Open Question

How Can Solutions-Focused Researchers Scale Their Work Beyond the University?

Commentary /

A digital literacy program born out of a Stanford lab is reshaped into the mission of a nonprofit organization

image of hands on a computer keyboard

“We can’t do this assignment, Ms. Rose!” complained Linsey Rose’s eighth grade students. When she inquired why not, the students replied, “Because we can’t open other tabs (the students’ computers were “locked” so they could access only the assignment), which means we can’t tell if this source is trustworthy.”

A middle school history and civics teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, Rose was thrilled to hear her students’ complaint. “It was really cool to hear them say that they wanted to use this simple skill, technically called lateral reading, that they had learned in our digital literacy training,” said Rose. 

A foundational technique for fact checkers, lateral reading means opening up other tabs in your browser and using search to verify information you’re reading rather than relying solely on information provided by the site you’re on. Rose’s students had learned this technique—along with practices like click restraint (not clicking on the first search result), looking for evidence, how to spot sponsored content, and understanding how to use Wikipedia—through digital literacy training designed to give them tangible ways to discern fact from fiction online.  

Rose and her students at CPS were working with the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) as part of a research study. Led by Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and History, emeritus, SHEG was a recipient of a 2022 Stage 2 investment from Stanford Impact Labs. In 2019, the team created an evidence-based digital literacy curriculum for students, Civic Online Reasoning, and made it available to the public for free in what Joel Breakstone, director of the group, refers to as a “leave it by the curb” approach.

As the pace of change online sped up, the team recognized that this passive approach to making curricula available wouldn’t be enough. “As more states pass laws mandating students be taught digital literacy, it became apparent that the work we were doing at SHEG needed to be scaled quickly and that we would need to be much more proactive in getting our materials out there,” said Breakstone.


Becoming a Nonprofit to Be More Responsive to the Marketplace

In 2023, after 21 years at Stanford, SHEG became the Digital Inquiry Group (DIG), an independent nonprofit that retains ties to Stanford but is no longer officially part of the University. 

“Stanford is a wonderful place, and it was a wonderful home for SHEG, but it’s not designed to do the kind of work we need to do to scale this project. We knew we had quality materials, and we knew we wanted to distribute them on a national scale, but that means we have to interact with school districts and train teachers and develop ways to keep the curriculum updated. To do this, we realized we needed an independent structure,” said Breakstone.

Ms. Rose concurs that the needs of both students and teachers go beyond a standalone curriculum to include professional development for educators and frequent updates to curricula. “I was surprised how much I didn’t even know as an adult when I took the first training. It was cool to learn alongside my students. It was also so helpful to be able to talk to the trainers and to other teachers,” she said.

“We need to do more of that because things are changing so quickly and we need to make sure we’re on the same page for the kids,” Ms. Rose added. Every group of kids comes in with a new set of experiences. In election years, they ask about all the campaign ads they see on YouTube, which annoy them. Now they’re asking about the AI results they’re getting at the top of search results. They love the lessons because they’re real-life practical, but they can get frustrated at what they encounter online, wondering about things like why it’s allowed that someone can make an ad look like an article.”


Bringing the Best of Stanford to the Process

Training teachers, incorporating subject matter experts, and being able to develop new lessons quickly are among DIG’s intentions. “The landscape is changing so quickly, we will need to be continually updating the approach. There's no silver bullet to how to take on that problem, but our research has shown very clearly that we can move the needle, and other studies are now showing the same,” said Breakstone. 

“Our goal is to be continually revisiting and updating and revising materials so that they reflect the present moment in the reality of students' digital lives, and Stanford will continue to play a role in that,” said Breakstone. DIG is working with Antero Garcia, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education, to continue collaborating with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools (the second and third largest school districts in the country) to build digital literacy materials into core subject areas, learning from teachers and students alike how to best tailor those materials to classroom needs. 

"SHEG was truly a field-shaping entity," notes Garcia. "The insights and materials the team created continue to be used by educators globally. The formation of DIG means this work will continue extending into exciting new directions. I am thrilled to have continued opportunity to explore youth civic online reasoning in this space with the DIG team."

Breakstone noted that Stage 2 funding from SIL (designed to be flexible and allow teams working in partnership to do what it takes to put proven science to work) was critical to the group’s transition from university to nonprofit. “Support from SIL was an important part of being able to do this right. To be able to focus on questions of how to take ideas that were refined within the context of a university and deliver them to the broader public has been very, very helpful.” 

The transition from SHEG to DIG was completed in early 2024, and all curricula are now freely available on DIG’s new website.