Becoming good information consumers...knowing what to believe online. (From The Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, McGraw-Hill
(While this is very helpful to parents and teachers for children, it is just as helpful in assisting adults in knowing who and what to believe online.)
Resource Credibility: Teaching Our Children Critical Thinking and Media Literacy Skills
It costs thousands of dollars to publish a book. Cable and television programming costs even more. Magazines carefully check facts and universities use peer-review methods to make sure that what is published is accurate and credible. But anyone can publish a website, in a few hours, and say anything they want—often without a credible basis for it. (I often claim online to be tall, thin, blonde, and gorgeous. But no one ever said wishful thinking wasn’t allowed online.)
My dress size aside, how can anyone know when they have a real and credible site or just someone’s puffery? It’s not easy. Online there is no stamp of approval for quality control. A site published by an anti-Semitic group that claims the Holocaust never occurred may look as real and sound as reliable as a scholarly university dissertation. And when our children come across it, it might become the research source for their term paper on World War II.
Schools are facing this issue frequently these days. So teaching children how to evaluate the credibility of a site is an important part of using the Internet in connection with schoolwork. Essentially, it’s teaching them to be good information consumers. And, while it is exciting to find the one resource that says something none other say, perhaps there is a reason for that. Perhaps the one website that tells you something very different from the others isn't new and exciting, it may just be wrong, misleading and designed that way.
Whenever we find a website, we should think about the purpose of the site. Is it designed to sell something? If it’s designed by anyone who sells anything, you have to assume that it’s designed to at least indirectly promote its products or services. Any site that is designed to sell something should be approached as critically as any offline promotion or advertisement.
Once we understand the site’s point of view, we can evaluate what they are saying more effectively. Our children already know, at a young age, the candy bars or hamburgers that are smaller than they appear on television, or the toys that are constructed poorly, or the computer game systems that need optional equipment at additional cost in order to do what is promised. One of the first legal rules our children learn is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Teaching them to use critical judgment when reviewing a website is easy. The information gathered from a website should be accurate and current. And if there is a bias, the website’s bias should be obvious, and the authority of its writers should be set forth.
Here are a few things children should be checking when they visit a site to conduct research:
Who’s the author or website creator, and what’s their authority? Is it written by Nobel Peace Prize Award winners, or by Joe Crackpot? While many won’t tell you that they are unqualified to make the statements they make at the site, they leave clues. Our children should look first to the credentials offered at the site for the site authors. If the person states that he is a professor at Outer Siberia University, you should check for links to the university. Has the person listed awards? If so, are there links to the entities that gave the awards so you can check? Is this person a published author? If so, does Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Borders have his book listed online? Search for other sites that reference this person. Not every one is an award-winning professor and published author, but most good sources are cited elsewhere online.
What’s the bias of the site? Whose points of view aren’t covered? Bias isn’t necessarily bad, as long as it is clear to the site viewer. Remember that everyone has their bias, but some are more significant than others. Is this a site that performs “unbiased” reviews of advertisers? If so, have they disclosed that fact to the readers? Are they a nonprofit entity with a particular mission or purpose? Where was the site created? Is it from an international group that might have a country or culture bias? Is it a U.S. site which might have a U.S. bias? Often, you can detect bias by reading closely. The good sites will identify their mission. Think about who is creating the content, whose points of view are included, and whose are excluded. Students should try to achieve balance by including different biases and points of view when they do their research.
How current is this information? Does the page have a “last updated” date notation? Many of the sites I researched for this book, including many on finding credible resources, were last updated in 1996. When I reviewed their content, I took that into consideration. Certain things don’t change, such as how to judge credentials, but other things, like branded and approved site lists and what schools are doing, have changed radically. The site I looked to for current information was updated a few months earlier, and gave that date on the front page. If the site doesn’t contain a “last updated” date, look to see if there’s a “recent additions” or “what’s new” section of the site, and see how often it is changed. You want to make sure the content is updated often, since it tells you two things: that the site gets regular attention, and that it contains recent information. A good site is updated regularly, preferably at least once monthly, and, with news and hot topical sites, more often than that. If you can’t tell when a site was last updated, send an e-mail to the webmaster at “webmaster@[the name of the site].” Ask how often the site is updated and the date it was last updated.
Is the information stable and consistent? Is the information consistent within the site? Does everything match the theme of the site and this information? Are they proposing censorship on one page and free speech on another? (I’m not talking about CNN’s site, where they seek to present alternate and opposing views.) Is this the only site that espouses this viewpoint, or is there other support for this position? Have you compared it with related resources? Often, a site that appears too good to be true is too good to be true. Most good sites, with well-supported positions, will have support from other sites.
What have they linked to? Do the links work? Do they link to credible sites, and do credible sites link to them? Are the links correctly described? Are they current? Who else links to them? Again, is the link information updated and accurate, or do the links not work anymore?
The school and public librarians are the real experts in judging credibility of resources. That’s what they do when they select resource and reference books. Talk to them about how they are teaching your children to exercise informed information judgment. They are helping build your children’s information literacy skills.