I was talking with my boss Stefan about his 5-year old daughter and her use of the Web. To her everything is simply a (in his house, Bing) search away and so she is often looking to these magic machines to give her the answer. He was worried that this level of unquestioning trust would harm her long term, that she would simply think of the search box as the definitive authority on a topic.
It got me thinking about what Bing can do to support “Internet literacy” and critical thinking skills education. We’d like to think that our product does a good job of not deciding for you, but rather presenting the best information we can, organized and marked as clearly as possible, in a way that allows you to get tasks done. *You* make the decision.
One great example of the need for critical thinking skills is the recent twitter meme about American Airlines flying medical personnel to Haiti, coupled with a phone number which turned out to be the Haiti Consulate in NYC. Neatly chronicled and debunked by University of Washington professor Kathy Gill, she showed how applied skepticism coupled with searches and cybertools could lead researchers to the truth and allow them to find the actual place where American Airlines wanted folks to direct their giving. Twitter is a social medium where misinformation can flow quickly, or good information can be garbled by the retweeting process and the limits of the 140 character format.
Although I agree that digital literacy should be a major educational initiative — across all age groups, I might add — Betsy’s anecdote brought to mind discussions with my dad. He, too, was worried about his daughter’s propensity to seek answers … even though the source turned to was books. I can hear him right now: “Kathy, you can’t find an answer to every question in a book.”
I mention my anecdote in order to suggest that the need for critical thinking — the ability and willingness to analyze any source — didn’t simply materialize with the advent of the web. It’s always been with us.
Unfortunately, there are systems in place in the home, in the church, in our schools (K-12 and higher ed) that squash natural skepticism and privilege “authority.” Thus I think there is a more significant cultural component to “digital literacy” than we may be willing to acknowledge.