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Project Information Literacy Scholars Discuss Information in an Age of Big Data

Harvard Graduate School of Education
The Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Fewer than 40 percent of college students trust news sources, according to Project Information Literacy researchers Alison Head and Barbara Fister, who presented on the relationship between students and digital media at an event held Thursday at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The event, titled “Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms,” focused on strategies for educating students on critical reading skills in the modern information age. During the event, Head and Fister shared the data they collected from across the country on student attitudes toward media sources.

Head serves as the Director of PIL, a nonprofit organization that studies how students interact with information in the digital age. Fister serves as its inaugural scholar-in-residence, analyzing the link between technology, libraries, and society. Since 2008, more than 20,000 students have participated in PIL studies on issues like information access and media trustworthiness.

Head noted that this event was the first public discussion of their most recent survey of more than 8,300 university students from diverse educational and political backgrounds. She said that the study aimed to gauge how individuals and institutions have responded to the proliferation of information on the Internet.

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“How aware are students, and how can they be better prepared? That’s how we started this study,” Head said.

She noted that a minority of the college students assessed trust in their news sources and that the public perception of news has entirely changed.

“Thirty-six percent is really damning. We had ten colleges and universities in that sample, small and large,” Head said.

Head said that they had not finished analyzing all the data from the survey.

She also elaborated on the decline of privacy in the digital age, which she said has bred further mistrust in students. Fister also noted that data is used in many contexts, beyond just media, that individuals have no control over.

“Our data is going into various places. We have no idea where it’s going really, and it’s being mined in a variety of ways, and the capacity to mine has never existed in the past. That’s being used not just to advertise to us in this very tailored way, but also to begin to predict and to nudge to push us into different directions. That’s happening in social settings where we aren’t even aware of it,” said Fister.

Head said that students have responded by becoming “very indignant” about violations of privacy. She said that many students now engage in defensive practices, such as installing ad blockers and using VPNs to access the Internet in order to protect their own privacy.

“They’re kind of proud of how skeptical they are," Head said. "They don’t trust their social institutions."

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