Backgrounder

Evaluating Internet-Based Information

Backgrounder

By David Warlick

Introduction

A high school junior is asked to write a report about the Holocaust, a topic that her class has not yet discussed. At home our student uses her computer with access to the Internet to research the topic and word processing software to construct the report. She spends an hour searching the Internet and examining a variety of web pages about the subject and selects three web sites that are particularly compelling because of the graphics and layout of the pages, indicating authority.

Our young woman copies text from the pages, carefully paraphrases some, quotes others, downloads images and pastes them into the appropriate spots on her file, prints a professional looking report, and proudly turns it into the teacher two days later. She has used the Internet to explore, discover and report information about this historic event and her word processing software to craft a rather impressive looking information product.

As can easily happen today, each of the Web sites that our student used were published by neo-nazi and white-supremacist organizations portraying a biased point of view - and our youngster’s report becomes a reflection of this divisive perspective without the student even knowing it.

This kind of scenario has many educators concerned about use of the Internet as a reliable resource for academic information. The fact is that almost anyone can now publish on the Internet, while only a few years ago, nearly everything that you read was filtered by editors and presented based at least on its economic value if not for its scholarly worth. Today, anyone with an axe to grind can do so over the Internet and with a look of authority. At the same time the Internet is increasingly becoming the first and preferred source of information for many of us.

In response to this concern and the scenario above, I believe that the presence of inaccurate and biased information on the Internet is not our primary problem. The information and points of view have not really changed, it is the tools that have changed. Today, our students use professional and sophisticated information tools and global electronic networks to complete their assignments while most of us used pencil and paper and the information resources that existed in our school library. While we did our work with what could be compared to a $12 box of Lincoln Logs, students today have at their disposal professional tools and virtually limitless materials, as if they have an entire Builder’s Supply warehouse to work from. While we assembled our reports with children’s building blocks, today’s students can craft their information products with word processors, enrich them with multimedia mined from the Internet, and empower them with hypertext. Their work can be compelling and it can be published to a global community.

The real problem with the scenario above is the assignment. The problem is that we are still, by and large, giving Lincoln Log assignments - “Write a report about the Holocaust.” These advanced and powerful capabilities that are increasingly available to our students beg for a different kind of assignment. Writing a report about something has as its goal the demonstration of gained knowledge. Yet gaining knowledge becomes only a small part of what students should be learning to prepare them for a world where knowledge changes and information grows at dizzying speeds. In fact, in the information world, their jobs will be to help in growing knowledge by becoming information builders.

From the perspective of the builder, our students have aisles of information processing tools to choose from and an Internet warehouse from which to choose building materials. The difference is that the builder, in the middle of Builder’s Supply, has a task or project in mind, something that he or she plans to build for the enjoyment and convenience of others. Our builder has a goal behind his or her selections of tools, lumber, and nails.

Likewise, as students browse through the Internet, looking for information raw materials, they too should have goals for their work. The difference between “Lincoln Log” assignments and what students should be doing today, is that our young high school junior should have had a goal for her report beyond that of just earning a grade. Because she can produce such impressive work and it can potentially be published for others to see and use, her goal should be behavioral. Students should be building their information products to affect impressions, decisions, beliefs, support or defeat positions, or create new knowledge.

Goals-based projects have a variety of benefits:

  • Goals-based projects provide a context for the student’s work that is authentic. They are collecting, synthesizing, processing, assembling and expressing information for a reason that is real and beyond the pursuit of just a grade.
  • Students are less likely to simply copy and paste large chunks of text as they would if they were writing about something. They will find and copy smaller chunks of information and then carefully assemble them to produce information products that are designed to accomplish something. They will also provide mortar between these building blocks to hold them together and lend them relevance to the expressed goal.
  • Goals-based assignments also lend themselves especially well to the use of rubrics. The student’s goals can become part of the rubric’s goals, with teacher or student defined benchmarks.

Goals-Based Evaluation

What do goals-based assignments have to do with evaluating Internet resources? Let’s return to the builder’s analogy. One of the many things that my father taught me is that when you are building something in the workshop, the number one key to success is using the appropriate tools and materials. Walk into any “Builder’s Supply,” and you have a virtual Internet of tools and building materials available to you. As you examine them individually, they are not judged as good or bad, but simply appropriate or inappropriate for specific building projects. Our task, as the shopper, is to select the tools and materials that are appropriate to our goals.

