U students explore truth, deception and information disorder

Praxis Lab

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Listen as six students share what they learned about truth, deception and information disorder in a yearlong Honors College Praxis Lab—and ways they worked to make a difference on campus, in middle schools and in the community. Recorded on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the University of Utah. The U Rising podcast gives listeners a chance to meet the wonderful people at the University of Utah who are helping us achieve new heights. And that includes students and their professors as you're going to learn today.

My guests are six students who took a yearlong Honors College Praxis Lab course called “Truth, Deception and Information disorder.” Joining us today are Victoria Hills, Wiro Wink, Kate Button, Sinndy Rios, Zach Mallender and Audrey Pozernick. Each of these students represent different majors on our campus and are at different levels in their study.

Professor Randy Dryer led this class and he's with us today, and so did Avery Holton. Welcome everyone. Now, Professor Dryer, maybe you'd give us a little overview of what a Praxis Lab is, who it's for, and what we try to accomplish with a Praxis Lab.

Randy Dryer: Yes. Thank you, president, I'd be happy to. And thank you very much for having us. So, praxis is the Greek word that means theory plus action. And it's that concept that what makes a Praxis Lab unique from any other course that's taught at the university. As you mentioned, it's a yearlong course. It's limited to our honor students. There are only 12 in the class. They must apply to be accepted. It's taught by two professors, and it takes a societal issue or problem, and we do a deep dive and spend the first semester understanding all the nuances of the societal issue.

And then in the second semester, the students create, design and implement a project that addresses some aspect of that issue and problem that hopefully has impact beyond the classroom and improves the larger community. This is my third Praxis Lab I've had the privilege of teaching and it's certainly been a transformative experience for me as an instructor.

President Watkins: And what I think is amazing, a yearlong course, quite an interesting concept, and very selective and competitive to participate in this course with the opportunity to really take what you learn and then apply it. So, I'd love to hear from a couple of students. Explain this topic and what made you interested in wanting to take this yearlong Praxis course?

Kate Button: Yeah. So, this is Kate. At first, I was really interested in this Praxis Lab because as an aspiring journalist, I've always found the issue of misinformation to be really intricate and a multi-faceted issue. And I wanted to learn about that and explore it further. And additionally, I am pursuing a minor in philosophy and I found the class discussions of truth and determining what truth is to be really fascinating. And with our project, I did a lot of work with the campus awareness campaign and the pledge for election integrity because I really wanted to explore that intersection between media truth and politics.

Victoria Hills: This is Victoria. So, the title of our Praxis Lab was “Truth, Deception and Information disorder.” We spent a lot of our first semester studying the question of like, what is truth, and really how to define the concept of truth, which was really interesting and fulfilling. We had a lot of great discussions and then further into the class, and really for the rest of the year, we focused on misinformation, disinformation, and deception, and how there are differences between each one and how we can see those in our society today, but also how to combat that.

For me personally, I'm a political science major and I've been very interested in how social media has affected political discourse in the last five years. I think we all know that it's changed quite a bit. So we took a really deep look into ethical case studies like the Boeing planes, that was the one that I chose. And then we also looked at how misinformation travels on social media. And then we looked a lot at policy, both legislative and company policy, that argued how each individual sector would address misinformation like deep fakes and political misinformation, which was also really interesting.

President Watkins: These issues are so important today in our world. I applaud you for the effort and the study that you've put into this. And I think I met with you in the fall semester, if I recall correctly, as you were just getting going on your journey throughout this year. I'm guessing that the coronavirus event really has caused you to have to do some things a little differently. Maybe tell me a little bit about how you adapted under that circumstance.

Wiro Wink: Hey, this is Wiro. And yeah, I can definitely tell you a little bit about that. So, a big part of our project was an online competition for university students and faculty, where you could do three different challenges online to win a cash prize. And so we have this really comprehensive marketing plan with banners, and lawn signs, and online digital advertising. And we got that all up and running right before spring break. But then as we came back from spring break, campus was canceling everything, so we had to pivot our strategy to do everything online, like try to promote it on social media.

And we got over 700 responses on our survey, which was pretty great, so we still got the engagement we were looking for. The coronavirus pandemic also gave us a pretty cool opportunity to incorporate some misinformation around the virus onto our website. So we created a new tab with a timeline of all the events that happened. And then also the subsequent misinformation surrounding that like the conspiracy theories and all that stuff to try to educate people as much as possible.

