The volume of information available on the Internet is astounding, and it just keeps growing. Business intelligence company DOMO estimates that 571 new websites are created every minute. With that amount of information, it can be difficult for students to separate the gems from the garbage, but, fortunately, we can help them navigate online information easily and efficiently.
Students today don’t know a world without the Internet, but that doesn’t mean they know how to think critically about what they see online. Julie Coiro, associate professor of education at the University of Rhode Island, wrote in an Edutopia blog post that middle schoolers tend to focus more on relevance than credibility. Author and publication type are of limited importance to students, and if they do examine these elements, they can’t explain why they chose certain websites. Coiro also observed similar issues among high school and college students.
Coiro suggests strategies to help students to effectively evaluate what they see on the Internet, practice refuting what is on the Internet, and cross-check claims. In other words, becoming critical consumers of online material means more than just viewing a website. It requires knowing what qualifies as quality content and how to judge what is good material and what is not.
There are a few checks and balances to ensure that online content is indeed credible. To be considered as such, content will be relevant to the research question, be updated regularly with information that can be verified across other sources, and emanate from a reliable author or publisher, especially those respected in the field. It is also important to detect any personal or commercial bias from which the content may arise.
Most of us shy away from Wikipedia as a resource, but the online encyclopedia lists its own useful standards for credible content. (Ironically, Wikipedia also discourages the use of Wikipedia pages in its own content.) Among those sources considered credible are magazines, scholarly journals, mainstream newspapers, and news blogs written by journalists themselves. Wikipedia further suggests avoiding self-published work if there is no way to verify that the author is an expert in the field.
Students may not understand the differences in quality between websites. Demonstrating to students what different websites look like, and their purpose, helps them see how they should use each kind of site. Websites include personal, special interest, professional, news, and commercial sites. Determining the differences among these is also a good lesson in identifying writer bias.
Domain names are also a clue into the credibility of a website. Sites in the .edu, .gov, and .org domains are considered reliable, but those with .com and .net domains require scrutiny. Examining all elements of the web address can clue students into the reliability of a source. George Mason University offers the example of the website “http://www.gmu.edu/facstaff/policy/administrative/60.html,” in which each portion of the web address offers a clue into where the website derived the information.
Teaching students to be better web searchers can help them determine good online content. Introduce them to scholarly search engines, such as LexisNexis or Ebsco, which contain credible, peer-reviewed information. If your school does not offer these databases, contact a local college or university for a field trip to their library. Even Google searches can be refined to pare information down into manageable, credible bits, particularly when using the “Advanced Search” option. Google also offers a Books Search and a Scholar search, which will search only scholarly papers. Students can effectively use search operators and Boolean terms to hone in on a particular topic.
Students should consider the purpose of the project and what sources are valuable in that field. For example, websites such as the OWL at Purdue or the Modern Language Association may be more valuable for an English paper than a more commercial website. Good content is typically attributed to a particular author, except when credible organizations such as universities, governments, or credible media outlets and non-government organizations have published the material.
Teach students how publishing is accomplished by contrasting publication standards for books, magazines, and newspapers versus that of websites, many of which do not succumb to the same rigorous standards as their print counterparts. The discussion can then turn to the standards that students should use to evaluate content since these quality judgments are now up to them. Teaching website evaluation, incidentally, also helps achieve certain Common Core standards.
Cross-checking information is a great way for students to see how credible some online content is, and it encourages them to explore other content and evaluate it for its credibility. If students are able to find the same information elsewhere, it is likely they can prove that the content is accurate and reliable.
Making a game or class research project out of a website credibility exercise not only teaches students how to determine reputable online information, but it also engages them in a particular topic. You may find this as an excellent way to both introduce a concept and teach important web-navigation skills. The Viking Voyagers activity is a good starting point for such a lesson plan in that it asks students to use the Internet to research Vikings. In so doing, students learn information evaluation skills at the same time as they learn a little history.
Asking students to think about how they use the Internet is a great place to launch a discussion on how websites are used and how they present information. If students don’t read carefully through an entire website article (as many of us are wont to do), they may not catch certain nuances that indicate a website is no good. Showing both credible and hoax websites can help reinforce this point.
Students will need to evaluate online material for credibility if they are to build evidence in their arguments. Much of their research will occur online, meaning they will need to understand what qualifies as good evidence to help support their thoughts. Research also challenges students to think critically about their topic and to determine what points are relevant to their research. Being able to construct an effective, relevant argument not only helps students in future academic work, but it also helps them become more persuasive and to communicate clearly in other areas of their lives. Being able to identify and select credible information can be useful to their professional credibility.
Navigating the Internet can be tricky for students, especially when it comes to determining the validity of information out of the wealth of knowledge available online. Creating lessons that exercise students’ evaluation skills will help them become better web consumers and researchers, and it may help them in their later academic and professional careers.