Traditionally, Internet resources have been evaluated from the perspective of the information itself and its source. This usually involves some type of checklist that puts all Internet information through the same sieve, evaluating each based on the same criteria. Here is part of a checklist that I developed several months ago after reviewing some of the many evaluation forms available on the Internet.

Does the author have the authority to present this information? Yes [ ] No [ ]
Does the author have anything to gain by presenting this information? Yes [ ] No [ ]
Does the publishing organization have anything to gain by making this information available? Yes [ ] No [ ]
Is the information consistent with other published material on the topic? Yes [ ] No [ ]

It is implied that if you end up with a sufficient number of “Yes” checks, then the information is good and you use it. If not, then the information is bad and you never use it. Some of these evaluation forms can be quite long and picky, asking researchers to check spelling and grammar. But the result is the same. The resource is either stamped “Good” or “Bad,” and this approval has little to do with the work that the student is doing.

As students’ information products should be based on teacher or student established goals, evaluating the material that they consider using in their products should also be goals-oriented. Rather than judging the material based solely on itself via an examination instrument that has nothing to do with the students work, it should be judged from the perspective of what the student wants to accomplish.

From this standpoint, we would not ask, “Is the author qualified?”, but, “What aspects of the author’s background help me accomplish my goal?” Under certain circumstances, a Web page published by a neo-nazi organization might actually be appropriate for an assignment, while other resources, produced by people with credentials would not. It depends on what the student wants to accomplish.

This approach actually serves three interesting purposes.

  • The student is focused on drawing supporting or appropriate information into the project rather than just filtering “bad” information out.
  • The student gathers information about the information.
  • As students approach information with their goals to accomplish, they are less likely to be influenced by the goals of those who generated and published the information, which has interesting implications for media literacy.

Information about the Information

The second benefit is of particular interest as Internet-based information meets with increasing suspicion. In the print-based world, it is only necessary to mention the author’s name and a vague reference to the source. “John Robinson said in his book, Acres of Sound, that?”. This plus a standard citation placed at the bottom of the page or in the bibliography alone is sufficient to render the information fact.

This will not be enough justification for information gathered from the wild Internet. Other rationale will be needed which might read like this:

John Robinson, in his twelve month research at the University of Hawaii on the influences of motor sounds on the navigation of sea mammals, states that…

This more elaborate explanation of the information’s source lends it credibility when a mere URL would not. Therefore, part of the evaluation process should be to identify and collect this sort of supporting information about the information, as justification.

Internet Evaluation Form

The form below has been created to help students evaluate Internet resources based on the goal(s) of their work. It begins with a statement of the student’s goals, and then follows through with the collection of specific information with explanations of how the information supports the resource in terms of the student’s goals.

Another assumption provides an additional basis for this form. As students are researching the Internet, we might safely assume that they are using a computer. Therefore, they should also be using a computer-based form for their evaluation and collection of information. This form is designed to be used as a computer file. The student will come to the computer with a disk, and will complete the form by typing their information into the appropriate spaces or by copying and pasting the information with the Edit menu.

The above form is now available on the Web at:
http://www.landmark-project.com/evaluation/evalform_1.php3

The researcher completes the form online and then presses the submit button. A Web page is then generated that displays all of the information entered. It also e-mails to you a digital version of the information.

Description of the Form Sections

Project Name:
The project name labels the evaluated resource assigning it to a specific project. Asking students to assign a project name can also help them to think through their goals and to apply an identity to the project based on those goals.

What is the goal of your project?
Here the students will enter the goal(s) of their project in words that make it easy to associate other information resources to the goal(s) at hand. Again, the goals should be behavioral. For instance, how do you want to effect:

  • What the readers believe
  • Their impressions
  • How they make decisions
  • Their knowledge, etc.

Resource Name:
This is the name of the Web site, ftp file, picture, graph, or map file.

Resource URL:
Enter the URL or electronic address of the Internet resource being evaluated and retrieved so that it can be revisited at a later date.

Author’s Name:
Find the name of the person who authored or compiled the information. This is not always the Web master of the page, and it may be necessary from time to time to ask for the author’s name from the Web master via e-mail. Another piece of information that might be valuable here is the author’s home page URL. In many instances it is also good to have the name and e-mail address of the site’s Web master. He or she is usually the first contact point for the information being published.

Publishing Organization:
This is the organization that maintains the Web or ftp site, or who sponsored the publishing of the information. In many cases the publishing organization and the author are the same. Again, the URL for the organization’s home page might also be included in this space.

