The latest posts by Elizabeth, Stephanie, and Jenny have pushed me to think more deeply about evaluating online sources. I agree that we need to teach students how to evaluate the sources/websites they find and giving them specific criteria to consider is at least a starting point. I agree that laboring through all of the criteria for each source is time-consuming and perhaps counter productive (because students won’t continue with that beyond an academic requirement). But I also think there is value to giving students enough specific and detailed practice in using each of the criteria that they become habits of mind. I totally agree with Jenny that our goal is to make source evaluation second nature, so that students quickly decide which criteria are important to assess for each source and they can use specific strategies to make their own decisions about the value of a source.
Then I started thinking about the criteria themselves and ended up with some additional considerations that I am wondering about. When we check for authority (Jenny provided the important insight to look outside of the original source), I think students may need to check the authority of both the publisher/organization and the author (if named separately). For the publisher, students should consider point of view/bias and reputation. Both are very difficult to assess. For the author, students need to consider the authority in context. I will never forget working with students to determine authority and we discovered that the author had a PhD, but in a completely unrelated area to the topic at hand. This “authority” was actually offering his personal opinion rather than authoritative evidence about the topic.
The authority issue becomes even more complicated when an author or presenter is an authority on the topic, but offers information that is contrary to the bias of the publisher and therefore should not be dismissed as representing the publisher’s point of view. That happens occasionally in the US when a television network host interviews someone live (e.g., when Fox News, a very conservative news outlet, interviewed Dr. Fauci, a recognized expert in COVID). It’s hard for anyone to sort through the conflicting information to figure out what’s true (or mostly true). I think that’s why so many of us succumb to confirmation bias.
I loved what Stephanie said about judging a book by its cover. We all tend to do that, I think. Even librarians have figured out that, if we want our administrators to read our library news and reports, we need to package the information visually or in an easy-to-read format, because they are too busy to read in-depth narratives. Infographics have become increasingly popular as a way for librarians to communicate with administrators, parents, and even teachers. I think this is why I am convinced that visual literacy must be a part of our teaching, because all students are inundated with visual information and they are absorbing subliminal messages.
Your conversation has also caused me to think more deeply about purpose. I am not sure about how to teach students to determine a source’s purpose. How can we help students decide if the purpose is to educate, persuade, criticize, entertain, or editorialize? Once they decide, how do we help them determine the impact on the credibility and usefulness of the information? And, along those lines, how do we help students recognize their own purpose and how that impacts what information they gather and how they interpret it?
The focus on students’ purpose brings me to my next consideration about evaluating information. Much of our conversation has been about evaluating sources. After students have done that, they then need to evaluate and interpret the information within the sources. I think that’s when deep reading skills become so important. Especially in the digital world of live presentations, podcasts, and television broadcasts, students need to recognize that even reliable, authoritative sources might “publish” a segment that includes misinformation, biased opinion, or strategic gaps in information. Whew! It seems exhausting. This is where Jenny’s wisdom gives us a way forward: “what we are actually teaching students is a sense of healthy suspicion.”
We’ll talk more in a couple of days. I’m looking forward to it.