Attending to the information environment of the web: A call to action at Middlebury

Imagine this scenario: A toxic sludge has infiltrated Otter Creek, the river that runs through the heart of the town of Middlebury, Vermont. As you know, this river is important to Middlebury. It’s a site of tourist attractions, it imbues the town with a picturesque quality, it connects us to our history (the marbleworks once used the river to power its machinery), it houses and supports wildlife (like the otter that gives the river its name), it powers our towns with its hydroelectric dams, and it feeds into important marshlands in Addison County.

And now, in our scenario, the river is gray, sludgy, and dotted with old tires, trash, and debris sucked into toxic threads in the river and along its banks.

Nightmare scenario, yes? What would we do? I’d like to think that, as a community, we’d come together to clean up Otter Creek. But that wouldn’t be enough, would it? We’d want to address the source of the pollution, too. We’d want to make sure that we were purifying the water and keeping the guilty pollution sources away from our beloved river.

Now imagine this scenario: The web is polluted with a toxic sludge.

This scenario is real; it’s happening. We know it and every day we learn more about just how nasty things are on the web. So, what are we going to do about it?

I know you may not feel the same level of responsibility for the web as you do for Otter Creek river, or, for our Monterey colleagues, for the Monterey Bay. But the web is important for higher education. It is part of the information ecosystem from which we all learn, and we know more clearly than ever how badly misinformation can impact our country and in our world (and if you haven’t read much about Facebook’s role in the last election, it’s time to start reading about it). Misinformation on the web is polarizing us, it’s radicalizing us (seriously, watch The Miseducation of Dylann Roof) and we should be paying attention. Better yet, higher education should be leading the way in improving our information ecosystem. Higher education should be saving the web.

I wish I could take credit for the helpful ecological analogy, but it comes from the genius of Mike Caulfield, who recently presented it at the Open Education conference in Anaheim, CA. The video is worth watching.

Mike introduces the concept of information environmentalism, which he defines as improving our online information environments. This can be a personal project (e.g., I was thinking about cleaning up my personal information environment when I wrote this post), but more importantly, it can and should be an educational project with civic engagement goals. Curricular and co-curricular activities can start to clean up the misinformation on the web, and help us combat a sense of helplessness and cynicism through real, consequential, actions.

Mike says: “One of the most powerful ways to teach this is through action. And action in this space is about getting students to improve the information environment by posting better-quality information to the web. This can be achieved in many ways: editing Wikipedia; answering questions on Quora or StackExchange; creating explanatory YouTube videos; or posting pages on blogs or wikis that provide helpful guidance on these issues.”

He goes on to describe how they are working on informational environmentalism at Washington State University – Vancouver, where Mike is the Director of Networked and Blended Learning. Go check out the Digipo wiki and see students’ environmentalism work in courses on Neuroscience, English, a first year seminar on fake news, and a first year seminar on digital identity. Mike’s free / open-licensed textbook on Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers helps students learn simple strategies (“four moves and a habit”)  for verifying information on the web and writing well-sourced wiki articles help to counteract misinformation. Students write about topics that relate to their course of study (e.g., neuroscience), so they’re engaging deeply with a disciplinary area while their work helps to reshape the web-information ecology for that topic. In areas where there is a lot of pollution (e.g., climate science, medical/health topics like vaccines and diseases, politics) this work is daunting but absolutely necessary.

This spring, we’ll be doing some information environmentalism at Middlebury in the class I’m co-teaching with Dana Yeaton and Netta Avineri on intercultural (and digital) rhetoric. I’ll talk a bit more about what I’m planning (spoiler: it involves a swamp monster called Pinterest) in an upcoming blog post.

Mike says, when you do work that engages with our world’s greatest challenges:

“You do good. You feel good (and you see your impact). You learn something.”

It’s time to take action to improve our web-based information environments. Will you join the movement? Will you help us start an information environmentalism project at Middlebury? 

For more about digital polarization, information environmentalism, and all things “truth, identity, language, and the web,” sign up for Mike Caulfield’s Traces newsletter here:

For essential readings and analyses of the intersection of higher education and educational technology, with much-needed critical eye on Silicon Valley, sign up for Audrey Watter’s HEWNewsletter:

For more “commentary about disinformation, propaganda, and digital media literacy,” sign up for Kris Shaffer’s The Disinformer newsletter:

Photo by Daniil Silantev

Amy Collier

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