No one should assume that information on the Internet is accurate, timely, clear, and important. Many adults have the perception that if something appears in print, then it must be true. Many of our students are even more gullible and are unlikely to know that any person with minimum computer skills can set up a Website. There are no restrictions on what a person can place on a site, and there are no requirements that the material be edited or reviewed. On the one hand, this has significantly broadened the range of information and ideas available to all of us. On the other, this freedom has allowed irresponsible people to disseminate misinformation for harmful purposes (Lee, 2002; Shiveley, 2004). In many teaching situations, your students will be accessing information that we teachers have recommended. Teachers must screen each site to make sure that the information presented is accurate. When our older students conduct their own searches, there is a chance they will find a site that is problematic. We should help our students evaluate Websites in the light of who provided the information and for what purpose, on the basis of how old the information is, and for the validity of the information when compared with other sources.
The following lists a number of criteria that can be used to evaluate information found on a Website (Risinger, 1998; Shively, 2004):
- We teachers and our students should consider who recommended the site. A site recommended by a teacher or a librarian should be okay, assuming that person has done his or her homework. Sites recommended by authors of articles in professional journals also should be safe.
- Second, the source of the information provided on the site should be evaluated. Who is the author that provided the information on the site? Is the site developed and maintained by a government agency, a university, or a private source? If the site is maintained by a private source, is it possible to contact the source to ask questions about the content of the site? Remember, a site may be the product of an individual who has an agenda that will severely bias the information presented.
- The timeliness of the information should be considered. If a site is being accessed to find out more about a current event, then timeliness is a key factor. Is there evidence that the site is updated regularly?
- Next, and this is difficult for children, the mood or “attitude” of the site should be analyzed. Does the site dispassionately present the information, or is there something edgy about the site that makes you feel uneasy? This is tricky, of course, because we want our students to learn about multiple perspectives on the historical past and contemporary issues. Many sites, however, that promote hate, conspiracies, and nonsense have home pages that look professional and legitimate. Once a student starts reading something that appears confusing, he or she should stop and ask for help.
- Finally, there should be some attempt to evaluate the accuracy of the information on the site. Students will need help with this task. One way to judge the accuracy of the information on a Website is to determine if the site provides references, and then to check the quality of those references (many sites have no references at all). Another good question to ask is, Does the site provide data that is verifiable? Many sites offer statistics with no source or reference mentioned.
Teachers of our oldest elementary students may want to develop a set of classroom criteria for evaluating the information on a Website. The process of developing this set of criteria is an excellent opportunity to develop critical thinking skills.
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