“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.