Faking It

When the web was new, we were very worried about the reliability of online content. We were moving from an environment where the means of publication were controlled. There were gatekeepers who controlled what content got published. They ensured that the information the public consumed was accurate and reliable. At least, that was the idea.

With the web, that changed because everyone suddenly had the ability to publish content. Anyone could make a web page. So we had to figure out how assess the credibility of a web site. I remember, when working on my Master’s degree in the late 90s, that information literacy was just starting to become a thing.  We were worried that our students might believe everything they read online.  So we tried to teach them the look critically at information resources. That work continues now, nearly a generation later.

But things have become more difficult. With the advent of Photoshop and other image editing software, it’s pretty easy to edit pictures to enhance or omit details. Sometimes, this is done for reasons of vanity, but it’s often done for political reasons as well. So now, in addition to assessing the reliability of web sites and news stories, we have to question the legitimacy of photographs, too. It’s okay. We’re getting better at it. We’re becoming more skeptical. Hopefully, we’re asking questions and citing sources and applying deductive reasoning and the scientific method to separate fact from fiction. I mean, it’s not like we’re just throwing up our hands and saying everything we don’t like is fake, right?

But here we go, making things harder again. Last year, Adobe showed a demo of its new VoCo product. With a 20 minute sample of a speaker’s voice, you can quickly and easily edit the audio and make the speaker say anything you want.

This isn’t out yet, but it’s coming in a future version of Adobe Creative Cloud, a widely used graphic arts package that includes Photoshop, InDesign, and other “standard” tools used by professionals and amateurs alike to edit digital work.

So now, you can take an audio recording and edit it as easily as a word processing document to make the speaker say anything you want. That’s really cool, but also terrifying. But wait, there’s more. Check out this research project at Stanford:

See what they’re doing there? Using nothing more complicated than a webcam, they’re mapping facial features onto an existing video. If you pair these two technologies together, you can create a video that makes any public figure say anything you want.

Sure, it’s not perfect. This is still complicated software. It’s cumbersome to use, especially when you’re trying to put all the pieces together. And the results aren’t great. You can tell from this video that the technology is not quite at the point where it’s going to fool most people.

But our job just got harder. On one level, it not too bad that we have to teach our students to think critically about video and audio. We really should have seen that coming. And we’re teaching students to think critically about information, regardless of the form. They just need to be aware that video and audio, like pictures and text, can be manipulated. Information has meta information. HOW do you know? What is the source for the position you’re taking? Why do you trust that source? We need to challenge our students and each other to make the information about the information just as important as the content itself.

But the real problem is the plausible deniability. We can no longer prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone said something or did something. You have video of me holding up a convenience store? Prove that it’s me and that it hasn’t been altered. You claim you have an audio recording of a public figure making misogynist / racist / anti-semitic / anti-American comments? Prove that it hasn’t been doctored. Because it’s easy to fabricate these things now, we can use the technology as a scapegoat to disavow responsibility for our words and actions.

Information literacy includes the skills of selecting and curating information, assessing reliability and credibility, and then using that information in responsible ways. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to do that anymore. And you can’t prove that I’m wrong.


Acknowledgment: Almost all of this came from the RadioLab Story “Breaking News.” Those guys do fantastic work. You should go listen.

Also, I have no idea where the Lincoln photo originally came from. It’s literally all over the place. No, I don’t have permission to use it.


Urban Legends

I’m sure you’ve heard about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to give away $4.5 million to Facebook users who share a “thank you” message, right? Or, maybe you read about Facebook’s plan to start charging a monthly fee for using their social network. Did you know you can post a legal notice on your Facebook wall that protects your copyright and privacy rights?

2236973226_158f9308e7_zLast year, Pope Francis famously said that belief in God is not necessary to be a good person. Donald Trump claimed in a 1998 interview that Republicans are the “dumbest group of voters.”

Meanwhile, NASA confirmed last year that the earth will experience 15 straight days of total darkness. Those terrorists posing in UPS uniforms will likely have a field day. Fortunately, we can simply enter our pins backwards into any ATM to immediately summon law enforcement.

When we first encounter these hoaxes, we are amused that so many people fall for them. The novelty quickly wears off, and we reach the point where we just paste the Snopes link or a news article debunking the myth without comment and move on. Eventually, we stop responding altogether and start ignoring the people who post this tripe.

But consider these gems, which you’ve also heard widely circulated as undisputed fact:

We tend to remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 75% of what we do, and 90% of what we teach.


People have different learning styles. Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners benefit from instruction that is tuned to their individual learning styles.


Today’s students are digital natives, born into a hyper-connected world of information abundance. Their brains work differently from those of the “digital immigrants” that make up their parents and teachers. They need an education system that takes advantage of technology and social networks.

There isn’t any proof that any of these statements are any more true than the outrageous ones about Facebook and terrorism. But they sound credible. They explain things we have observed. We want to believe them. So we base our instructional decisions on them, and will ourselves into applying them, without spending too much time worrying about how accurate they are.


But then along comes someone like Pedro De Bruyckere. Challenged by a student teacher who asked for a source, he started investigating the origin of the learning pyramid. It was invented by Edgar Dale in 1946, and later adopted by the National Training Laboratories. But it was a fabrication from the beginning.

De Bruyckere went on to research other myths, eventually writing a book on the subject. Or, if you prefer, you can check out this executive summary prepared by Train Visual.

The learning styles theory has also been challenged on a number of fronts. Psychology Professor Daniel T. Willingham offers this explanation of the research behind learning styles:

Prensky’s Digital Native argument, of course, was debunked long ago. Even he has distanced himself from it, though the argument could be made that his initial paper was taken out of context. Ultimately, there is no evidence that today’s youth is wired any differently from their parents. There may be differences in the ways in which people interact with technology, but those differences are not necessarily generational, and they’re certainly not biological.

As educators in the age of information abundance, we have to be just as skeptical as we want our students (and parents) to be when they’re interacting online. We need to do a better job of challenging theories, citing research, and backing up our beliefs. We know more than we’ve ever known before. We have a better understanding about how the world, and the brain, and our society works than any previous generation. We should be applying those lessons to provide the best learning environment for our students that we can.

Let’s keep the urban legends out of the schoolhouse and leave them on Facebook where they belong.

Photo credit: Yael Beerl on Flickr.
Learning Pyramid diagram: The Amazing Darren Kuropatwa on Flickr.