“Research in the Online Age” (2008) states, “The volume of information available today means we must provide kids with strategies for thinking critically." This single sentence gets to the heart of the purpose of the teaching activities collected and described in this paper. With the overwhelming amount of information available at their fingertips, students need tools to evaluate the quality of the sources they find.
Graham and Metaxas conducted a study to examine the techniques Wellesley College students used when conducting internet research. The authors stated, “Students use the Net as a primary source of information, usually with little or no regard as to the accuracy of that information,” and “Substantial effort is required to adequately evaluate information, and this may not always be apparent to users” (Graham & Metaxas, 2003, p.71). After giving questions to students in a "Computers and the Internet" class to research, their answers and methods were reviewed.
The conclusion stated, "The results presented here suggest many students have difficulty recognizing trustworthy sources, though perhaps the underlying problem is a lack of understanding of the Internet as an unmonitored source of information." They suggested, "All further educational ventures must focus on teaching users that the Internet is an unmonitored method of sharing information" (Graham & Metaxas, 2003, p.75). The authors' final words in reporting this study's findings explain the value of such instruction. "It is vital that students better understand the nature of the Internet and develop an instinctive inclination for verifying all information. This will allow students to take advantage of the tremendous benefits provided online without falling prey to the pitfalls of online research" (Graham & Metaxas, 2003, p.75).
This understanding may be an important step in defining and combatting plagarism. Major museums in the UK have formed The National Museums Online Learning Project to help teachers and parents educate their students and children about proper internet use. “The museums claim that as children turn to computers for homework projects and use search engines to gather information, research and analysis abilities are being replaced with cut and paste activity.” Lack of understanding regarding plagiarism and the ease with which one can do it is alarming to this group. The National Museums Online Learning Project believes, “Teaching critical thinking skills in the classroom could help to overcome this problem as a student who thinks critically can ask appropriate questions, gather relevant information, reason logically, find ways to use information creatively to reach conclusions about the world” (Museums, 2009). Increased critical thinking skills will also be beneficial to students in other areas of coursework and life.
Before tools and tactics for evaluating sources can be developed and shared, students need to be taught why they are necessary. Introducing common terms, scams, and fakes that are prevalent on the internet is a valuable first step. Paul McFedries (2006) does a great job explaining phishing in his article, “Technically Speaking: Gone Phishin'.” McFedries explains,
“Phishing” refers to creating a replica of an existing Web page to fool users into submitting personal, financial, or password data, to what they think is their bank or a reputable online retailer. The term comes from the fact that Internet scammers use (increasingly sophisticated) lures to “fish” for users' sensitive data. Hackers have an endearing tendency to change the letter “f” to “ph,” so “fishing" becomes “phishing.” (The f-to-ph transformation is not new among hackers; it first appeared in the late 1960s among the hackers of the telephone system, who called themselves phone phreaks). (p. 80)
The article goes on to identify terms to describe and tactics that are used by those who try to steal passwords, social security numbers, and passwords. Although the piece does explain a few tips for spotting phishing scams, its strength is in its background information and explanation of terms.
“Research in the Online Age” (2009) lists ideas to help teachers promote critical thinking to evaluate sources for online research. Ironically, each idea listed in this article is already known and being used by elementary school teachers in teaching reading in the classroom. Think alouds, modeling, quickwrites and the like are standard fare in the elementary language arts classes. Although there was nothing new described as far as methods go, the concept that teachers can tackle a new problem with old techniques is encouraging. Connecting this daunting problem to something that is already standard practice allows teachers to see that there is something they can do now to promote critical thinking within the realm of internet research. Pointing out to students that the skills are transferable is as necessary as it is important. Many students view information that comes through television sets and web pages with blind acceptance and give no regard to the source and accuracy of the information.
In addition to using the tried and true methods of critical reading skills, the internet itself supplies a large number of tools and activities to teach the need and methods for critical review of internet resources. Following are links and explanations of the contents, benefits, and shortcomings of available tools.
This free tutorial was originally developed in 1998 with funding from the European Union. Currently, Internet Detective is in its third edition which was published in March 2006. The tutorial hits the key research and critical thinking skills needed when using internet sources. Topics such as plagarism, academic publishing, and scams/phishing are discussed. Although it is directed towards college and university students, it can be used in whole or in part by younger students. It is written in accessible language and each point can be done as a stand alone lesson if one feels that all of the points together would be overwhelming for younger students.
ICYouSee: T is for Thinking - A Guide to Critical Thinking About What You See on the Web
This site is written by John R. Henderson, a reference librarian at the Ithaca College Library. It was first created in November 1994, and was most recently updated on January 16, 2008. Six suggestions are given for evaluating the quality of internet resources. It has a very concise format that is easy to read. Two of the best features of this site are the resources that allow for skills practice and assessment. A quiz and assignments are set up for students to apply the six suggestions that were presented.
