The last two weeks I’ve worked with about 18 sophomore pre-AP classes who are in the midst of research papers on electronic privacy and intellectual freedom. After conversations with the teachers, I developed a lesson to involve the students in website evaluation–because particularly with this topic, I knew they’d be running across many points of view and many blogs.
Inspired to make the lesson less teacher-driven, I pulled together a set of technology related links(including a link to Steve Dembo’s blog), had students self form groups, and then each group had a short time to evaluate their site and share their evaluation with the class. We then spun out our own understanding of ways to evaluate sites.
Much too often, we assume students have digital skills that they lack. Even knowing that, however, I was quite surprised at the problems our students encountered on websites. Confronted with so many styles and types of sites (as I knew they would run across on this topic), they seemed somewhat befuddled about identifying the different types of sources they encountered.
It was both an interesting lesson for me in what our supposed “digital” students “need to know” about working with websites, and how they process information when viewing a site.
One of the most interesting aspects of working with them on this was that noticing how students approached sites. When confronted with blogs, particularly, they seemed befuddled by how to handle the mixture of fact/opinion and they had trouble wading through some of the gadgets and advertising on sites that many of us who blog are quite accustomed to. They had trouble tuning out the “noise” so to speak.
They had trouble figuring how how to determine authority of the blogger, as well. Some students were fairly savvy about cross referencing when they ran across hoax sites, but it didn’t occur to any of them to do that to identify a bloggers’ expertise. We also discussed the concept of ‘expert opinion’ versus ‘opinion’, as students’ inclination was to “toss out” anything involving opinions.
They were pretty dismissive about blogs as legitimate sources for information for research, interestingly, so we spent time talking about the role of blogs as “lead ins” to other sources and the power of following links.
Another area where students had difficulty was in dealing with websites for organizations/foundations. If the “mission” wasn’t clear, students accepted them as websites at face value but weren’t quite sure what they were dealing with. (Only one class suggested using the domain .org to identify the type of site.)
Even when they discovered a site’s “about” page, many of the students still had trouble sorting out what the mission of the foundation was. This seems a particularly critical ability for students to have as they navigate through their future–with so many think tanks and advocacy groups that students don’t know, it seems very critical to help them be more savvy about identifying them as such so they can be more aware of bias.
Things the students were fairly proficient at? They were fairly good at identifying bias in general. They were good at identifying opinions. They were good at spotting ‘flimsy’ or informal poll sites. They were extremely critical of spelling/grammar and “teenspeak” on sites in terms of using them for research. And they were pretty proficient at identifying the hoax site as well. (as Tapscott notes in Grown Up Digital, they did seem to be more “skeptical” consumers in some respects).
As a blogger,this lesson made it clear to me that as bloggers we could do a good deal to make our sites clear and user friendly. (Same for our library websites). I presume that teachers new to reading blogs run into the same sorts of problems I was seeing in students, who weren’t dealing well with clutter or multiple focii (think Boing Boing).
It also became clear to me that we need to do a better job teaching students to use the “about” features on websites. Though students were clearly reluctant to spend a lot of time evaluating sites(as one student boldly pointed out), knowing how to access the “about” information is a quick way to check a website and get a sense of credibility, and it’s a simple thing to teach students to do.
This lesson also worked well because students were already engaged in a research process, so it was in context with what they were already doing.
And it provided an excellent segue into talking about databases and how because of the consistency of database formats, they may be somewhat easier to evaluate and use.
Obviously students (or any of us) aren’t going to spend that much time evaluating each website we use. But when we help students articulate and verbalize their thinking processes, it raises their awareness. And it was a valuable experience for their teachers and I to see their strengths and weaknesses so we can better scaffold them as they move through the rest of their research.
And I don’t mean this in a ‘hokey-I’m a librarian’ way, but too often educators do make assumptions about students’ digital generation skills on the web that just aren’t an accurate reflection of what they know. We have to remember that whether students are dealing with printed texts or websites, they have the same needs for scaffolding.
Flickr photo credit : flickr users “coccu” and “xurble”