Truth 3.0

This week, my 8-week Northeastern class, EDU-6323 – Technology as a Medium for Learning, started.

Before diving in to various technologies while working through Michelle Miller’s book Minds Online, we spend the first week exploring what learning in a networked world might actually mean.  Readings include:

…as well as two videos:


Ericsson | The Future of Learning, Networked Society from Don't Fail Idaho on Vimeo.

While they found the Future of Learning video the most inspiring, the assignment that captured the most attention was danah boyd’s SXSW talk and video.  One noted that her statement, “When we ask students to challenge their sacred cows but don’t give them a new framework through which to make sense of the world, others are often there to do it for us.” resonated with this student.  Another questioned her definition of “good.”  Still another asked:

“How do we promote dialogue and free speech, while also attempting to cull hate speech, fear mongering, and strife? Is it possible that we are only seeing these divisions more clearly because of there being an opportunity to share them online? Boyd mentions she’d love to see more interaction between teachers and students via social media, but where do we draw the line between personal space, privacy, and education?”

Excellent questions…and it brought to mind a blog post I wrote eleven years ago – Truth 2.0? I had only been blogging for 3 months when I posted this, so this was early in my blogging life.  I talked about a very interesting article by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post entitled “Truth: Can You Handle It?” The article starts with a well-known witty saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Hesse pointed out that while you can find this quote in some 11,000 different web pages – Abraham Lincoln never said this. Lincoln’s quote was about a cow, not a dog. She goes on to talk about how students then relied on Wikipedia and Google searches without validating the information. They counted on the wisdom of the crowds.

Eleven years ago…

We have not come very far.  Just this morning, in response to this Fox News Report …

… President Trump tweeted this:

As Snopes noted, Trump was almost certainly referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and her allies in what’s become known as “the squad.” The others are Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Only Omar, from Somalia, is foreign-born.  The other three were born and raised in America, but his “go back from where they came” certainly brought to my mind ugly comments from my childhood in the South to Black Americans to go back to Africa.

Some suggest that the President appears committed to destroying the very idea of facts.  Can we as educators use this as a teachable moment with our students?  What are facts?  What does truth mean?

In an August 2018 article in MIT Technology Review, Elizabeth Svoboda noted “Democracy assumes the presence of rational actors, capable of digesting information from all quarters and coming to reasoned conclusions.”  Yet Singer and Brooking’s 2018 book LikeWar showed how easily different sides can be manipulated due to a concept I discussed in that post eleven years ago – homophily.  I learned this term from Michele Martin, who noted so eloquently in “Understanding Homophily on the Web,” that we tend to associate online primarily with those people who think as we do, which in turn can cause us tune out the possibilities that there are other ways to think.  As LikeWar noted, it has only gotten worse in the past decade.  Rational actors seem to be a scarce commodity these days!

My students asked how do we change this culture?  Technology might be one answer.  A MIT Technology Review article from last week noted that Instagram is exploring using AI to stop people from posting abusive comments.  But I would not want to defer to AI to solve this all too human problem.  I like the suggestions by the TeachThought staff in their article “20 Questions to Help Students Think Critically About News.”  This is a good start.  But equally important is the dialogue we as educators need to raise between ourselves and with our students.  We cannot be passive about truth.

This gets back to danah boyd’s talk.  She noted that two years ago, Cory Doctorow wrote:

“…we’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology. The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).”

The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”

In her talk, danah boyd ends by arguing that “…we need to start developing a networked response to this networked landscape. And it starts by understanding different ways of constructing knowledge.”  She also noted later that “For what it’s worth, when I try to untangle the threads to actually address the so-called “fake news” problem, I always end in two places: 1) dismantle financialized capitalism (which is also the root cause of some of the most challenging dynamics of tech companies); 2) reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people. But neither of those are recommendations for educators. <grin>”

I agree…these are beyond my scope of influence!  But I do think that we as educators and our students can begin networked conversations that look at truth…in all its forms.

How would you approach this problem?


{Graphics: Watwood, Fox News, Twitter, Evidence Unseen}

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