President Watkins: Yeah, you've got a very powerful, real world example of how information can be helpful when it's accurate and really harmful when it's not very accurate. And I think that was probably, in some ways, an incredible learning opportunity. What a topic to take on as a group. My guess would be that your individual ideas, philosophies, beliefs were occasionally in conflict. And I'd be interested in hearing about difference of opinion and learning styles and how you navigated that as a group.

Audrey Pozernick: Yeah. Hi, this is Audrey. For such a big topic such as misinformation, I was actually really glad for the many perspectives that came due to being in a group. Of course, like you mentioned, we all had ideas about what our projects look like and how we would like to learn more about the project. Yeah, we were all very open to each other's opinions and perspectives. We came to know each other as friends and we utilized our blended learning styles and opinions through open communication and flexibility, viewing our differences as strengths and allowing us to naturally assume different assignments and roles within the group.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience being with such a creative and dynamic group. And together, we were able to deepen our understanding of the evolution of misinformation through technology.

President Watkins: I suspect that that's pretty good practice for the real world as well because that is in fact what we all have to do all the time, so well done. Now, I understand that several of you helped lead a middle-school education project. Love to have you tell us a little bit more about that project and why the focus on middle school students. I think maybe Sinndy, Audrey, Victoria, you're going to give us a little overview there.

Audrey Pozernick: Yeah. So this is Audrey again. So, why middle school students? Studies have shown that children ages 13 and 14 are the prime ages in which children start creating social media accounts, therefore there is an urgency to educate them on topics of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news.

In light of the current political state that we are in and the coronavirus pandemic, the media has emphasized the importance of misinformation, but our concern was whether eighth grade students understood what misinformation is and how it impacts not only them, but their community. We also found in our research that the topic of misinformation and deception on social media is not currently in the digital literacy curriculum for eighth grade students about to enter high school. Nonetheless, we recognize that this is a very important time to teach young children what misinformation is and how it can be spread through social media.

And this is where Praxis Lab came in and we wanted to spread awareness within the middle school education system that these topics can be taught to kids and that we've created the materials to do so.

Victoria Hills: It's Victoria, and I can follow up on that with a little more specifics about what's actually inside the modules that we created for the campaign. So, we created five modules, we did it in Google classroom as well as on a Canvas comments course that each include a presentation, lesson plans, and most of them also have accompanying worksheets. The first one is entitled, what is misinformation? And it gives a broad overview of all the definitions and basic understandings you need to delve into the rest of the course. It's definitely our biggest module and the one that is maybe the most important.

And then the next one that follows that is truth and social media, which discusses how to combat misinformation when we see it on social media, like viral posts that are containing misinformation, bot accounts and artificial intelligence influencers that continue to pop up. The third module is civic engagement, which talks about how to engage in our communities respectfully and truthfully, which we thought was important to address as we see so many young people are now getting involved in activism.


And then our fourth module is trusting journalism, discusses the best practices on doing research and following through on sources for information that we see and use in our own arguments. And then our last module, which we thought was really important to address and we didn't think that there was an age too young to really start this conversation, is on hate speech, inclusivity and kindness.


And it goes over how to foster communities of inclusivity and kindness and defines hate speech and what the differences can look like, especially when the First Amendment is so important to us and that freedom of speech, how can we find that balance of expressing our opinions, but without hate?

Sinndy Rios: This is Sinndy. We also took part in creating on-campus mini-workshops. We were able to build a partnership with Defining Your Path, which is a program offered at the University of Utah that brings K-8 graders on campus. They give them tours and also offer different workshops. So, we were able to condense all those modules into a brief presentation that we were able to engage some students through that.

And overall, the students that were able to present at these workshops found it very inspiring and rewarding just to see how the eighth graders that they taught were able to engage with all the material and the content that was presented. We wish we could have finished off all the other workshops we had planned. But due to the COVID-19 situation, we weren't able to finish those off, but it was still helpful to frame our information within our course material.

President Watkins: Very impressive. They say middle school is when a lot of people really form a lot of their ideas and decide to move forward in education with a commitment. So, I'm sure that you helped that happen in this project. Kate, I understand that you worked with the Daily Utah Chronicle, our student-run campus media outlet, on a special issue around misinformation. Tell us a little bit about that.

Kate Button: Yeah. So, outside of the Praxis Lab, I work as both an arts writer and copy editor for the Daily Utah Chronicle. And as the class brainstormed ideas for what to do with our project, I thought that utilizing these connections would help us to reach a broader range of University of Utah students. We really wanted to target our own peers and students at the University of Utah, because most students who are entering college, this is the first time that they'll be able to vote.

