Authenticating Information

Schools are fully aware that the Internet is a treasure trove of knowledge and don’t hesitate to recommend it for research. According to a 2008 study, 77 per cent of teachers assign work involving the use of the Internet. Unfortunately, school curriculums rarely include teaching how to do research on the Web, so parents need to learn the skills for guiding their children as they go online for school assignments.

Finding information

We assume it is simple to do research online because the Web contains a wealth of information. The drawback, however, is finding information directly related to the topic at hand from the thousands of potential links. Learning proper search techniques is a good start.

The first stop for online research is generally a search engine – most often Google: 72 per cent of all online searches in 2009 were through Google. The following tips will help kids and their families use Google and other search engines more effectively:

Use more than one search engine

It is important to encourage kids to use a variety of search engines, because no single one captures more than 16 per cent of the entire Internet (in fact, all the search engines combined capture less than 50 per cent of online information). Also, each search engine gathers and groups information in its own way. For example, some provide information based on headings, while others allow users to submit questions.

Use kid-friendly tools

There are specialized search engines that filter out adult-oriented or inappropriate material from search results, for example Fact Monster and KidsClick!. Many adult search engines, including Google, offer filtering features to help you avoid inappropriate results. To activate this feature you should look for a link to “Settings” or “Preferences”.

Tip: Keep in mind that while search engine filters do a good job at blocking sexually explicit content they are not very effective at blocking hateful or violent content.

Use lots of keywords

The next step is selecting the keywords for the search. Most users submit one and a half keywords per search, which is not enough – six to eight keywords minimum will get far better results. Avoid verbs, and use modifiers only when they help define the objective more precisely – as in “cheddar cheese,” rather than just “cheese.” And use quotation marks to help search engines target specific combinations of words, as in “solar system”.

Learn how to fine-tune a search

To make a search as effective as possible use the “Advanced Search” option available in most search engines. This will automatically conduct the search using “Boolean commands” without having to manually insert them (Boolean commands help fine tune the search). The Help sections of search engine sites also provide tutorials on better search techniques (look for video tutorials, kids will find them more appealing).

Let information find you

Finding information is not a one-sided activity – it can also find you. For example, Google alerts can be used to have information on a specific subject sent directly to an email account. Information on favourite websites can also be monitored using an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. The RSS feed lets users know when new content is added to the site. Sites that offer RSS feeds will display this icon RSS icon. Users need to register for the feeds they want and they will remain in browsers as a dynamic bookmark.

“Aggregators” allow users to post various RSS feeds directly on a host Web page which is automatically updated. By connecting to this page, users get an overview of the updates on their favourite sites. For children, this might be a more appealing, personal and user-friendly alternative to bookmarks. This can be a helpful tool for kids who tend to procrastinate with their homework, as frequently checking new information updates may encourage them to get going on projects.

As the amount of online information grows, we will need to depend on more tools like this to help sort through the content we want. It’s important that kids start using these tools at a young age.

For a detailed explanation on how to set up a Netvibes account (which is an aggregator) watch this video:


Authenticating

How can you be sure that the information you have found online is credible or relevant? In other words, how do you authenticate the information? The Internet is a unique medium in that it allows anyone – not just experts – to write on any topic. Unlike textbooks, which have been rigorously proofread and edited, many websites are “unsupervised” creations. It is up to the Internet user to identify unreliable information.

The first rule of thumb to teach kids when looking at all online information is to be skeptical – when in doubt, doubt! Then apply a Who, What, Where, When, Why and How formula to the information.

For example:

  • Who is the source of the information? (The most important step is to understand who put the information online.)
  • What are you getting? (Does the information seem biased in any way?)
  • Where are you? (Deconstructing the Web address, or URL, will tell you a lot.)
  • When was the site created? (You want the most current information.)
  • Why are you there? (There may be better places to find the information; books for example.)
  • How can you tell what’s what? (Double check the information with other sources.)

Use the Five Ws (and one H) of Cyberspace handout in the Taming the Wild Wiki lesson plan from MediaSmarts for step-by-step instructions on how to authenticate online information using this formula.

Using Wikipedia

As an online research source, Wikipedia is in a class by itself, with kids choosing it as their first (and often only) destination for school research. Wikipedia is an ambitious communal work: its content is produced and published directly by users, in a very simple and instantaneous way (the term “wiki” comes from “wikiwiki”, a Hawaiian word meaning “quick”). Articles are written by volunteers from around the world who give their time and expertise to this ambitious project: anyone and everyone is welcome to write and edit.

The same qualities that make Wikipedia unique also arouse criticism from those who question “How can you trust content that anybody can write or change?” However, Wikipedia does try to control the accuracy of its material by giving users opportunities to challenge information they think may be incorrect or misleading.

For kids, Wikipedia may be a good place to start gathering information; however, because anyone can author an entry, students need (and teachers should require) supporting references. Using the triangle method, always finding three supporting resources, would definitely be a good idea. As well, kids should learn to recognize indications that a Wikipedia article may not be fully reliable, such as the presence of cleanup banners that show flaws in the article.

The key to using Wikipedia is to get to know its rating systems to help determine how complete and reliable articles are. Use the Wikipedia 101 handout in the Taming the Wild Wiki lesson plan for more information on using Wikipedia.

“Cut and paste” generation

Some journalists have dubbed this generation as the “cut-and-paste” generation, a humorous expression for a not-so-humorous accusation: plagiarism. Cutting and pasting excerpts of articles without quoting their sources is considered fraud, with more and more schools and universities taking measures to fight against it and to penalize students who cheat.

It is important to explain to children from an early age that if they cut-and-paste words and images that are not theirs in assignments, they have to say where they come from. It’s not just manners; it’s a matter of honesty.

In some cases plagiarism is unintentional – young people not knowing how to properly cite Internet information or confusing paraphrasing and plagiarizing. For tips on how to know when you are plagiarizing and how to properly source online content, visit plagiarism.org.