College Students Know Less Than You’d Think About Algorithms. Jessica Brodsky Wants to Change That.

Jessica Brodsky (Photo courtesy of Brodsky)

You might think that college students who grew up with the Internet would understand the role algorithms play in shaping their online experience. But a new study shows that undergraduates have only a limited understanding of this process.

The study appears in Journal of Media Literacy Education, authored by Graduate Center Ph.D. students Jessica Brodsky (Educational Psychology) and Dvora Zomberg (Psychology), Professor Patricia Brooks (GC/College of Staten Island, Psychology), and Graduate Center alumna Kasey Powers (Ph.D. ’17, Psychology), an adjunct professor at LaGuardia Community College. 

Brodsky spoke with The Graduate Center about the study and offered some resources for improving media literacy in young people. 

The Graduate Center: Did anything surprise you about your findings?

Brodsky: Two findings struck me as particularly intriguing. First, students’ algorithm awareness differed by online context. Only about half of students in our first study were aware that a social media site does not show them all of their friends’ posts. 

In our second study, most students were aware of ways that algorithms personalize product advertising and recommendations, but were less likely to recognize that algorithms filter their search engine results. The context-specific nature of algorithm awareness may depend in part on how easy it is to observe and experience the effects of personalization algorithms. For example, it is much easier to notice an ad in your social media feed for a product that you just searched for than it is to realize that you are seeing a subset of possible social media posts or search results.

The second finding that I found especially interesting was that students had high media literacy knowledge across both studies. In this case, media literacy knowledge refers to students’ understanding that media content has a target audience, may be biased, and does not always accurately represent reality. This suggests that students have internalized traditional media literacy concepts. However, as other researchers have argued, we also need to teach students about the media environment, including algorithms, so they can understand how this content was curated for them in the first place.

GC: What is the best age for the algorithm awareness training that you recommend? What are some good resources that teachers can use with students? Or parents can share with kids?

Brodsky: Calls for fostering algorithm awareness as part of media literacy education have emerged in the past few years and resources for students, parents, and teachers are becoming increasingly available. Below are some resources related to algorithms and media literacy more broadly that may be helpful for parents and teachers:

GC: What sparked your interest in this area and your collaboration? 

Brodsky: I first became interested in college students’ algorithm awareness in the spring of 2018 as part of a larger effort to gauge students’ media literacy understanding. Then, in the fall of 2018, my adviser, Dr. Patricia J. Brooks, and I joined the team at CUNY’s College of Staten Island piloting the Digital Polarization Initiative’s fact-checking curriculum in COR100, the College’s general education civics course. We quickly realized that fostering students’ understanding of how personalization algorithms curate their online experiences could complement the fact-checking curriculum by helping students understand how and why certain information appeared in their digital feeds. This encouraged us to collect additional data assessing what students already knew about these algorithms in different online contexts. 

GC: What was it like to publish this paper? Any particular hurdles? Do you have advice for students looking to publish their research? 

Brodsky: Taking this project from just an idea all the way to publication was a great experience. I am especially grateful to my collaborators, my adviser, and our research assistants for their help. One thing that I would recommend to other students looking to publish their work is to keep an eye out for calls for special issues. When I saw the call for a special issue on “Data Literacy and Education” by the Journal of Media Literacy Education, it just clicked that this would be the perfect venue to share the results of our two studies on college students’ algorithm awareness.

GC: Anything else you'd like to mention about this research or anything else you're working on? 

Brodsky: I’d like to share a little bit more about the research that Dr. Patricia J. Brooks and I have been doing in collaboration with colleagues at CSI to foster college students’ fact-checking skills. The Digital Polarization Initiative curriculum that we used and adapted for COR100 emphasizes strategies that rely on lateral reading, i.e., leaving the initial content to verify claims and research sources (Wineburg & McGrew, 2017). Lateral reading is commonly used by expert fact-checkers to effectively and efficiently evaluate online information. Compared to sections who received the business-as-usual COR100 curriculum, we found that students who received the in-person fact-checking curriculum were more likely to read laterally and accurately assess the content’s trustworthiness (Brodsky et al., under review). We have also received anecdotal feedback from students speaking to the usefulness of this instruction for their daily lives. We are currently assessing the efficacy of an online version of the curriculum as well as investigating individual differences in students’ fact-checking behaviors and receptiveness to the curriculum. I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to be working with a team that is so committed to helping college students find trustworthy information to inform their civic knowledge, decisions, and participation. More information about this project is available in our post for the Visible Pedagogy blog.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: FEB 16, 2021

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