Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Evaluating Websites...A Must for the Information Age

Last week over at American Presidents Blog I published an article about an erroneous fact concerning President Franklin Pierce titled Milk and a Pierce. Since I could not find verification for the fact I had to conclude the fact was false.

The Internet was originally only accessed by the military and scientific communities beginning in the 1960s. Later, with the advent of additional technology including the desk top computer there was an opening of the Internet to the general public. Today anyone with basic computer knowledge can set up a web page and publish anything they wish. I applaud and defend free speech; however, while this literary freedom can be quite stimulating it can present problems especially for students.

The main problem is that the accepted rules of publication in society are not always utlilized with web published pages. Students are fairly certain their textbooks, encyclopedias, and other research sources found in their media centers are correct, however, they have to be taught that many web sites on the Internet can be suspect.

Alan November, Senior Partner and Founder of November Learning, believes as I do. It’s not the technology itself that is important; it’s the way we use it. [November’s] ideas about global communication, collaboration, assessment, and critical thinking have inspired schools, governments and corporations around the world to rethink and redefine their approach to education and technology.

I’ve held on to one of Mr. November’s articles for quite awhile…’s titled Teaching Zack to Think and it can be accessed here. The main premise behind the article is students must learn how to research, publish, and communicate working with the Internet…with the most important skill being research evaluation.

In my fourth and fifth grade classrooms I want to teach my students to view web resources with a critical eye. I want them to learn to sort information found on the web into categories such as fact and opinion. I want them to be able to look at a piece of information and determine questions and determine key words that can be used to cross check the information on the page.
For example, November mentions that students should validate an author of a webpage to find out what others might be saying about the webpage or the author by running a multi-search on his or her name or the name of the website. The same could be said for certain bits of information on the site. A quick key word search could determine more information about the item or could determine the original information was false.

After reading November’s article in 1998 I held onto it and determined that I would provide students with several learning opportunities to evaluate websites over the course of our year together. The following lesson sketch is one of those opportunities. The lesson involves a fictitious website for the city of Mankato, Minnesota. The website can be found here . In actuality the website is a false one authored by a teacher and consultant, Don Descy, to use in his lessons in order to show students how easy it is to get sucked into a false site.

This particular learning opportunity takes place in the computer lab with students paired in front of the computers. Students are given a copy of the analysis chart seen below (click on the image for a closer view). Sometimes I provide an example of the chart on the board so students can create their own on notebook paper. I provide the web address to students and once everyone has access to it we read the opening paragraph on the page which states:

Mankato, Minnesota is truly a wonderland. Tucked into the Emerald Green Valley in Southern Minnesota, it is the hidden vacation Mecca of scores of knowing Midwesterners. Mankato has everything thanks to a freak of nature: the Sclare/Far Fissure. This fissure in the earth’s crust takes water sweeping through the earth, heats it to well over 165 degrees, and sends it back up to the surface in steam pits and boil holes. The heat from these pits and holes heat the valley air to such extent that the winter temperature in many Mankato neighborhoods has never dropped below a balmy 70 degrees!!! Come enjoy our winters! Let’s “Make It Mankato”! We are real, we are warm, and we would love to see you!

I advise students that the website is going to provide them with some interesting information about a city in the United States that many Americans don’t know. Below the opening paragraph are several links that supposedly give additional information regarding Mankato. Students are directed to visit at least five links between the numbers one and twelve, review the information and pictures that are presented, discuss it with a partner, and complete their charts. Students will be directed to click a link and analyze what is there. For example, the map link looks like a professional map. It contains a compass rose, roads, and place names. Could this be a fake map? Is there anything that doesn’t seem right? Students list things that help the information look real under the yes column and reasons why the information looks or could be fake under the no column. We also discuss some questions students might have about the map and I pose the question, “Can anyone think of a way we could check to see if this map is correct?” There is always at least one student who offers a search could be made for another map of Mankato. We chart the information together for the map link, so students have an example to use when charting other information.

Once students have had a chance to analyze their five items we do a quick tally to see which items they choose to look at. Together we take a whole class look at the top five links chosen. It’s always interesting to see how the group as a whole makes their choices and the reasons behind them. Student pair share what they thought about the information. If students missed an aspect of the information that could be checked I will clarify it, and we will discuss how key words could be culled from the questions in order to do a web search.

At this point there should be a good number of students who think the website is valid and another group that thinks the website is fake. I usually direct students back to the beginning paragraph and remind them that now that they have had some experience in analyzing information on the web and arriving at questions and keywords to search further they should discuss with their partner problems and/or possible questions they can see in the opening paragraph. Successful students will list Mankato, Minnesota, Sclare/Far Fissures, and fissures as possible choices to search. Students are directed to visit Yahooligans, or another monitored safe search engine for students, and enter their key words to determine more information about the Mankato, Minnesota site. Students will reach a snag when they search sclare/far fissures since many of the entries will advise them about the false website created by Dercy. To finally end the lesson opportunity I ask students to click on some of the links from thirteen to the end of the page and collect more proof the website is false.

This lesson is an opportunity for students to begin the process of analyzing websites for their validity and usefulness. I end the activity by having students think about the thought processes they went through and analyze what they think they learned through the activity. I would ask students to commit their thoughts to paper in a reflection piece they would turn in along with the chart. Over the next few day s I would integrate other valid and non-valid websites into the curriculum for students to practice with so that students could build on their skills. Throughout the process I would monitor individual students to access strengths and weaknesses so I could adjust my instruction accordingly.

I usually introduce an activity like this early in the year and spread out the opportunities as we conduct more and more research.

As I stated in my post at American Presidents Blog….I want my students to be Internet savvy…to understand that just because something is printed in a book or on the Internet it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. I want my students to understand they must verify sources and there are simple steps they can take to check out a website to know if it’s a proper site for them as stated here.

You can find more information here to help students remember the steps for website evaluation, and this list from Philip Bradley can get you started if you would like to use fake websites with your students.

If you know of any fake websites please feel free to leave the URL in the comments section, however, there are some websites that are in very poor taste and are so factually incorrect (the one I’m thinking of involves Dr. Martin Luther King) that I would rather not boost their Google rankings by linking to them here.

1 comment:

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