What aspect(s) of the author’s or publishing organization’s background helps you accomplish your goal?
This will be information about the author and the publishing organization that relates to the generation and publishing of the Information and that relates to the student’s goals. This might also include special research in which the author is engaged or previous projects. Another example might be the mission statement of the publishing organization. It could also involve the research that lead to the information and other studies being conducted by the author. Students should examine this information and pull out aspects that are relevant to the topic and that lend credence to the information and its relationship to the student’s information product goals.

Date of Publishing:
Enter the date that the information was originally published. If it was published separately in print and this information is available on the Web site, include this date as well.

Date of Last Revision:
This information is not always available. In some cases information web resources are not updated, just published. This information will, however, be important for time sensitive data.

How does the date of the information’s publishing or latest revision help you accomplish your goal?
In many cases the more recent the information is, the more valuable it is. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the information product, information generated in 1942 or 1066 may lend it more valuable to the goal(s). In this section fill in any information about the date of generation, publishing, or revision that enhances the information product in relation to its goal(s).

Information Format (text, columnar, picture, movie):
Enter the format of the information here.

How does the format of the information help you accomplish your goal?
Information format is of greater importance than most people believe. In information rich environments, it is essential that information communicate itself as effectively as possible - and this involves format. Some types of information deliver themselves into the understanding of readers by being displayed in columns and rows of text or numbers. Others communicate better as graphs, and others as paragraphs of text. Another consideration in this section is the transfer of Internet information from one format to another. The information may come as tabular data, but you need to convert it to graph to more effectively communicate the information. All of these notes should be entered in this section of the evaluation form.

One of the advantages of retrieving digital information from the Internet is the fact that it can conceivably be accessed, manipulated, included in the information product, and published without ever being printed to paper. Data can easily be copied from a web page or other Internet tool and then pasted into this section. If you are using MSWord or other more sophisticated word processor (especially if you are using a Macintosh), even pictures can be copied from the Web and pasted into the evaluation.

How does the content of the Information help you accomplish your goal? Why is this information important to accomplishing your goals? This is perhaps the most important part of your evaluation and should apply directly to the goals of the student’s information product. Consider that this may be included in the product itself as supporting information about the information.

MLA-Style Citation Template:
You want to get all of the information about your resource that you can at one time, so that you don’t have to return to locate specifics for your citation or for other reasons. This section provides a template for a standard MLA-style citation. Simply highlight each element (last name, first name, title of the article, date published, etc.) and then replace it with the appropriate information from the web page. When you are assembling your information product, all you have to do is copy this citation from your evaluation form and paste it into your product.

Conclusion

The Industrial Age has resulted in a glut of manufactured products that find their way onto our store shelves, mail order catalogs, and into our homes. We see them and purchase them because they have value to us in some way. When I took shop in 1966, we learned the skill of producing items of wood and steel, but the items that we produced had value to us or to family members. They were built to be used. In the Information Age, information will be the commodity. Our world will be rich with it, and information will compete with other information to be used in ways not dissimilar to the competition among automobiles and washing machines.

Therefore, in the same way that the chess boards, and book shelves that we built in shop had goals of value that created context for the skills we were learning, the information products that students create today should also have goals of value and lend context to their learning.

Assignments should include:

  1. A statement that the students’ work will be available over the Internet where it can be used by people.
  2. A behavioral goal for the students’ work, how the readers of their work will be affected.
  3. An understanding among students that the readers of their work are not limited to those people in the classroom, and therefore the readers will not have the benefit of that environment. Therefore, their work should communicate itself clearly, completely, and independently, assuming that the reader knows nothing of the topic.
  4. An understanding among students that the resources they select for their information product must support their goals.
  5. An understanding that since information products will be available to a broad audience, they will likely receive feedback from that audience.

 


Source: David Warlick: “Evaluating Internet-Based Information: A Goals-Based Approach.” This article originally appeared in Meridian: A Middle School Technologies Journal, June 1998. Reprinted with permission.

David Warlick, an educational technology consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been a history teacher, district level administrator, and technology specialist with the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction. He is also the author of Raw Materials for the Mind. The book’s website is at http://landmark-project.com/rmfm/

Meridian, an electronic journal dedicated to research and practice of computer technology in middle school classrooms, is published twice yearly by an interdisciplinary team of NC State graduate students representing the fields of education, design, computer science and technical communications. Located at http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/, Meridian features research findings, practitioner articles, commentary and book excerpts by middle school teachers, technology designers and educational researchers.