I have looked for more efficient ways to organize for young students the process of evaluating information sources. In the book Web Literacy for Educators, Alan November, suggests using the acronym REAL for Read the URL, Examine the content, Ask about the author and Look for the links. This might work with enough practice, but it isn’t in a logical order. Looking at the links and questioning the author should come before examining the content. I need something that makes more sense to young students.
I continue to think about how to evaluate information sources and I continue to look for answers from other educators. I don’t have an answer yet, but I am pleased that at least my students are starting to question information sources and are starting to ask quality questions about information sources.
In recent research projects students were guided in how to conduct efficient Internet searches. They could use any source of information they found on the Internet as long as they could prove that the information was accurate and valid information. I introduced the tool “who, what, where, when, why” to evaluate information sources on the Internet, and provided practice in using the tool. I have used “who, what’ where, when, why” successfully with grade 9 students, but I found that it was confusing for younger students.
Who = Who wrote the information? The purpose of who is to determine if the author of the information is an expert on the topic. Students became so focused on finding an author’s name that they overlooked the question of “expertise”. For instance, they questioned if it is better to use information from a blog post since the author’s name is mentioned, rather than to use information about a topic such as the geography of Egypt from the CIA World Factbook since the author’s name is not provided.
What = What is the purpose of the information? Students had practiced evaluating websites, so they knew that some websites are intended to amuse and confuse rather than inform, and they were ready for this step in the evaluation process. Students are investigating fact-based information, so if they found information that supported their research questions, they only had to validate the accuracy and validity of the information and did have not had to think very deeply about what the purpose was.
When = When was the information updated? Determining when a website was updated was often confused with copyright information. They are not knowledgeable enough yet to understand that the copyright date is very different from the date of publication. They also need help establishing how current information needs to be. Is within the last year recent enough, or should it be within the last week. When does it matter?
Where = Where did the information come from, i.e. what was the source? Where caused confusion. To young students (grades 5-8), where is a physical location, so several students informed me that the author was “in New York” or “in Egypt” instead of stating “where” did the author get the information. The intent was to have students determine if the information is a primary or secondary source. If it is a secondary source, where did the author get the information? The student’s confusion is due to borrowing “who, what when, where, why” from language lessons describing how to write a news article. The where in a news article is the physical location of the news story, not the source of the information. Trying to explain this evaluation step by asking what the original source of information was just confused them even more since that they had already answered the what question.
Why = Why would students use the information for their research? For most students this is obvious – you use information that answers the question and you do not use information that does not support or answer the question, so why bother trying to explain why? Defining the why just annoyed them.
How = How do you know the information is accurate and valid information? The last problem was that I required students to determine how and it wasn’t even part of the “who, what, where, when, why” set of directions. I required an annotation for each bibliography entry stating how the student determined the information on the website was accurate, valid information. With practice, they began to see that “who, what, when and where” established the how caused confusion.
Missing Step: Students need to identify what type of information they find. They must identify the source as a blog, online newspaper, database, or website maintained by an individual or company or government agency. This information is needed for the bibliography, so it should be determined early in the evaluation process. This step, determining the type of web source, is often critical to assessing the validity of the information on the Internet.
My reflection?? I’m thinking about how to reorganize the process for students. I don’t have an answer yet.