Hopes and hurdles: European teachers’ struggle to tackle digital literacy in the classroom

by Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck & Adeline Brion, Lie Detectors, Belgium ; Data analysis by Adeline Brion, Margit Langenbein & Sinem Sahin.

Recently, with the onset of the global Covid pandemic, policy-makers have realised that media literacy is a life belt that will help keep us secure in a fast-moving, confusing and treacherous information universe.

With that realization comes money, and with money, a spate of brilliantly sharp, often playful and engaging media literacy materials – online, free for all, made to save democracy.

Regulators, commissions and experts agree young people growing up online must be a key target group for these materials and that teachers play a central role in facilitating them.  As a result, many of these new materials are aimed at young people and created for use by teachers in schools.

But are teachers aware and grabbing these new materials to apply them in their classrooms?

No. Or to put it in a more nuanced way: more than they were before, but far too inconsistently for comfort.

Why are teachers so reticent? How can they be emboldened to embed media literacy training in their classroom routines? And what can policymakers do to make this happen?

Lie Detectors surveyed 624 teachers and 11,219 students between January and July 2022 to explore these questions amongst others. Teachers came from a wide range of subject areas and from schools in Germany, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland and largely taught students aged 10-15. Their answers, analysed with the help of University of Münster’s Lena Frischlich and Munich’s Ruth Festl, show a steep rise in interest and engagement among teachers. But they also show systemic hurdles worsened by rapidly developing generational gaps in online habits that act as blocks on teaching. Analysis suggests solutions may lie in an approach that engages and rewards all teachers and recognises digital competences as a part of core literacy. It also suggests that external media literacy providers may continue to play an important interim role in schools.

Almost all teachers – 92,8%  – believe elements of media literacy broken down by Lie Detectors as an understanding of journalism, disinformation and fact-verification, are important or very important topics to teach at school. Three in four (77.6%) go further, saying this literacy training belongs not only to their schools but also to their own subject areas. Asked what subject the elements of media literacy should be taught in, almost two thirds named first-language literacy as the appropriate setting for children to learn these three critical media literacy elements. This was followed by mentions of social studies, history, ethics, IT studies and politics.

Q: In your opinion: Into what school subject or subjects does the Lie Detectors project fit best?​
All languages: Base: 667 teachers’ responses (Teacher data, Jan-July 2022)  

Yet this high level of interest and awareness among teachers did not automatically translate into active teaching. 

Journalism, source-verification and disinformation are important or very important themes to teach their students, according to 81.8%, 97.7% and 98.8% of teachers respectively.

Yet only 34.9%, 40.5% and 47.8% – say they address those issues themselves in their classrooms or with their students at least once a month.

Anecdotally, teachers give three main reasons for their reticence in teaching subjects they see as important: first, lack of time; second, their limited understanding of the subject; and third, lack of trustworthy and accessible materials. Teachers report feeling daunted by the task, worried about broaching sensitive topics that could inflame parents, and certain that their students, while inexperienced in checking content for quality, are far more adept and savvy  “Teachers cannot cover all competences and are not always accepted by the students as experts,” said one teacher.

Generational divide in media use

And no wonder: Covid has flung teachers onto a steep digital learning curve, with many reporting an increased use of apps such as WhatsApp, Youtube and Instagram as sources of daily information. But proportionally, pre-teens and teenagers rely on social media apps and online platforms for daily information far more routinely than their teachers. And students continue to explore new platforms. No matter how digitally savvy a teacher is, teaching online information use can become treacherous when students increasingly cite platforms such as TikTok, Twitch, Fortnite, Discord, Reddit and Telegram as information sources.  These are platforms where teachers‘ presence is relatively limited.

Q: To find out general information: what social media did you use last week to inform yourself? (Please choose all the boxes that you used last week.) Base: 581 responses from teachers, Jan-July 2022

Potential for training

And while teachers agree they would benefit from training in the area, wide-spread reticence remains. Asked what is currently keeping them from getting trained, teachers’ most frequent response is a lack of time, conflicting priorities, unwillingness to sacrifice their free time such as weekends and evenings. Offline events are hard to fit into a busy schedule. Training received during a single full day can be too dense to retain.

Still, 64,3%% of teachers told Lie Detectors they would like to receive further training. A majority of teachers picked out three main conditions that would encourage them to participate: first, a majority preferred online training to offline training. Second, training sessions should be recognised formally even if provided by non-formal bodies. Third, training should fit into teachers’ schedule, either by occurring during designated teaching-free training days or in shorter events held after working hours.

With training a long-term priority, external experts such as journalists are an important way of filling the teaching hole in the meantime, teachers say. Journalists who visited the teachers’ classes as Lie Detectors participants were a positive addition to the classroom routine because they provided “professional expertise”, “authentic perspectives”, “concrete” and “tangible” tools for media literacy, teachers said. Journalists achieved surprising results in their short time there: teachers remarked most frequently on the high level of their students’ interest, on journalists’ ability to engage with students and on journalists’ honesty when speaking about their profession. More than 96% of teachers approve of the media literacy training that more than 200 journalists currently provide through Lie Detectors.

But external experts have a trust hurdle to overcome: two thirds of teachers (rising to 77% in Germany) say independence from political and commercial funding are important or very important factors in their decision to open their classroom doors to external speakers.

All the great materials in the world won’t hold back the deluge of misinformation and disinformation unless the teachers who are keen to hold it back receive the tools, the training and the time to build flood defences against it. Education authorities and teacher-training organisers and public policy makers must provide these elements with the needs of teachers in mind. In the meantime, external specialists have an important part to play, with guarantees of quality and independence in place.

Lie Detectors participating journalists are visiting 1,400 individual classrooms in 2022, working with more than 700 teachers. Lie Detectors’ teacher surveys continue with every visit. They are part of a wider data project funded by the Wyss Foundation. Lie Detectors will publish briefings outlining relative impact of media-literacy training delivered in person or via video-conferencing, as well as longer over-time development in children and teachers’ information media usage.

For more information, contact info@lie-detectors.org


Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, Founder & CEO and Adeline Brion, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator, Lie Detectors, Belgium

Data analysis by Adeline Brion, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator, Margit Langenbein, International Programme officer & Sinem Sahin, Country Programme Assistant, Lie Detectors, Belgium