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I have been teaching Information Literacy Skills for 4 years now, among them, the ability to judge websites. There are a number of things to look for when trying to identify a website that will be useful to them in their information quest. As someone who has been dealing with this for years now, I believe there are good websites out there that may not conform exactly, or have all of the qualities present which would make them a good website. I redesigned my criteria to include a point system, to help students understand that having most of the qualities is more important than having all of the qualities. I based my list partially on Kathy Schrock's List, and partially on what I had created years ago using Alan November's site (www.novemberlearning.com).
The first category that is addressed in this chart is reliability because first and foremost, student should be concerned about whether a source of information is reliable. In the real world, they are making these judgments on a face to face basis. Is my friend Joe more likely to tell me the truth than my mother? When you don't now the source of information personally, this can be a hard call to make. We need to look at things like whether they seem to be trustworthy, are they trying to sell you something rather than just giving you information? Is there any reason they might hold a bias or distort information? Most importantly, do they cite their sources of information so you can check it out yourself?
The next category addressed is accuracy. Once you have established that you source is reliable, can you be sure that they are accurate? The best way to establish this is to verify the information in another source. I chose to break it into 4 questions, so that students know that it is more than their opinion about the accuracy that they should be concerned with. They need to see if they can verify the information in other places. Also, when judging accuracy, students need to look at whether the information was written just to inform, or if it was written to stir people up. Even if they are using accurate information, they may be putting a slant on it to upset someone.
The third category is authority. I want students to understand that even if the information seems to be reliable and accurate, that it will be taken more seriously if the author has authority over the matter. First and foremost, student must identify if there is an author. If there is, they need to determine if that person is qualified to provide the information. Do they have credentials or degrees that give them authority? Other areas of authority, if it can't be established for the author, is the company that published the website. Do they hold authority in the matter? Should they be talking about eh subject? One way to establish this, if the company is not immediately recognizable, is to look at the domain.
The next category I urge students to look at is currency. Is the information current and up to date? Was it posted recently, and are the facts, figures and information from within the last 5 years? Unless doing historical research, having old information is not something that's looked upon favorably. Even more important, does the site actually tell you when the information is from. How can you be sure that it is good information if you don't know when it was produced. Another important thing to consider is if the links are dead or broken. Links that go no where do nothing to help further knowledge, and if there are a lot of broken links, its a sign that the information is quite old.
The fifth set of criteria is about objectivity. Is there a balanced view present, and have the authors provided information from both sides of the argument? Have they left information out to help strengthen their argument? Knowing if the information is skewed doesn't necessarily mean that it is bad information, just that you have to be careful to present it along with opposing information to get a fair representation. Students also need to look at things like the presence of opinions that are not backed up by evidence. Another key thing for students to look at is who else links to the site. If organizations with good reputations link to the site, there is a chance that the information will be more objective than if, say, the Nazi Party of America links to the site.
Students need to then look at the coverage of the site. No matter how good the information is, if it is scarce, the site is probably not the best one to use. In addition to have enough information, are their opinions backed up by enough information as well. Unsubstantiated opinions can lead to misinterpretations. Last in this category is a question on how detailed the information is. Sometimes, more than basic facts are needed when doing research.
Organization is probably the least important category, but one that can lead to the most frustration on the part of a user. Students need to know what to look for that will help keep them from getting frustrated. Is the website visually appealing? Would they want to spend hours staring at it? Is there a good balance between pictures and text that will assure that there is enough information without a break from the monotony? Is the website organized? Can you find the information easily? Is it laid out in a logical fashion?
All of these things, when considered together, are qualities that make a website worthy of being used as an information source. They are a lot to consider, but as student become more familiar with the process of judging information sources, they will become second hand. Just as I can judge a website in a few seconds, today's high school students will eventually become comfortable enough to judge them as fast. I feel it is important for students to know that although websites are rarely perfect models, they can still be valuable if they have a few flaws.
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