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What Education Researchers Can Learn from the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook Revelation - #AERA18 #FakeNews

April 16, 2018

*I was invited to participate in a panel session about the role of education researchers in the era of Fake News during the the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 in New York, NY. This is an issue I've been thinking about for some time so I was appreciative to have the opportunity to stop and put my thoughts into a short blog on the topic. The other panelist also wrote blogs and they can be found here. If you're interested, the session will be live-streamed starting at 8:15 AM (more details for those that will be in New York can be found here here)

     News sources estimate that over 87 million Americans were impacted by Cambridge Analytica’s unlawful acquisition of data from Facebook. While justifiably much of the outrage has been targeted at these two firms, what has been conspicuously missing in the national dialogue is a question about why so many Americans presumably “fell” for the fake news articles that leveraged their data. This to me sheds light on two issues of relevance for education researchers and the academy more broadly. The first issue is around how we still struggle to effectively galvanize educational spaces as sites of civic and political development and resistance that equip students to effectively engage in a complex democracy. This is not to overlook the many individual scholars who are taking on this work, but as a whole, AERA and many higher education institutions have preferred to either remain silent or promote apolitical volunteerism rather than committing resources to researching, debating, and building consensus around the competencies and skills students that come through educational systems need to ward off problems of a democracy, such as polarization, apathy, and inaccurate information. In response, we must re-commit ourselves to being leaders in the academy for championing the civic and political purposes of educational experiences and being sure that our practices and pedagogies are informed by research.

 

     Paradoxically, the second issue of relevance stems from how well nefarious organizations were able to leverage Cambridge Analytica’s data and profiles to target their content to best insure that the stories were plausible and accessible. This reminded me of an AERA session I attended a few years ago where I heard Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings share that one of the keys to the success of her esteemed career was that she always made sure people in the communities she cared about could access, read, and understand the work she was doing. As a graduate student hearing this from a scholar I deeply admired, I began to think intensely about how I was being prepared, or not, to do research that was accessible and understandable to a range of audiences. Sure, over my time as a graduate student, I received some direct “how-to” training on how to produce relevant and rigorous research, but much of my socialization was tied to trying to emulate practices that I saw from scholars in the field that I respected or that I read in textbooks. An honest self-reflective observation of this practice would suggest that this makes me and others that “fit my profile” prime candidates to repeat and reify the mistakes and oversights of the generation of scholars that have come before me. So as an early career scholar, when I think of our collective roles in the production, dissemination, communication, and use of research, I begin with a question of how we have and are currently preparing students in our Schools of Education to respond to the social and political tensions of the Fake News era.

 

     In the higher education world, when we think of many of our most vexing issues, we deem it a “pipeline issue.” – For instance, not enough low-income, first generation students in college, “it’s a pipeline issue.” Not enough women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, “it’s a pipeline issue.” Not enough diverse faculty in tenure-track positions, again – “pipeline issue.” So it would stand to reason that if we are being confronted with issues of the role of education research in an era of Fake News that we must more centrally focus on the education research pipeline. Just as organizations (allegedly) leveraged data to target the desired audience to influence U.S. elections, so too, we must leverage what we know about the consumers of our research and prepare students to meet them where they are. So, what could that look like in practice?

 

     Just a couple of initial ideas – scholars from across the AERA footprint could craft thoughtful guidance and suggestions for Schools of Education to consider around training both researchers and practitioners to navigate tensions in an era of Fake News. For example, Schools are slowly nuancing the traditional five chapter dissertation towards providing students with flexibility to instead produce two or three stand-alone articles. But how would a portfolio of data visualizations, technical reports, and editorial blogs intended to address a relevant educational issue and targeted at wider audiences and policymakers be viewed by the normative standards of the academy? We’re not serious about being relevant in a Fake News era until we are open to new ways of preparing students to respond to these demands.

 

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