And because 2020 is an election year, we really wanted to ensure that these possible first-time voters are equipped with the knowledge to address misinformation, see it, recognize it and stop it from spreading. So, with the Daily Utah Chronicle, we partner to create a misinformation-themed issue in order to further educate students about misinformation. And in total, we collaborated and were co-writing articles and collaborating on different topic ideas.

And ultimately there were 28 pages with 12 articles about various aspects of misinformation, including talking about different legislation policies, social media policies, how to stop loved ones from spreading misinformation. There were stories about misinformation in the arts, and misinformation in sports. And overall, we really wanted to utilize this collaboration with the Daily Utah Chronicle to reach a broader range of University of Utah students. And this partnership just showed us how important the issue of misinformation is as we were working through the collaboration and the partnership process.

The issue was never the topic of misinformation, we were just trying to work through logistics. And going through that process it just was really affirming that what we were doing was so essential. And this partnership with the Daily Utah Chronicle is one aspect of our campus awareness campaign. The other half was the contest that Wiro was mentioning. On our website we hosted three challenges with a misinformation quiz, an observation challenge and a crossword puzzle, all designed during the theme of misinformation.

And even though, like with the themed issue, we were originally trying to create a printed issue, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to switch gears and that was moved online and all of the efforts to advertise our contest, those are moved online as well. But just by all of that, our class still persevered to ensure that we would be able to disseminate this information to students and make it accessible for anyone else to access.

So, all of those articles that were written either by members of our class or the Daily Utah Chronicle staff, those are all hosted on our website, as well as archives of that contest so that anyone now can take those. They don't have to be University of Utah students or faculty—anyone can take those to further their education about misinformation.

President Watkins: So powerful, and the way you were able to now extend this to future conversations that will be useful for educators for a long time to come. And on that topic, I understand that your third project, Zach and Victoria, focused on the Utah Coalition for Education Technology. How timely, given what's happened over the last few months with how we're delivering education. Tell us a bit about that, Zach and Victoria.

Zach Mallender: Hi, this is Zach. That was a really, really fun opportunity. It happened back on March 10, and so it was pre-COVID-19. And we actually got to meet in-person down at the Utah Valley Convention Center, where there was over 1,700 teachers and educators from all around the state of Utah. And we got to show up and set up a poster talking about our modules and about all of the resources that we were trying to give to the teachers and educators of Utah. And we got to talk about why we thought it was really important. And we got a lot of feedback as well.

Victoria Hills: Yeah, this is Victoria again. To follow up on that, I'll start with a comment that we got in the feedback section of our presentation. This person said, "This is so relevant and an everyday tool for my students. Thank you." I think that really sums up what we found out from this conference just how relevant our project really was. And it made us all really excited to continue on and really make sure that our modules were perfect and ready to go out there.

So many teachers and educators stopped by. We probably had about 50 people that actually came and chatted with us, and then plenty more who scanned our QR code to visit our website. But they were all really excited to share it with their schools, and administrators and fellow people. We didn't just have people from Utah. A gentleman from Nevada was there as well as a couple other surrounding states, so that was really cool. But yeah, after the success of our presentation, it helped us perfect our modules and eventually create that canvas commons course that we were able to share.

President Watkins: It's just excellent. Now I understand you also developed a pledge for election integrity. Tell me a bit about that.

Kate Button: So, this is Kate again. And in addition to the educational elements for middle-school students and college students, we also wanted to create something that would have a bit more of a longer lasting impact. So, we adopted our pledge for election integrity from Alliance for Democracy. And, typically, when individuals think about misinformation and politics, they might imagine foreign actors, but misinformation can similarly be spread by U.S. public office candidates.

So, the pledge for election integrity asks Utah's gubernatorial candidates to commit to refraining from utilizing knowingly false or misleading materials in their campaign communications. And this pledge that we adopted has thus far been endorsed by Action Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and the Utah League of Women Voters. And so far, we've had 10 candidates sign this pledge.

And, personally, for me, this fall is my first time voting in a presidential election. I know that as that election date comes closer and closer, I'll be thinking about misinformation a lot, especially given how prevalent it was during the 2016 election.

My hope is that the Utah gubernatorial candidates will have this on the forefront of their minds. But I also hope that other Utah voters are similarly concerned about this issue.

President Watkins: I have no question that this class is going to make you all, has made you all really much more information literate and better citizens. Tell me, a whole year together as a class, what are a few of the most powerful takeaways you have from this year? Things that you learned, things that surprised you?

Wiro Wink: Hey, this is Wiro again, and my number one takeaway was that communication is very, very important. And more specifically, the channels of communication that you choose are important because a lot of times we have to reach out to many different people to get this whole project together. And I found out calling someone is always better than emailing them. I also learned how difficult it can be to just, when you have something really meticulously planned out and then having to adapt it when it comes to executing it. So, it's very cool to learn to navigate that and just basically change all of our plans within a super short window of time, but still get the same outcome that we had originally planned for.

