With zillions of online information sources available, how do we teach kids to evaluate what is trustworthy and what is rubbish?
Savvy Surfer welcomes our first guest post from a woman who knows all about online research, a journalist with a background in information science.
By Noni Edwards
Cast your mind back to your school days, when you first discovered the wonders of the library. Do you remember using the card catalogue? Were you allowed to flip through the well-worn cards in those long skinny drawers? Did you learn the Dewey decimal range for your favourite subjects? Was it the 790 for Sport? Or Animals at 590? Remember when the absolute go-to source for any fact in the world worth knowing was the big set of encyclopaedias in the corner. Those hefty tomes with their gold-leafed pages commanded respect before you even opened them.
Now compare that slow and steady introduction to the practice of knowledge-seeking with that of our children. Ours was a relative gentle way to learn research skills. Imagine what it is like for our kids to be able to source information on anything they choose, in an instant. Their access to facts and figures has increased infinitesimally on ours at the same age, which is a wonderful thing, but it also brings potential pitfalls.
Those encyclopaedias were so expensive to publish you could guarantee that they were rigorously fact-checked and copy-edited before going to print. But publishing on the Internet is a very different process. It’s literally anyone’s game. It’s instant and accessible to all, which again is great, but offers no safeguards on the supply side.
Anyone can host a website for free and can largely say whatever they want. Which means the responsibility is on the end user to assess the accuracy and credibility of the information they find in a web search. We all do this, often unknowingly, and we need to take a closer look at those evaluative skills so we can teach them to our kids.
It may seem like a sophisticated concept, but we can start to encourage critical thinking in children from an early age. When you play games with a toddler and ask them if the sky is green, or if the sheep says ‘moo’ you are encouraging them to assess what they are being told and verify it against what they already know to be true. They usually delight in telling you you are wrong or giggle at how silly you are.
You can continue this practice as they get older and start to use online sources of information.
Compare and Contrast
No two sources will be the same (unless plagiarism is at play, but that’s a topic for another day!) so we need to show our young researchers ways of evaluating them when they differ.
What you will be interested in exploring is the credibility of sources. Pick a topic they are interested in and find two or more different sites. Compare what you find. Here are some areas you could discuss:
- What style are they written in? (Persuasive, informative, personal)
- What is the purpose of the pages? (To sell products; to create awareness; to record data)
- How current are they? (Recent or out of date)
- Who published them? (Government, media, corporate, private)
What you are trying to foster is an understanding of the quality of information they are retrieving.
If one source has spelling mistakes, poorly framed pages, garish colours and is ten years old, it speaks poorly for the quality of information on the page.
It is likely to be less credible than a page with an official logo, neat and tidy design, clear and concise editing, a timestamp showing the most recent update, and an author’s name.
There could be thousands of sources of information that will tell them the height of the world’s tallest building, but even with a seemingly objective fact you’ll find variations (go on, Google it!).
Some sources are definitely more reliable than others and we need to teach our kids how to evaluate the credibility and currency of information the find on the Internet to help them become discerning fact-finders.
Noni Edwards is a multimedia journalist with a first degree in Applied Science in Information Studies. As a first-time mum of a ten-month-old, her technology woes are currently limited to trying to keep the remote controls away from sticky fingers and sharp little teeth.