The Web is an immense ocean of information, but this doesn’t mean the content your child finds is always accurate. While many educators observe that even young students have an innate understanding of how the Web looks and feels, your child will stumble upon a fair amount of unchecked, biased, and outdated websites. And without training in evaluating websites and verifying – and deciphering – its content, she may get lost in this virtual world.
“I rarely use the Internet for general or background research,” says Dr. John Davenport, a social studies teacher at the Portola Valley School District in Portola Valley, Calif. Instead, he directs his middle schoolers to secondary print sources and allows them to use the Web only to access specific information. “My sense of things is that the Internet tends to over-stimulate, and hence confound, the students,” he says. Carolyn Billheimer, a library media teacher at the school district, uses a WebQuest for evaluating websites on Springfield Township High School’s Virtual Library. In the lesson, students are asked to inspect websites of controversial material, from smoking to cloning, and act as “specialists,” studying everything with a critical eye, including content, design, bias, and credibility, by examining the URL, author’s credentials, or other links on the site, for instance.
Kathy Schrock, an administrator of technology for Nauset Public Schools in Cape Cod, Mass., has been training others in the critical evaluation of Web information since 1995. She developed something similar: evaluation surveys that students use to verify and evaluate a site, which are found on her Guide for Educators on the Discovery Education website. Schrock suggests that your child should always ask a variety of questions to figure out if a particular site is unreliable: Who wrote the content? How does this information differ from content on other sites? When was the site last updated? Why is this information useful for my purpose?
How can your child learn, then, to spot a phony, biased, or outdated website? Here are activities, as well as tips from Schrock, for your child to sharpen her sleuthing skills:
- Test the wading pool. Younger students under grade six may not be ready to surf the vast “open Web,” warns Schrock. “They do not have the knowledge base to know if what they are finding is reliable, authoritative, and may not understand what bias is all about.” There is little authority on Wikipedia, she says, while a site such as BrainPOP, while colorful and interactive, doesn’t include citations. “I would rather see students use a juried directory such as www.homeworknyc.org for homework,” she says, which includes citations to information.
- Use kid-friendly search sites. An older student with training may be able to search the Web for a hobby – like skateboarding or a favorite young adult author – on search engines such as www.kidsclick.org, monitored by librarians though San Jose State University.
- Visit a fake site. Take a peek at www.allaboutexplorers.com, an intentionally fake research site in which the biographies of explorers are riddled with factual errors. Sir Francis Drake’s bio mentions artifacts like computer disks, while another page claims that Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition to the Spice Islands was financed by Bill Gates. Search for as many questionable facts as you can. Or, browse the stories at the mock site www.theonion.com and figure out which pieces of an article aren’t true.
- Detect bias. “One way to approach bias is to teach about advertisements and persuasion,” says Schrock. “Bias and persuasion seem to be closely linked.” Create a Web page about a topic you know well, and then use it to persuade others. For instance, your child may build a biased site that talks about why a Nintendo DS is better than a PSP. (He probably needs some media literacy training evaluating persuasive materials like commercials and magazine ads, says Schrock.)
- Be inquisitive. Always ask the question: “Who wrote this?” Click on the “About Us” page for more information. Find a “byline,” or the line attributing an article to an author. Scan the bottom of a website for a person or organization’s name, and then Google it.
- Look to experts. Brainstorm proven leaders in the subject you are researching and take note of their organization and affiliations they have. If you’re writing a report on gorillas, for instance, find out what organizations Jane Goodall has worked with. Check out their websites for further information and links to even more resources.
- Befriend your librarian. Use this free and friendly resource. “I suggest to parents that they talk to their local public librarian – students often can have home access to great subscription databases of information by using their library card number,” says Schrock.
- Beware of phony URLs. Check the URL and pay attention to fishy addresses. It’s not always effective to look at the domain – .com, .net, .org, .mil, .gov – as a way to determine bias or authenticity, warns Schrock. “Except for .mil and .gov and k12.us, anyone can have any domain.” Also, a site that asks for personal information to access a free, public site may not be legit.
- Check the copyright date. Most websites, especially frequently updated ones, display a “last updated” date or a year the site was created. If you see a date that’s a decade old (or more), it's wise to find a site with more recently written content (posted within the last several years).
- Create a shortlist. Over time, build a list of tried-and-true websites. Take note of the best websites on animals, history, sports, the environment, or current events, and return to this list when necessary. You will build your knowledge of the Internet, and learn which sites are reliable.
Website evaluation and navigation skills sharpen over time. So plug in, log on, and surf away.