Evaluating Online Sources
September 1, 2004 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me mold the minds of future internet debaters. Come inside.

I recently fell into a job at a private school teaching computers to fifth through eighth graders. For the most part I'll be following a canned curriculum--which is good, because I have no prior experience as a teacher. Additionally, however, the librarian has asked me to help her teach a class on internet research for seventh graders.

The class will have two major components: effective searching (boolean logic, searching for phrases, differences between search engines, etc.) and evaluating the quality of online resources. The first part, I think, is pretty straightforward. The second part is a challenge. I think I'm pretty good at judging web sites as information sources, but conveying that to kids could be a challenge.

So far I'm aware of Internet Detective, which looks like a good (although Brit-centric--I'm in the US) resource. Do you know of any others? What techniques or advice would you offer to a child wanting to separate the digital wheat from the chaff? I'm particularly interested in methods involving critical thinking, but any help at all would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Acetylene to Education (15 answers total)
i used to tell my law students to get off the damn web and compare the info they'd found with information from print resources. print resources, because they take longer to produce, generally go through rigorous factual verification before publication. i also have them find out what they can about the mind behind the website--they have pretty stringent restrictions about which web resources can and cannot be cited to in papers intended for publication and for class, many of which have to do with finding out the ultimate source of the information. who maintains the site? who funds them? how do they archive, correct and verify the information on the site? this generally requires them to find contact information on the website and talk to a person.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:00 PM on September 1, 2004

well: reputable sources count more than opinion sites or blogs. If something comes from a blog, follow the links to the original source. Anything from a foundation or institute should always be double-checked as to the funders or ideological bent (i.e., all the environmental sites that are really fronts for oil/energy companies, etc). Newspapers should be checked for partisanship as well--an article on Reagan from the Washington Times would be very different from one from the Washington Post. University sites are usually reputable, i find.

It's hard.
posted by amberglow at 3:04 PM on September 1, 2004

Maybe you could use specifics: like a report on Reagan--show them how the info from his presidential library site isn't necessarily the whole story or the best place to look, and by going to a wide variety of sources you get a well-balanced report?
posted by amberglow at 3:06 PM on September 1, 2004

These three pages look like a good starting point. Not written for 5th-8th graders, obviously, but they state the basic principles well, which you can adapt to your audience's level.
This answer provided under protest.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:06 PM on September 1, 2004

Stanford's Web Credibility Research is also not geared for kids but contains a lot of interesting stuff. One of the things I like about this project is that it looks at what operates, as opposed to just giving a checklist for how to evaluate a source yourself. That may help you understand how to guide your students if they don't seem to be implementing classroom tools smoothly.
posted by caitlinb at 3:36 PM on September 1, 2004

Response by poster: Good stuff, all, thanks.

Oh, and just to be clear--there's also a print research class, but I personally don't have anything to do with that one. I don't want people to think we're completely ignoring the offline world.

And DevilsAdvocate: point taken; mea culpa.
posted by Acetylene at 3:37 PM on September 1, 2004

Acetylene - Find and talk to a professor that teaches basic journalism classes. I could provide you with an email address of one if you want. They'll have information on how to teach students of any level about slant and objective sourcing.

When I was taking journalism for the first time, the teacher handed out three articles from different papers reporting on the same topic. Each one had a different slant, and reported information in the same way. Once you establish that information can be reported differently depending on source, you then teach them how to figure out the motivations of the author. (For instance, if it's found on a consultant's website, chances are they're trying to get you to buy the service. If it's from a scientific journal, they're most likely motivation is to inform. If it's off of a website called "The Libertarian Times", they're trying to get you to beleive in one political viewpoint.) If you talk to the english teachers that these students have had, you can find out if they've covered the "Basic purposes of writing", which are the same topics just applied in the author sense rather than the reader sense.

Personally, I think objective evaluation of media is also an invaluable life tool. You could do these students a great service.
posted by SpecialK at 4:54 PM on September 1, 2004

I can also provide you with contact info for a very good professor and documentarian, who teaches (among others) a class called "Critical Journalism." He assigned an interesting book called How to Think About Weird Things.

And critical thinking and media education should be required subjects in the school curricula from first grade on.
posted by Vidiot at 5:12 PM on September 1, 2004

I've taught a class very much like this for community college students. Evaluating web sites for 5-8 graders is a much different thing than evaluating them for college kids. UCLA has a great longish list of questions that are worth asking about any web site. Here's another list from another library, and here's a short list from Cornell. If you're looking to Google some more, the relevant phrases are "evaluating web sources" and library. This will tend to get you libraries that have written similar pages for their students. These are often chock full of great examples, a few of which you can pull out for your class.

The meta-topic, for me as a librarian, is "how do we know ANY resource is reputable?" which becomes interesting, for example, if you buy into any side of the "Liberal Media or Corporate Media?" debates. Just looking through Google News at how different news sources cover the exact same news event can be very eye-opening. "Gee, why do you think this big news about [whatever] made it into the Guardian, but not the big papers in the US...?" I just wrote a post about this recently covering a fun little experiment that someone did with everyone's favorite pro and con example of this issue: Wikipedia.

Another worthwhile angle is approaching this from a "What can I use in a paper, and why?" perspective. Talk to some of the teachers and see if they'll let internet resources be used in bibliographies and if they have any standards for them. Let students know that just because they find it online, it's not necessartily true or untrue, but should be placed in context, if possible. Lastly, sometimes you may need to undo misapprehensions about online research. I have had students come in to my library and when I show them how to use one of our online databases, they say they can't cite them because "My teacher told me I can't use online sources" When I tell them they're just using a digital copy of Science magazine they get all agitated, it seems wrong to some of them. Make sure your students know the difference.
posted by jessamyn at 5:38 PM on September 1, 2004

This week's flap over Wikipedia has brought up some interesting discussion on this very topic.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:21 PM on September 1, 2004

"My teacher told me I can't use online sources" When I tell them they're just using a digital copy of Science magazine they get all agitated, it seems wrong to some of them. Make sure your students know the difference.

Make sure the teachers know the difference too. I've been amazed by the number of responsible, highly-educated professors who nevertheless set such flat "no Internet sources" policies. No wonder the students are afraid to quote anything with the slightest digital "taint".
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:26 PM on September 1, 2004

nakedcodemonkey, I'm sure you meant to link to something else...
posted by weston at 6:34 PM on September 1, 2004

Weston, what makes you think that? That's the intended link:

When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don't earn credibility by citing an "authoritative source," whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc.... The advantage of sites like Wikipedia is that much of this back-and-forth (as Liz explains at Joi's site) is visible and public, and in that sense, Wikipedia offers students a chance to watch credibility-in-action...why not ask them to take a topic on Wikipedia, and research its validity?
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:01 PM on September 1, 2004

all right, I could *swear* that ended up being a link to a weird pen-based computer... time to go sleep or eat or something like that.
posted by weston at 8:05 PM on September 1, 2004

I saw that pen link too
posted by jessamyn at 9:01 AM on September 2, 2004

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