In the fall of 2011, the start of its third academic year of existence, the News Literacy Project created a “digital unit.” It was the first of its kind; NLP and the other major news literacy program, the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, were created to teach high schoolers students and college students, respectively, how to navigate the dizzying, often suspect streams of information available online. But they only delivered these lessons the old-fashioned, labor-intensive, analog way: in person. If you lived in Kentucky, you were out of luck.
As a leader in the field, NLP plans to change that, although its current program—which is acting as a template for a planned national, open-access, Web-available course the group plans to launch by the end of the year—is kept on flash drives, offered for free to participating school districts. Once rolled out, the national course will be downloadable from NLP’s website.
Alan Miller, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, runs NLP in Bethesda, MD. He says that the organization has been working over the last few years to refine its digital unit.
“There are two principal ways that we are moving to scale online,” says Miller. “The bigger mover is the digital unit… We distilled the essence of what we’ve learned and done in the classroom.”
Last fall, NLP’s digital unit was deployed by 35 teachers for 2,739 students in 28 schools in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. The students participated in
five themed lessonsnine lessons covering four themes, including the First Amendment and the “challenges and opportunities” of digital media. Students sit at laptops and watch lectures, usually delivered by journalists from local news outlets. Bullet points appear alongside the journalist’s face on the screen, sort like a PowerPoint presentation. Illustrative examples are ripped from the headlines, such as the coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.
Lessons end with tangible rules to follow, such as “stay skeptical of isolated quotes until you see the full context.” Some lectures are used in all cities, but NLP has substituted more local figures for each city, so that students in Chicago, for example, will mostly hear from Chicago-based journalists.
The irony of having these lessons, on sophisticated digital citizenship, delivered in person or by mail is not lost on NLP staffers. But they found that schools often have limited bandwidth and having 25 students streaming video at once would overload the servers. Of course, teachers are free to show the videos to the whole class at once. But Miller argues that the one-on-one nature of students watching on their own computers is better when possible, so they can progress through the curriculum at their own pace.
Although educators say that meeting the journalist in person is always the ideal, the one-to-one nature of the NLP digital unit is a good substitute, and a necessary one given the practical constraints of trying to reach every student in a major urban school district. “There’s nothing like somebody walking into your classroom,” says Marty Moe, head of social studies for the Chicago public schools. “Reality-wise, we’ve got 600 schools, so you couldn’t realistically do that for everyone.
NLP is also developing a premium digital unit that schools, or an outside supporter such as a foundation, will have to pay for. That will come with an e-conference, already up and running, where students can interact directly with a journalist. Students participating on a computer or tablet will be able to type questions and send them to the lecturer who they are watching live from a studio. The journalist can even throw out questions and gather the typed responses. It will be just like having the journalist in the classroom. But she can be in another city, or communicating with students in several different cities at once. “It’s a really exciting explosion of kids and teachers we’re reaching,” says Miller. “It ramps us up exponentially.”
In addition to the more involved units, NLP is beginning to post one-off lessons online. In October, as part of its website’s re-launch, NLP created a “Learn” channel where anyone can watch video lectures for free. There are currently four videos on the site, each of which has been viewed between 100 and 200 times thus far, and their plan is to add one per month, so they have many more in the works. Typical videos run around 10 minutes and are narrated by experienced journalists. In the most-watched video, Paul Saltzman, assistant managing editor for projects at the Chicago Sun-Times, gives an overview to how a reader should view an article’s sourcing, with seven key points. The first is the number of sources. A story with only one source, he notes, “might be fine if it’s a story about the weather tomorrow, and your source is a weather forecaster. But in other cases, it can be a sign that a story was under-reported. An investigative story that relies on a single source, for instance, could be something to be wary of.” NLP also introduced the “Teachable Moments” blog, in which journalists such as former New York Times public editor Byron Calame illustrate news literacy concepts through events in the news, like an erroneous story.
Previously, all of NLP’s lessons could only be shared with students enrolled in a class that offered them. What the Learn channel and Teachable Moments blog could do—if they build up their content and viewership substantially—is open news literacy concepts to anyone. An American or an Australian, a 30 year old as well as teenager, could learn from a veteran journalist. NLP’s view, after all, is not that teenagers with interested teachers are the only ones who need to learn how to skeptically process new media. Everyone can benefit from using the critical approaches NLP teaches, even other journalists.
Teachers and administrators who have worked with NLP are enthusiastic about the potential for digital lessons to expand NLP’s capacity. This past fall, more students received NLP lessons on the computer than from a classroom visit. Moe says he expects more Chicago schools to request the NLP lessons.
“Teachers have nothing but praise for it,” says Moe. “As other teachers hear about it they’ll want to get involved as well.”
Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.