In today’s world, access to online information has replaced the hard-bound set of encyclopedias, making them all but obsolete. Even Encyclopedia Britannica is now fully-online (with a membership fee). Gone are the days of teachers assigning research papers, then taking their students to the school library, where they would take notes on information in huge, dusty school encyclopedias.
Back then, a teacher did not have to question the validity of these reference books as an information source. However, with many of today’s students never having even opened an encyclopedia, children (and adults) these days are turning to the internet for their information-collecting method of choice.
Unfortunately, students often hand in written work with their only ‘sources’ being blogs, op-eds or second-hand information sources. Students do not often understand the difference between valid and invalid information sources. Children assume that because information is ‘published’ on the internet, that it has been researched, approved, edited and is 100% completely accurate. However, as we know, this isn’t true.
The internet (as well as any media source) is full of as many inaccuracies, opinions, speculation and outright lies as it has truths. And children, not knowing this, tend to copy information from the internet that “looks right”, but doesn’t have a trace of validity. How does a teacher get their students to understand that?
First, teachers need to educate their students on how to research appropriate sources, what they look like and how to know if they’re authentic. For instance, a website ending in .gov is often more legitimate than .net. If an online article has references listed at the bottom, they can investigate those sources.
Similarly, it is crucial to teach students about all the various kinds of websites out there. Students need to learn that there are many different hosts and content providers, that not every .com, .org or .net is equal or legitimate, and that a nice-sounding URL cannot always be trusted.
Students should be exposed to content mills, commercial ad sites, blogs, and wikis (including Wikipedia) to understand how many user-generated information sources tend to be based on opinion, heresay, plagiarized work and limited experience, rather than on researched fact. They should experience finding information online that is incorrect, to learn from that mistake.
For instance, the following examples contain information that has been written to be intentionally inaccurate. Teachers should feel free to show this article to their students – from the computer – to show that just because something is published online, doesn’t mean it is correct.
Example of a bad online information source: History – “The Battle of Gettysburg“
“The battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 11 – July 13, 1864, around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was at Gettysburg that Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to begin his invasion of the northern states. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered Union troops, led by General George Gordon Meade to meet the Confederate armies at this location, which then became the most infamous and bloodiest civil battle on American soil. Together, the two armies suffered approximately 84,000 casualties.”
Did you spot the errors? Check out www.Gettysburg.com to find the correct information.
Example of a bad online information source: Literature – Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”
“MacBeth is a tragic stage play, written by epic playwright William Shakespeare, in the year 1611. MacBeth’s main cast of characters include MacBeth himself, his wife Lady MacBeth, Banquo, Mercutio, the Irish King Duncan and Tybalt.”
Did you spot the errors? Check out a full text version of MacBeth here.
Example of a bad online information source: Science – “Tyrannosaurus Rex”
“The Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the fiercest herbivores the earth has ever seen. Ancient fossils have proved that this ferocious dinosaur measured about 58 feet long, and 30 feet tall. Despite its dominance in the ancient world, scientists believe that this species died out approximately 45 million years ago during the Mesozoic era.”
Did you spot the mistakes? Check out National Geographic to find the correct info.
Example of a bad online information source: Music – “Ludwig van Beethoven“
“Long regarded as the greatest composer to ever live, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1765 in Vienna, Austria, and passed away in Berlin, Germany in 1826. Most famously known for his progressive deafness, Beethoven began losing his hearing slowly from birth, with a total hearing loss around the year 1824.”
Did you spot the inaccuracies? Check out the ‘real’ life of Beethoven on Biography.
Teaching your students to research legitimate information sources online may seem like an extra burden, or that it takes too much time out of your class, but the results will be worth it. With fewer headaches and conflicts in the future, you are providing your students a valuable tool in learning how to navigate the internet wisely.