Understanding Website Evaluation
First and foremost, websites should be evaluated based on CONTENT and not superficial characteristics such as domain name, presence of an author’s name, or when it was last updated. Credentials can be easily faked. Content is the only truth (false content is still true in its falseness such as a study on history revisionist).
Many well-meaning people have developed tools for students to use to evaluate websites. The problem with most of them is they send the message that if you check off enough “yes” or “+” then the website and its content must be reliable. Consider Kathy Schrock’s elementary and middle school evaluation checklists (her full site is here). The questions for students are good questions. They should encourage students to think about the content. However, the simplistic nature of the checklist encourage students to think simplistically and ultimately evaluate a site based on how often they checked “yes”. If students check “yes” to “does the page include information you know is wrong” what does that mean? The obvious answer is that if the information is wrong then the site should likely be rejected then and there. On the other hand, how does a student really know the information is wrong? They are likely reading the site because they do not know and are doing research. Hopefully, any teacher using this tool would have this conversation but that does not mean the students are listening. Simple tools encourage simple thinking. 21st century learning is about critical thinking.
A common misconception is that domain names (such as .com, .org, .edu, etc.) have inherent value in telling us about the nature of the content. A common belief is that .org is more reliable than .com. The truth is that anyone can purchase either one for any reason and the .org is more often used by groups with an agenda which often means a bias as well. PETA has a perfectly good message about the importance of kindness towards animals but they tend to present it with a strong bias. Maybe people would say their bias is okay but it is still a bias. Similarly, the martinlutherking.org site is owed by a hate group. On the other hand, a .com is often used by companies selling information. They work hard at presenting good, reliable, useful information in order to generate ad revenue. Reputable businesses are unlikely to give their ad dollars to questionable sites. A .edu can only be used by a higher learning institute. They also give personal space to staff. A famous incident involved a faculty member of Northwestern University. On his personal webpage on their .edu domain, Arthur Butz published content from his book on the myth of the Holocaust. Students found the information, saw the .edu domain, and assumed the information was reliable. After All, even though controversial he is a professor (of electrical engineering). The one exception to all this is .gov which is reserved for US government information. This information is all public domain (our taxes paid for it) and usually published by employees of the government and vetted. The content on all other domains is, for all intents and purposes, random and may or may not be reliable. Therefore, students must learn how to evaluate the content.
So, how should students or anyone else for that matter evaluate content? First, I would still encourage students to pay attention to site design. Cluttered and hard to read sites are not really worth the effort even if the content is good, and often if no one took the time to do a nice site they probably did not take the time to include quality content. However, beyond this, students need to start by reading the information and reflecting on the content in relation to their own background information. They should be encouraged to go with their gut feeling. They should be taught that good information is rarely short and simple. Information geared at elementary students will be simplified for the target audience but that isn’t the same as generic one paragraph responses on something like Yahoo Answers (a generally poor site that is unfortunately attractive to students). When students decide the information on a site seems in-depth and feels authoritative they still need to corroborate that information with multiple sources. They should be encouraged to pay attention to differing points of view and conflicting information. Why does it conflict? What can they learn about those on each side? Is there good evidence for one side over the other or is the topic controversial and unresolved? Students need to learn to take in this information and consider their own position while remaining aware of the various arguments and understanding that their own position may be counter to the evidence. This is called developing an open mind.
All of this cannot be taught in a single lesson or even a single year. It is a process that students need to practice from the first time they begin to use web-based information all the way through at least high school. Only with practice will they develop the habits of mind needed to effectively evaluate content.
How then should a 2nd grade teacher approach web research? First, very young students should probably be given pre-selected and vetted sites. As they learn to extract information from the web, start to give them the opportunity to decide which information is best. Resist the trap here of giving students obviously false information. Such trickery often results in animosity towards teachers and degrades trust. Instead, look for sites that differ in how they present similar information such as one well written and one less so or one that cites credible sources and one that relies on opinion. Older students can start to select their own sites but should be encouraged to avoid quick and dirty answers or other sites they feel are unprofessional or unreliable. They should also have to use and cite multiple sources and begin to synthesize information. Having them write a short summary of the information they plan to use (not the whole site or article) can be a way to get them thinking about the content. Also avoid assignments that are little more than “get and spit”. If students only need to look up and repeat information then there is little incentive to go beyond the first reasonable answer they find.
As students get to the point where they start to engage in open-ended research projects (and I stress open-ended because the more traditional “get and spit” research is of limited value in 21st century teaching), teachers can employ an approach similar to what I’ve outlined below.
The Research Process
There are some who profess to be able to TEACH the process of research as a series of sequential steps (Big6 for example). I would argue that it is not taught but develops organically (cue Sir Ken Robinson) through practice. As such, I propose a somewhat different approach to the research process that I think is more inquiry based and turns it over to students more allowing them opportunities to experience the process rather than be taught a formula. These are not steps to instruct, but part of a process that students should engage in. The trick is to develop learning environments or experiences that enable this process to develop. This is a work in progress.
- Teacher usually selects a broad topic and then students choose somewhat more focused topics and conduct some level of background research. I like the phrase “learn all you can.” The goal is to develop background. It’s not important at this point what they focus on as long as it’s related to the general or chosen topic.
- Once they develop some background, students write very focused research questions. Lots of trial and error. Teacher holds students to a high standard and forces numerous rewrites.
- Students write guiding questions. These are questions “about” the research question. What are the finer points students need to answer first before they can answer the research question.
- Conduct additional research. Students collect a variety of sources that address their guiding questions. Some may be better than others, some may be wrong, etc. Encourage students to pay attention to different answers and ask them to consider which source they trust and why.
- Repeat 2-4. Students take the background information they have collected in step 1 as well as the more focused background developed in step 4 and go back to their research question and re-evaluate it. Should the question change based on what they know now (which is more than they knew when the first wrote the question). This process of looping through the background information and revising research questions may happen several times before students (and teachers) are happy with their question.
- Focused research. This is a continuation of the previous steps but they are more focused now on finding the best sources of information. This is where they should start to really ask questions about the quality of the content. I talk with them about the five “who, what, when, where, why” questions and how those questions can’t always be answered and even when they can it doesn’t always tell them much – people can and do lie about who they are or what credentials they have. Dig deeper. What have they learned about the topic and does the content on the current site mesh with their background knowledge? Do they trust it? Can they find multiple sources that support it?
- Synthesize the information from multiple sources. Here they take the information they found and decide how to use it and organize it to answer their research question.
- Evaluate what they have. Does it answer the question, does it meet the goals and objectives? If they are trying to persuade does it? What questions might others have about the information and have they addressed them?
- Publish. Whatever the final method for sharing the information, this is where students put it “out there” for their audience. Hopefully the audience is bigger than just the teacher. Share it with the class, the school, the broader community. This is where it helps to have a reason for doing the research in the first place (i.e authentic, real-world projects that are meaningful to students).
One thing I think is important to consider is that we want students to learn how to approach the research process but the idea here is not to “teach” them a formula, but to create an environment in which they can explore the process on their own. The more chances they have to do this, the better they will become. Formulas encourage rigid and often simplistic thinking. Exploration encourages critical thinking, self-reflection, problem solving, creativity and other 21st century skills.