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Fact, Fiction, or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information

The Internet is a rich source of information -- and a prolific dispenser of misinformation. Help your students learn to tell the difference! Included: Links to site-evaluation tools!

"Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills."

-- from a California State Polytechnic University report on information competence

INFORMATION LITERACY

Information literacy used to be easier. Whether you're a classroom veteran or a first-year teacher, chances are you did your research at the library. You consulted familiar sources, researched books by established experts, and cited articles whose information had been reviewed and verified. Your greatest challenge was to avoid plagiarizing a source your teacher was familiar with.

Today's students, many of whom do most of their research online, are able to access a nearly limitless supply of information -- much of it from unknown sources. In fact, the very nature of the medium allows anyone with an Internet provider and a modicum of skill to disseminate whatever information he or she chooses.

The result is a World Wide Web of academic excellence, inadvertent ignorance, and blatant bias.

According to the American Library Association's Information Literacy Standards, information-literate students are able to

  • access information efficiently and effectively.
  • evaluate information critically and competently.
  • use information accurately and creatively.

The current challenge is to teach students how to make those decisions about online resources -- many of which are unreviewed, unedited, and undocumented.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Michigan State University reference librarian Terry Link suggests examining the following factors when evaluating the quality of a Web site:

  • authority: Who is the author and what are his or her qualifications? Who is the publisher and what is the purpose of the site?
  • verifiability: Are sources provided?
  • timeliness: Is the information current? When was it posted and/or last updated?
  • relevance: Does the material contain unsubstantiated generalizations?
  • bias: Is the language emotional or inflammatory? Does the information represent a single opinion or a range of opinions?
  • orderliness: Is the page arranged in an order that makes sense? Are underlying assumptions identifiable? Is the information consistent?
  • clarity: Is the information clearly stated? Does the author define important terms?
  • validity: Do the facts presented support the conclusions?

THE EVALUATION PROCESS

In Evaluating Internet Research Sources, Robert Harris, a professor of English at Southern California College, advises students to begin the evaluation process by identifying their research goals. "Is the purpose of your research to get new ideas, to find either factual or reasoned support for a position, to survey opinion, or something else? Once you decide on this, you will be able to screen sources much more quickly by testing them against your research goal," Harris says.

The second step in the process, according to Harris, is to consider the kinds of sources or sites that will best meet those goals. He suggests that students ask themselves, "Which sources are likely to be fair, objective, lacking hidden motives, showing quality control?" Harris recommends selecting sites that include as many of the following as possible:

  • the author's name, title, and/or position.
  • the site's organizational affiliation, if any.
  • the date the page was created or updated.
  • contact information, such as an email or snail-mail address.

Once students have located sources that appear appropriate and credible, Harris advises students to subject the sites to the CARS checklist for informational quality. The four components of the CARS checklist are:

  • credibility: What about this source makes it believable?
  • accuracy: Is the information provided up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive?
  • reasonableness: Is the information fair, objective, moderate, and consistent?
  • support: Can the information be corroborated?

HOW DO I KNOW?

Harris suggests that, when evaluating those four components, students examine the site's:

  • type -- and determine whether the URL includes .gov (government), .edu or .ac (educational/academic), .com (commercial), .org (nonprofit organization), or .~ (personal page).
  • publisher -- and determine whether the organization, agency,s school, business, or individual maintaining the site is likely to have a particular agenda or bias.
  • author -- and determine the author's education, training, and background to find out whether he or she is a trained expert, an experienced enthusiast, or an uninformed observer.
  • structure -- and determine whether the format is clear, logical, and easily navigable.
  • language -- and determine whether the text contains emotional, inflammatory, profane, or confusing language. Count the number of spelling, grammatical, and typographical errors. Too many mistakes can indicate carelessness and suggest informational errors as well.
  • dates -- and determine when the information was published and/or updated. If possible, check the publication dates of supporting data.
  • graphics -- and determine whether images and animations take up a disproportionate amount of space in relation to their informational value. Decide whether the graphics convey information, add interest, provide interactivity, or simply distract.
  • links -- and determine whether the site's bibliography and/or links contain both supportive and contradictory information.

IT'S A CRIME!

With more than 350 million documents available on the Web, teaching students how to critically evaluate the information they find can be a daunting task. Learning to distinguish between Internet quality and online dreck requires attention, skill, and practice -- and the ability to think like a detective:

  • Look for clues.
  • Ask questions.
  • Consider the motives.
  • Trust nobody -- until you have found good cause to do so!

A number of resources are available to help students 'think like detectives.' The following site evaluation forms, for example, provide a quick format for evaluating Web sites:

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

You might also want to visit one of the sites below for more articles and activity suggestions on media literacy.

Evaluating Internet Research Sources
This site contains links to articles, background information, and lesson plans to help teachers integrate media literacy into classroom instruction.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
This site includes examples, evaluation criteria, and activity suggestions on media literacy.

 

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 10/19/2011

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