Audrey Pozernick: Yeah. So, this is Audrey. One of the things that I really took away from this Praxis Lab is just how a group of students can really make a change, not only locally, but nationally. And seeing how that comes together just blew my mind and I was just so honored to be a part of this project.

Zach Mallender: This is Zach. I really enjoyed watching everyone come together and being able to rely on everyone else. And when things went wrong or something was unprepared, everybody really came together to fix it quickly. And we managed to play off each other's strengths in ways that really it was not something I've ever been able to do before. To be connected with this group of passionate, capable people, and really work as a single unit towards a common goal instead of as a more dissolved team.

Sinndy Rios: This is Sinndy. And to go along with that, I think it was great to see how we were able to have great teamwork with one another and create an effective course for the middle schoolers just since there is so much urgency around updating the current digital literacy courses that are being taught. So, it was just very rewarding to work alongside of all of these individuals and create something that will benefit many middle schoolers in Utah and other places as well.

Kate Button: Great. This is Kate. For me, this class really showed me the importance of adapting to changes and being flexible and persisting no matter what happened. I think towards the end of the semester, the pandemic really shifted our classes focus, and it disrupted some elements that we had planned, especially with the on-campus workshops for middle-school students and our other campus advertisements.

We still shifted, we got all of the modules online. We were able to host online advertisements. And no matter what happened, our class came together to continue to share this message of why students need to be aware of misinformation and why it's so essential to be knowledgeable about and why students should care about this issue since it will continue to affect them into their adult lives. And I think this class really just showed me that when we all come together and collaborate, we can really accomplish some incredible things.

At the beginning of the class, I never really imagined what our project would be. I'd seen the other Praxis Labs created these really intricate projects. And I was like, "What are we going to do?" But then I was just so surprised, and I was so proud of the work that we were able to do. And I am so glad that it was this group of students that we were all able to come together from our various backgrounds and our various studies to create such a multifaceted project. And it was a fun project to work on. I enjoyed almost every part of it.

Victoria Hills: This is Victoria. My biggest takeaway was how important the fight against misinformation is, and how prevalent it is today, and how it just continues to seem to be more and more and more just in your face about how misinformation is just everywhere. And we all have a civic duty to take notice when we see misinformation and stop spreading it. It's so easy to just retweet something before thinking about what information it's containing, hence our slogan “Think before you tweet.”

I was really surprised to learn how different the definitions of misinformation and disinformation are and how intent is really important when considering the truthfulness of information in reporting. But it was so awesome to be able to participate in this Praxis Lab with all of these amazing students. I made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun. And we affected a lot of people, I think. I think the amount of people that saw our work and took something away from it is even bigger than we thought we were able to do, which is awesome.

Randy Dryer: This is Randy. Let me just add one unexpected result that we had with the middle school project. And that was, we found that it turns out lots of parents who suddenly became homeschoolers because the pandemic forced the closure of schools, they were suddenly looking for lessons they could teach their children. And it turns out this was a perfect way for them to do that. So, we had a lot of contact with the parent.

President Watkins: So, if we have a listener who wants to learn more, where do they go?

Victoria Hills: This is Victoria. The first place to visit to learn more would be our website. It's, and that's thinkb4u, You can find details about each one of our projects and learn more in our resources section on misinformation and how to combat it with your own skills. You can also read a PDF version of our misinformation issue with the Daily Chronicle. But most importantly, on our website, you can take the three challenges that we presented in our misinformation awareness campaign. And you can test your own knowledge of misinformation and develop some more important skills to keep fighting it.

And then lastly, on our homepage, you can find our final Praxis report, which includes personal responses from each of us who participated in the Praxis Lab and more details on the process, the challenges, a further detailed explanation on how COVID-19 affected our project and whatnot. And that's all on our website.

President Watkins: Students, you're amazing. What an impressive group of people you are. I know you're going to be engaged citizens for the rest of your lives. This class has been a powerful experience. Professors Dryer and Holton, we're grateful to you for leading the way on a class that makes a difference in people's lives. Listeners, thanks for joining us for the U Rising podcast. I hope you'll listen to the next episode.

Kate Button: Thank you!

Victoria Hills: Thank you for having us.

Randy Dryer: Thanks, president. It should make you proud, it certainly makes me proud, to be associated with these bright, ambitious students. And we're doing what we should be doing as educators. So, thanks very much for helping to support this Praxis Labs at the university.