Cedar Falls High School

Former exchange student’s news literacy skills bridge continents

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Exchange student Catalin Vilae, Cedar Falls High, Iowa

Catalin Vilae, a former exchange student from Romania who studied news literacy at Cedar Falls High School in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Catalin Vilae

As an exchange student at Cedar Falls High School in Iowa during the 2018-19 school year, Cătălin Vilae spent his senior year exploring new landscapes — literally and figuratively. Living and studying 5,300 miles away from his home, family and familiar surroundings in Alexandria, Romania, he learned to navigate Iowa’s physical landscape and the information landscape with confidence.

Adjusting to a new environment in a strange country can be challenging enough. And then Vilae ventured more deeply into the online information landscape during a 21st Century Media Literacy class in spring 2019. English and journalism teacher Brian Winkel developed the course, introducing students to news literacy using NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom. (Read about Winkel’s experience teaching news literacy.)

“Well, I have to admit that I wasn’t really familiar with it,” Vilae says of news literacy in an interview conducted through email in early April. “I was just reading the news without being fully aware of the fake news or misinformation.”

He soon discovered just how easy it is for people to share falsehoods, rumors and misleading or manipulated content on social media, often without realizing they are doing so. “People just share stuff without even thinking,” he observes.

Skills for daily life

For Vilae, Checkology’s use of real-life examples gives the lessons authenticity. “By doing that, it makes you realise that it is really important to pay attention when you watch/read the news.” He also acquired skills that he applies in his daily life. “I learned how to verify pictures. Now I do that every time I am not sure whether a picture is real or fake,” he says of learning digital forensics, an important skill for becoming news-literate. “And I really enjoy it, because I can actually be a watchdog when I’m online.”

After graduating from Cedar Falls High School in May 2019, Vilae entered the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom to study journalism. But like students around the globe, his college experience has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is back home in Romania.

However, the global public health crisis has only reinforced the importance of news literacy for Vilae. He identifies plenty of false and misleading content amid a torrent of misinformation regarding the pandemic. “For instance, there was the picture with a train car that had COVID-19 written on it. My mom saw the picture and she almost freaked out,” he says. “And that is the moment when my skills learned in class came in. I showed her how to verity if it’s real or not. Also, with this occasion I made her realise that we have to be responsible while on social media.”

From the United States, to the United Kingdom to Romania: Vilae’s experience proves that news literacy skills apply regardless of national borders.

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