Why I asked my students to Google me

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An activity for the first week of class or before the first staff meeting

By Erin Olson

In the first five days of class, a crucial window for building relationships with my new students, I did something that other educators might consider bold. I asked my students to Google me and make inferences about the year we would have together. Realizing this is something they were likely to do anyway, I wanted to witness firsthand how they searched, how they shared what they found, and if they believed the information they encountered. 

In just a few minutes, students discovered a little bit about me, and I discovered a lot about their ability to effectively look for information online. 

I kicked off our time together with this exercise because I wanted to create an environment where students are curious, contributing ideas and information, and willing to engage in academic discussion – and that requires them to have an ability to discern, question, and investigate the abundance of information available online. Through this exercise, I learned about the support they would need to better navigate the digital landscape. Essentially, I learned whether my students were media and news-literate. 

Being media literate means students can access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. News literacy is the more specific ability to determine the credibility of news and other information. 

These are essential skills to incorporate into the first days class – and throughout the year. (You can replicate this lesson without asking students to dig up details about you on the internet each time. Instead, ask students to search for a person of interest or even the university.)

An often-cited 2019 Stanford History Education Group study found that 96% of young people didn’t consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen the site’s credibility. More than half of those involved in the study believed that a grainy video of ballot-stuffing — actually shot in Russia — was “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the U.S.

While we may think of our students as “digital natives,” these alarming stats show that access to the internet does not mean automatic access to credible sources. Having an unprecedented amount of treasured information within our reach does not matter if we do not know how to get to the gold. 

The good news is that students can learn how to identify credible sources from everything else, so they are not vulnerable to being misled by conspiracy theories, paid influencers, or biased opinions masquerading as news. 

Here are some news literacy skills to work on, and resources to kick off the journey:

  • Lateral reading: Gone are the days when we told students to check an “about us” page to find out more about a website. Verifying information online involves more than examining the appearance of the site or the source. It requires searching across the internet to verify a claim. This is called lateral reading – when you leave a website, open a new tab, and start a new search to see what other sources say about the site. To see how this is done, check out this mini-lesson, which uses TikTok to demonstrate lateral reading skills and the importance of verifying information.  
  • Share better search strategies: Model effective search tips for finding the best information, like using quotation marks around specific terms, narrowing results to only news sources, and searching within a specific site. (Check out these eight tips on  how to Google like a pro and get better search results.) Then, send students into the digital landscape to test those strategies by finding information about a topic connected to your content, a current event, or a student interest. 
  • Support new habits: Take as many opportunities as you can to remind students to practice media literacy tips and strategies. You can also remind students about the red flags that often accompany misinformation, like emotionally charged statements like “let that sink in” or “do your own research.” You could include media literacy resources in your virtual classroom, syllabi, or build nudges into assignments. Effective searching takes time to build as a habit, and these cues to interrupt our basic internet search can help students form more effective habits for better search returns. 

Thinking critically, developing a healthy skepticism, and knowing where to go for factual information are important skills for students to master across every subject. They also take more than a week – or a few – to perfect. Becoming media and news-literate is a journey of continual learning and practice. But you can start your students down the path by laying a foundation for facts in the very first days of class. 

Erin Olson
Erin Olson

Erin Olson is a senior manager of education partnerships for the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit. She previously taught English in middle and high school, was an instructional coach and supported school districts with technology integration.