A course being piloted by St. Thomas University is teaching students how to sift through online misinformation, and the province's education minister is suggesting the same be taught to elementary school children.
The Fredericton university tweeted Tuesday that it's offering a new course from its English department called Digital Literacy, saying it will "provide students with the skills they need to be critical thinkers in the age of social media and fake news."
David Shipley, CEO of Beauceron Security, a Fredericton cybersecurity firm, retweeted it, adding "Love this, but we need it in high school," and tagged Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy in the post.
"Or primary school …" Cardy responded.
The new course, and the Twitter exchange about how young the recipients of such teaching should be, comes after years of experts sounding alarms about the impact misinformation is having on public trust in institutions and democracy in general.
This week, Canada's chief electoral officer issued a report on the last two federal elections. Among other things, it called on online platforms to publish policies explaining how they will address the spread of disinformation "that inaccurately depicts election-related procedures during the election period."
In March, the Canadian Election Misinformation Project, run by McGill University and the University of Toronto, said it found messages that claimed Canadians who were not fully vaccinated would be unable to vote were widely circulated on social media during the last election.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on its own wave of misinformation around vaccines and the seriousness of the disease.
"I think it's wonderful. I think it's desperately needed," Shipley said of the course being offered by St. Thomas University.
"I think it's something that we should probably see in earlier in the school system, at least at the secondary high school level, but maybe even a starting point at the primary level.
"Teaching people how to think critically is an absolute asset to us in the world we now live in," said Shipley.
Vertical versus lateral reading
Andrew Klein, an assistant professor at St. Thomas University, put the course together along with his colleague Katherine Thorsteinson.
He said the course was born out of a recognition that university students are relying more on online material for not only getting their homework done, but also shaping their views on the world.
One of the concepts included in the course is that of vertical versus lateral reading.
With vertical reading, students are guided on what to look out for when analyzing an article or piece of information for any biases or agendas, Klein said.
Lateral reading is the practice of visiting several different online information sources when researching a specific event or topic.
Klein said the concept is critical for being able to analyze the way an event or idea is being presented, and then comparing that to the way it's done by other sources.
"I think about things like the recent convoy situations in Canada, for instance," Klein said. "Depending on what social media platforms or news outlets you checked, you were getting a completely different story about what's going on there."
Taking information for granted
In the time since Klein was a university student himself, he's noticed how technology has changed the way students access information.
Because there's so much out there for them, they don't always have or haven't always given themselves a moment to just think about where all this stuff is coming from. -Andrew Klein, assistant professor of English at St. Thomas University
One such example is when he was teaching a course for which a popular graphic novel was on the reading list.
While in class, he noticed some of the students were following along on their laptops, and after inquiring about it found out they'd accessed the book from an illegal site that republishes copyrighted works.
"And so I would say that this generation, because there's so much out there for them, they don't always have or haven't always given themselves a moment to just think about where all this stuff is coming from.
"And hopefully this course will get them to slow down or pump the brakes a little bit and rethink where any of their information is coming from."
A need for the same at earlier education stages
The fact that some university students need help parsing out what's true online, is evidence that education is needed at earlier stages, Klein said.
Plus, he noted not every high school student is going to get a post-secondary education and get exposed to courses like the one offered at St. Thomas.
He said he has noticed his children are receiving some instruction in elementary and middle school around online safety, but doesn't think it goes far enough.
"They should be getting even more of it, if not the primary level, at the secondary level, because really, once students hit their teens, they hit the Internet hard.
"So they really do need to start thinking about what they're reading, where it's all coming from. So absolutely, I totally agree."
Education Minister Cardy did not respond to a request for an interview.