This article was originally published on the author’s website.
A central challenge for educators today is that students do not always think critically about information they encounter online. Research has raised questions about the ability of students to evaluate online information. Quite simply, many students appear not to have the evaluation skills and strategies to succeed in this environment. Apparently, students mistakenly trust information they read online. In particular, students are not able to accurately judge the validity of a website, even when given procedures to do so. The lack of critical evaluation skill, while reading online information, is also a problem among adults.
Since online information is commonly used to make decisions affecting the personal well being of individuals, the ability to critically evaluate this information has become increasingly important to individuals at home, work, and schools. It is clear that critical evaluation of online information is integral to the success of online readers in their ability to evaluate and safely use the information they find.
This post will share an activity used in some of my earlier research on critical evaluation of online information. The results suggest opportunities for developing the critical media and information literacies necessary when reading online. These materials have been utilized in classes from kindergarten through higher ed. Modify the specific aspects of the activity to suit individual classroom needs.
Credibility and Relevancy
Critical evaluation of online information requires recognizing and analyzing markers of credibility and relevancy online. Credibility is defined as expertise and trustworthiness, or the reliability of information presented. In some classes, I substituted the word “truthfulness” for credibility as students did not understand the original term. Relevancy is defined as importance and currency, or judgments about the essential nature of the information presented. In some classes, I substituted the work “usefulness” for relevancy as students did not understand the original term.
We’re generally identifying and questioning the credibility (or truthfulness) and relevancy (usefulness) of information presented online. I indicated that it is the presented information we’re evaluating because we’re making judgments about materials constructed by others as they share content. This could include text, font, images, video, audio, design aesthetics. I need to also indicate that individuals construct their own meaning as they recognize these cues online as they read. This means that we all bring our own biases, perceptions and misconceptions into the process as we read. But, for the most part, we’re still identifying and evaluating these cues, or markers that establish credibility and relevancy.
As you identify and evaluate markers of credibility and relevancy online, you need to calibrate using a list of websites all on a common subject. The list of websites should include information of with varying levels of credibility and relevancy. In my prior activities on this subject, I used the topic of asthma as most students from elementary up through higher ed had some prior knowledge on the topic. You should select a topic related to your content or discipline to ensure authenticity of the activity.
In this list of websites for the activity, I included five websites for students to review. Seven proved to be too difficult for individuals to look across and remember all of the information presented. Three may provide a suitable amount depending on the population and selected information.
The websites should be representative of two of the three general types of information on the web: weaker sincere sites, stronger sincere sites, and hoax websites. Weaker sincere sites are identified as more “balanced between reputability and disreputability” than hoax websites or stronger sincere sites. The claims made are apparently believable, and are backed up by supporting data found online, but do not stand up to close scrutiny. Stronger sincere sites present “professional markers” of organization, more credible experts, and an “air of precision and authority.” Hoax websites are defined as website “fabrications” that have been created for entertainment purposes, usually invoking the ridiculous, but maintaining a “superficial appearance of scientific professionalism.” I include websites that fall into the weaker sincere and stronger sincere categories as I have a different activity for hoax websites.
I also recommend including a source from Wikipedia as you develop your list of websites for review. Wikipedia is sometimes viewed as a poor source of information online because of a belief that “anyone can write anything.” In my own experience, I’ve found that the Internet is a giant self-cleaning oven For the most part, the “good” information will outweigh the “bad” or incorrect information over time. I think this is definitely true on Wikipedia. I’ve also witnessed students valuing Wikipedia more as a source after an activity such as the one detailed here.
Range of Websites
Below are the five websites I include in the activity, and the instructions given to participants:
Please take a look at the following websites. All of the websites contain basic information about asthma. You may examine the pages, and click through to other links from the page you are provided.
On the worksheet that your teacher gives you, rank them in order of the most useful and truthful, to the least truthful and useful.
- Website A: Wikipedia
- Website B: WebMD
- Website C: Angry Asthma Mama Blog
- Website D: USADeepSouth.com
- Website E: KidsHealth
On a piece of paper, participants rank-order the websites they have been provided according to how truthful and useful they appear to be.In this activity, participants are to rank order all of the websites listed from the most to the least truthful and useful. Participants may work individually or in small groups. I prefer the think-pair-share model in which students first complete the activity on their own, and then review their responses with a small group of students before moving on to the full group or class.
As you bring the class together to discuss the results, the focus is less about the rank order of the websites, and more about the criteria they used to make these determinations. Students and groups of participants can be asked to provide an overview of each of the websites and identify markers or cues that impacted their evaluation of the credibility and relevance of the website.
The following prompts are good, open-ended starters to guide this discussion:
- Which author is the most knowledgeable person about asthma?
- Which website uses strong words, phrases, and images to influence readers?
- Which website has the most reliable details to support the argument that chihuahuas can cure asthma?
- Where do you look on a website to find out when it was written?
- What is the reason this website was published?
- Given this website’s “About” page, what is the expertise of the author of this site?
- Which website has the most up to date information?
- Which website uses the best details to support the claim about causes of asthma?
- Which website uses information from the most reliable source?
- Where do you click to learn more about an author?
- What is the author’s main argument?
- Which website would be the best to answer the question: What is asthma?
- Who is the main audience of this website?
- Which website has pictures and video to help inform the audience?
- Which section of the website should you read to learn about asthma flare-ups?
- Which website uses information from the least reliable source?
Criteria established by fifth graders. Photo: Ian O’Byrne[/caption]Once again, the teacher or instructor should act as a facilitator of the discussion in this part of the activity. The goal is not to identify the websites that are the most credible and relevant. The goal is also not to evaluate the work or perspectives of the students. The goal is to develop a comprehensive set of criteria that can be used in the future as learners evaluate online information.
These criteria can be left on a poster in the classroom, or saved in Google Doc or on the classroom website for future reference.
Use and Revise
This activity is an important step in identifying the markers and criteria used to evaluate credibility and relevance of online information. The identified criteria should then be used and revised over the course of the year as learners continue to interact with information. These criteria can also be used to evaluate other sources of information in the classroom, not just websites. As an example, these criteria can then be utilized to think critically about textbooks, primary source documents, and other learning materials. The key is to equate the use of all forms of text in the classroom, and empower learners to question the veracity of the information being presented. It is these habits of mind and critical strategies that can then be used in future literacy practices.
Ian O’Byrne is an assistant professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston. His research investigates the literacy practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. Ian’s work can be found on his website. He writes a weekly newsletter and a semi-regular podcast.