K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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When I taught high school French, I liked to keep my students guessing. After a month of instruction entirely in French, I would challenge my beginning students, in English, "How do you know that everything you have learned is true? Can you be sure that Bonjour actually means hello?" The perplexed looks on their faces at my sincere prompt made a perfect Kodak moment. This apparently absurd question was not what they expected to hear from someone they called "teacher." Their primary source for learning to speak, read, write, and understand French was called into question.

My students were fortunately not so dumbfounded that they were incapable of responding to the challenge: How does one go about verifying the accuracy of information? Their responses included strategies like these:

  • Context: In what setting was the information used? What environmental cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language, accompanied the information?
  • Authority: Who was the source of the information? (In this case, the teacher — someone who is supposed to be informed with correct information.) Who said that this individual or entity is worthy of imparting this information? Who endorses this source?
  • Frequency and Regularity: How often does this information appear in this setting and in other settings?
  • Corroboration: Can this information be located elsewhere? Who else could verify the accuracy of the information? Can you find it on other websites and in other media?

In this case, of course, the source was me. The point of the exercise was not to cause them to question everything I taught them. My intent was actually far greater. I hoped that the experience would make them think critically about all of the information they were processing and transforming into knowledge.

Considering the source on the Web

Believe it or not, I did this exercise with my students even before the Internet became a presence in schools. Of course, it’s even more valuable now.

How has the Internet changed the way we transform information into knowledge? For years, educators have combated the bad information that students receive from print and broadcast media. Refrains like "I heard it on the evening news!" or "I saw it on Oprah!" have long been familiar to our ears. The pervasiveness of the Internet in our lives has only broadened the information landscape. It has simplified access information of all kinds —numerical, visual, and textual — at any time and from almost any place. While we can employ some of the same techniques we have always used to validate the information we find on the Internet, this new medium requires some additional skills.

Telling truth from fiction: recognizing satire

Since anyone can create a web page for free, post it in a matter of minutes, and make it look very credible, consumers of information must know how to efficiently locate and evaluate any resource they access on the Internet. Imagine that you are a sixth-grade student using the web for research, and you happen upon this page: "Congress Passes Americans with No Abilities Act."

For adults, a single glance is enough to tell us that the information here is not valid. We may take for granted the ability to evaluate information quickly since it comes so naturally to us. Our past experiences, our ability to skim and scan, our general knowledge of the world, and our basic understanding that not everything we read is true all combine to forge an instant filter for good information. But those abilities can take years to develop, and a sixth-grader might lack them.

One technique for helping students to develop the skills necessary to evaluate information is a simple exercise in thinking out loud, verbalizing a checklist of indicators of good and bad information. For the example above, this technique might produce the following results:

  1. First, I notice the advertising banner at the top of the page — this must be a commercial site. This is confirmed when I look at the URL (web address) of the site. It contains ".com," which indicates it is a commercial site. If this website is trying to sell me something, does that bias the information presented? Might the content be influenced by the advertisers who pay for the website?
  2. Second, the layout of the page catches my attention. It looks like a newspaper, since it has a headline, a dateline (Washington, D.C.), and a photograph containing a recognizable figure. Without having read the headline or the body of the article, I am inclined to think that it is a credible source.
  3. If I scroll down the page, I can find out who is responsible for the information. In this case, the site provides contact information, copyright policy, and several other links to information about the source.
  4. At some point during the initial overview of the page, I happen to read the headline. It is not very long and since my ability to skim pages of text is well developed, I don’t have to sound out each word in my head. It sounds credible using this technique. Of course, using this technique might not allow me enough time to adequately see the play on words that serves as a red flag to the credibility of the information.
  5. Next, I begin to read the text of the page. It doesn’t take very long for me to see that the author of this information is poking fun at something. When President Clinton is quoted as saying "Americans’ lives are futile hamster-wheel existences of unrewarding, dead-end busywork," for example, I start to sense that this is a joke.

Before the Internet came to schools and homes, a sixth-grader would have used a local newspaper, public library, or school media center for research, and a satirical "newspaper" like The Onion probably wouldn’t have been available. If it had been available (think Mad or Spy), its cover would have been clearly labeled. The ability to find a particular article through a search engine and read it out of context means that we have to read more carefully.

Telling truth from fiction II: the hoax

To further illustrate the importance of considering the source, take a look at Arthur Butz’s article "A Short Introduction to the Study of Holocaust Revisionism." Butz, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of a book entitled The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, explains from his research why the Holocaust never happened. Now pick your tongue up from the floor. Yes, this person is as real as the website and the book. And he is serious.

Noted education technology leader Alan November has shared this website with audiences around the nation. He initially used the information in an article that demands reading rather than summarizing. "The Web: Teaching Zack to Think" is a great explanation of why all teachers should include evaluating resources as one of the skills necessary to any kind of research. November offers three effective techniques for evaluating web-based information that can be taught to students in any classroom, regardless of the subject area.

For Professor Butz’s website on the Holocaust, November shows how to find information about the author, his purpose, and the topic that would help a student determine whether the website is reliable. It seems that websites with .edu (higher education) and .org (nonprofit organization) can also be trying to "sell" you something — in this case, political opinions. And because personal websites aren’t subject to professional review, there’s no easy way to tell.

Evaluating websites: more strategies

The ability to find useful information on the World Wide Web serves everyone. We continue to be delighted that we can obtain expert advice, authentic documents, and news formerly available only for a fee from experts or organizations. But please note: "free" does not mean "at no cost." There is a cost for all us of who use the Web, in the time it takes us to evaluate the information we find. Even "expert" information needs evaluation.

A good starting point

All educators share the burden of ensuring that students are information literate. So where can you start? QUICK (QUality Information cheCKlist) is a straightforward and effective tutorial for students and teachers alike on evaluating information on the Web. Created by a national health agency in the United Kingdom, this site livens up a topic that students might otherwise find boring.

Tracking down hoaxes

Equipped with the skills to critically evaluate information, even the most gullible of students would not question the sites identified by the search engine Google as hoaxes. Hoax sites is an excellent resource for illustrating the concept of web evaluation. It may also cause you to wonder "Who are these people that have so much time on their hands?"

Subject-specific strategies

Some information might require a subject-specific approach to evaluation. Beyond the strategies outlined by my former students, the "thinking out loud" exercise, and Alan November’s article, take a look at the following examples of discipline-specific research strategies:

  • The Virtual Chase. A guide to doing legal research on the Web. "Legal research requires the use of special tools and publications. The Virtual Chase informs about Web sites and research strategies for finding the law."
  • "How to evaluate Health Information Found on the Internet." The temptation to take charge of personal health beyond diet and exercise leads many individuals to "play doctor." This website from Columbia University discusses the dangers of basing health decisions on information found on the Web. Even though much health information on the Web is good information, it can lead to harmful results if used unwisely.