On the website, Phil Bradley has a selection of biographical statements to be used for those who need them. The following is short, but to the point. “Phil Bradley is an information specialist and well known Internet Consultant. He runs courses on various aspects of the Internet, is a webpage writer and designer, is the author of several books about the Internet and speaks on various Internet related subjects at conferences.” I'm not sure how well known he is, as I don't travel in circles where internet consultants are traveling, but I do like the resource that he has created for critical examination of internet resources. The site author says it best when he explains the goal of his page. “Librarians and educators need to be able to illustrate to students and users alike that websites cannot always be trusted to provide truthful and accurate data. This page provides examples of websites that are full of lies, inaccuracies or false information - either for amusement or for more worrying reasons. The list does not include phishing sites however; these are intended to fool a person into believing that they are visiting a legitimate bank site for example; there are already plenty of links to these online already.”
Each fake website he mentions has notes that indicate if it is appropriate for children, if it is credible, and the type of information included on the page. I'm not really sure how he is rating the 'credibility' of spoof/fake websites. It seems that a spoof/fake site is not credible by nature. Nonetheless, I really like the http://www.dhmo.org/ website. I used it with my sixth grade students. They needed to review the site and decide if DHMO was a good thing or a bad thing. They also needed to decide if DHMO should be banned. As they read through things, the four students would read aloud statements that struck them as important. At one point, one girl heard something a boy read and she started to laugh. She figured out 'the joke.' I told her not to say anything until it was time. Knowing the website's secret, she read and laughed until the ten minutes had passed. The discussion was very interesting. Three of the four students thought DHMO needed to be banned. The fourth smiled and said, “Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is WATER.” Students had to then go back and look at the site again. Everything that was said was true about water. It just sounded dangerous because they didn't know the scientific lingo.
This was a blog written by Amish Mohta, a tech blogger. Although the article isn't as informative as it could be, there are two good tests at the end. Each shows examples that requires the reader to decide if they are real or frauds. At the end of each exercise, feedback regarding the readers' answers are provided. Using the tests with a more informative article, tutorial, or discussion is recommended. The following links go directly to the quizzes. The first is done by the Washington Post and the second is done by Sonic Wall,.
Making a Rubric
After students have reviewed information regarding suggestions for evaluating the quality of a research site, they should make a list of evaluation suggestions. This list should be turned into a scoring rubric for evaluating websites. Once the rubric is created, the students should use it to examine both real and fake websites. Students must then reflect on the accuracy and usefulness of the rubric based on its ability to guide them to find the fake sites. The rubric can be adjusted to make it better. In the end, each student should have tools, both on paper and mentally etched, to critically review websites in the future.
Fake News- The Onion
Using student created rubrics to evaluate articles and videos or even just using the articles or videos to set the scene for the unit is a powerful idea. Careful teacher screening for inappropriate content is advised. Give students articles printed from a fake news source, like The Onion. Printing is recommended to ensure students are not finding content that is inappropriate for their age and/or maturity. Allow the students to read and discuss the article as either an introduction of the need for critical thinking or as an opportunity to use what they have learned. A fake news video could also be used. Be sure to preview and review the content before showing the class.
Expanding critical thinking strategies to advertisements, both in print and on television, is another valuable extension. Old cigarette advertisements are a great place to start. Now that the health risks related to smoking are common knowledge, it will be easy to discuss and dispute claims made in these ads. Discussing the purpose of using cartoons in cigarette ads, and the subsequent banning of such tactics, can also be thought provoking.
Some of the sites have quizzes and practice activities that can be used for formative assessments. Using these as summative assessments should be cautioned against as many of them are very difficult and would be better used as learning activities. Assigning a research project in which students need to identify and use appropriate sources would be a more authentic and useful summative assessment. Requiring students to use their revised evaluation rubrics and turn in the results would also be an appropriate addition to a research project or even a stand alone assessment itself.
Graham, L., & Metaxas, P. (2003, May). Of course it's true:; I Saw it on the internet- Critical thinking in the internet era. Communications of the ACM, 46(5), 70-75. Retrieved April 28, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.
Henderson, J. (2008, January). ICYouSee: T is for thinking. Ithaca College Library, [online]. Available from: http://www.ithaca.edu/library/training/think.html.
Mohta, A. (2006, November). How to spot a fake web site: Phishing. Message posted to: http://www.technospot.net/blogs/how-to-spot-fake-website-phishing
Museums campaign for critical thinking. (2009, March). e.learning age, Retrieved April 28, 2009, from EBSCO MegaFILE database.
Place, E., Kendall, M., Hiom, D., Booth, H., Ayres, P., Manuel, A., Smith, P. (2006). Internet detective: Wise up to the web. Intute Virtual Training Suite [online], 3rd edition. Available from: http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/detective/
Research in the online age. (2008). Instructor. Retrieved April 29, 2009 from Academic Search Alumni Edition database.