The Digital Polarization Initiative
Teaching History and Information Literacy
Misinformation about Latin America and its history pervades the internet and often appears in student work and class discussions. A recent study on digital literacy corroborates my experiences with misinformation in the classroom. Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew from the Stanford History Education Group found that students, despite being considered “digital natives,” were unable to evaluate and determine the reliability of online content. With the goals of combating false or misleading information and improving students’ digital skills and information literacy, I crafted learning outcomes for an online survey course on Latin American history that included identifying and assessing misinformation about the region by applying historical thinking and digital skills. I assigned the Digital Polarization Initiative (DigiPo) to more directly address misconceptions of Latin America and meet the course objectives.
Mike Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver developed DigiPo with sponsorship from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) as part of its American Democracy Project to improve students’ digital literacy and civic reasoning. A DigiPo page answers a single question that assesses the accuracy of “common knowledge” assertions by examining how they appear online and uses scholarly sources to correct any misinformation or inaccuracies. DigiPo pages are designed as encyclopedia entries, rather than opinion pieces or argumentative essays. After crafting a question, the format of a DigiPo wiki requires students to trace and describe the origins and prevalence of the query on the internet, write an analysis and issues section that provides context and synthesizes academic research on the subject, and include a summary with an answer to the inquiry. Students can complete and publish their projects on the DigiPo website. Caulfield’s open access Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers provides a primer on digital skills including tracing content to its origins, assessing websites, social media, photos and images, and search results.
In my online Latin American history course, students were drawn to topics such as Cold War–era US interventions in Latin America, 20th-century revolutions, and dirty wars. Recent declassification of US government documents about these issues made them timely topics. Questions such as “Did the CIA try to assassinate Fidel Castro?” resulted in students assessing and summarizing how the query appears on the internet and then tracing those claims from relevant websites, blogs, and social media posts back to their original sources online. Additionally, students analyzed primary print sources like the Church Committee’s report on covert CIA actions in Latin America to answer their questions.
A recent study on digital literacy found that students, despite being considered “digital natives,” were unable to evaluate and determine the reliability of online content.
The DigiPo assignment allowed students taking courses or majoring in other disciplines an opportunity to make connections to Latin American history. Students in Spanish language classes examined the intersection of politics, history, and literature with questions about the “boom” authors and subjects from mid-20th-century novels. Others addressed major problems in Latin American history such as inequality and economic development during the 19th and 20th centuries. Students studying economic questions analyzed websites that advocated for a policy or political agenda and compared them to scholarly analysis and statistical sources. Thus, they engaged with classic debates in the field such as dependency theory.
A popular topic among students involved the various myths of Spanish conquest of the Americas. Students analyzed many websites attributing Spanish conquest to western “superiority” and monocausal explanations related to European weapons and technology. As a result of the DigiPo assignment, students more closely examined popular narratives of conquest. With the help of scholarly secondary works such as Mathew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), they traced explanations of Iberian victory back to their origins. Students assessed and weighed different perspectives from primary sources concerning Spanish conquest and added more recent historiographical explanations such as disease and internal divisions among Native Americans to their DigiPo wikis’ analysis and issues section.
Although the project can be completed without any scaffolding, I had students complete the project in parts before submitting a draft for peer review, and then the final project at the end of the semester. Breaking up the assignment allowed me to guide students when necessary and address problems or questions as they arose. This was especially important since this was a survey course on a region few had any familiarity with or had studied previously. In an online course, the semester-long project also provided increased opportunities for communication between students and the instructor and among students. Developing a narrowly focused question that would yield an answer related to the course content was one of the more challenging and important aspects of the assignment. Instructors may find it useful to provide students with a list of questions from which they can choose or as models to help get them started. The DigiPo website provides examples of questions and entries of varying quality from English composition, political science, and psychology courses.
The DigiPo assignment demonstrated the relevance of historical thinking for understanding contemporary issues in the digital age.
The DigiPo assignment highlighted many of the key aspects of historical thinking and core competencies of a history degree that are applicable for navigating, working, and living in a digital era. Before this assignment, I worried that students would confirm misconceptions or inaccurate information. Instead, students understood Latin America in a much richer way by recognizing the diversity within the region, rectifying stereotypes, correcting misinformation, and complicating simplistic narratives, especially those found online. The DigiPo assignment demonstrated the relevance of historical thinking for understanding contemporary issues in the digital age. End-of-course assessments showed an improvement in students’ historical thinking skills and digital literacy abilities. By semester’s end, students were better able to sift through the deluge of information available online and critically analyze such sources.
As a pedagogical tool, DigiPo is a useful starting point for conversations about historical misinformation on the internet. US history courses could use DigiPo as a platform and gateway to address questions and misinformation about Confederate monuments, slavery, and the Civil War that often circulate on the internet. Such a project could demonstrate the discipline’s relevance to current topics such as fascism, nationalism, international institutions, and climate change. The DigiPo assignment engaged students in history courses, especially nonmajors or minors with the discipline and improved students’ digital skills and information literacy.
Quinn P. Dauer is an assistant professor of history and international studies at Indiana University Southeast. He received a High Impact Practices for First Year Courses Grant from IU Southeast, funded by the AASCU and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to use DigiPo to teach information literacy and global learning in a survey of Latin American history during spring 2018.
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