary to deconstruct media sources in insightful, meaningful ways.

The Checkology curriculum uses current and relevant examples from a wide variety of sources to demonstrate their points and give students opportunities to see the principles they are learning about at play in the real world. Users can purchase a premium model of the Checkology platform that includes additional resources and options; however, I was more than satisfied with the resources and lessons available through the free model. While I myself did not actually ask my students to use the checkology online program, I worked through the lessons myself, gathering materials and ideas to integrate into my already-existing unit.

And this year was undoubtedly my best year yet for media literacy. Throughout the course of the unit and our associated discussions, students said and asked things like:

  • NO WAY! And they do that on purpose??
  • Wait, so how do I really know when something is true?
  • I think I may have only been reading things I already agree with for basically my whole life.
  • I’m never reading anything without looking the author up on Twitter ever again.
  • Now I know what to say when my crazy aunt shares those insane articles on Facebook!

Students connected deeply and practically with the values involved in vetting their own online information sources, and I do believe that they will go on to be smarter, more effective members of society because of it. So Media Literacy remains a critically important topic to include in standard high school classrooms, and Checkology’s tools help make that an accessible and low-stress option for teachers everywhere. Check it out! And get your students ready to meet the onslaught of complicated media messaging head on.

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