E-learning, Post-Truth and Digital Literacy

by Denis Schroder

"In a world where misinformation can spread like a global wildfire, transparent and reliable free education is the most effective weapon against post-factuality. "

“Don’t trust anyone or anything on the Internet“ used to be the most common advice from parents to Millennials back when family computers first became a thing in the late 90s and early 00s.  Generation X, after all, tends to be most commonly described by the word “skepticism.“ (1) The following generation, meanwhile, continues to embrace the digital revolution. You will be hard-pressed to find an educated Millennial whose education and professional life isn’t deeply dependent on the advancements of technology.

The main accusation against digitisation then, as it is now: Anyone can pretend to be anyone and write anything. Now that the Oxford Dictionary proclaimed “post-truth“ the word of the year, we’re likely to enter into yet another far-reaching (and perhaps desperately needed) discussion about the benefits and trustworthiness of everything digital: If techno-skeptic voices are to be believed, the internet has evolved from a haven for sexual predators and deviants in 1996 to a haven for liars and manipulative masterminds in 2016. Fake news on social media is currently deemed one of the biggest threats to democracy. Case in point: The American Presedential election and Brexit, whose respective campaigns were won at least in part by deliberately spreading fake news, statistics and numbers. But there’s the rub! If Brexit polls are any indication, Millennials remained largely unimpressed by fake numbers. Their digital literacy and understanding of digital transparency continues to be this generation’s main weapon against the onslaught of digital populism.

As we enter the discussion about the trustworthiness of all things internet, one of the big talking points is undoubtedly going to be the role of education and learning in the digital age. The benefits of e-learning have been so widely discussed that they barely need repeating: It’s more cost-effective, it’s multi-medial, it’s more easily accessible and ultimately more convenient for users. (2) Wikipedia, over the course of a mere 15 years, has become the largest encyclopedia in the world for good reason: It’s not just cheap, it’s free. It’s not just accessible, it’s collaborative. Despite sustained criticism of it’s “everyone can edit an article”-policy, Wikipedia continues to be largely reliable and unbiased, as a recent study conducted at Harvard confirms. (3) What is more, Wikipedia is but one player in a growing movement that advocates open-source education. The Internet Archive, a San-Francisco-based non profit digital library, provides digitized learning materials that have saved many a student exhausting library trips or purchase fees for educational content in the public domain. Websites like opensource.com or The Open Education Consortium (econsortium.org) provide extensive lists of entirely free and reliable educational and e-learning materials. An increasing number of universities, museums and archives publish content under free licences for everyone to use.

One of the most frequent charges of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers levelled against Millennials is their alleged entitlement to “free stuff.” But there is method to the madness when it comes to educational resources:  Not only is the digital marketplace in dire need for a highly educated workforce, but the complexities of a globalised, highly mobile world has made access to trustworthy information not just a means to reduce personal expenses, but a necessity to fight inevitable consequences of digitisation: In a world where misinformation can spread like a global wildfire, transparent and reliable free education is the most effective weapon against post-factuality. To lock up education behind ivy (pay-)walls is to allow misinformation to wreak havoc beyond those walls: in politics, society and in the economy.

 In conclusion, if education is less about where to find information and more about how to use it, the next revolution is to grow the “human”. Learn to ensure that we connect, communicate, intuit and engage with the abundance of free learning so that we might use it to improve culture, well-being and to carry education on to the evolutionary level.

(1)  Pew Research Center: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/05/generation-x-americas-neglected-middle-child/

(2)  Welsh et al.: E-learning: emerging uses, empirical results and future directions https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Connie_Wanberg/publication/227601946_E-Learning_emerging_results_and_future_directions/links/02bfe50db7b2bd976d000000.pdf

(3)  Greenstain, Zhu: Do Experts or Collective Intelligence Write with More Bias? Evidence from Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/15-023_e044cf50-f621-4759-a827-e9a3bf8920c0.pdf