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Fact or Fiction? The Internet as a (faulty) Resource

I LOVE Wikipedia.  Let me make myself clear: I think Wikipedia is one of the greatest things to ever happen (well except when the Bills picked up Ryan Fitzpatrick).  Since the birth of Diderot, the encyclopedia has not seen such a revolutionary change.   I really enjoy reading about everything from Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Salvador Dali, and Juon Miro, to phantogram, Hegel, and Nietzsche (I really enjoy modern art and philosophy).  But there is a problem, was Foucault really an active Marxist up until his disillusionment with the movement in the 1968 Paris uprisings?  Was his first lecture in the United States really at the University of Buffalo (cool right?)?  Is the answer to these questions really that simple as Wikipedia makes it sound?  Snooping around Wikipedia is fun, but it’s like playing Russian Roulette.  You are taking a chance that what you are learning is wrong. 

            Of course, Wikipedia is only a side hobby: I would never use it to describe the Battle of Cannae in a paper.  It’s because it would take forever to verify what you read and separate the truth from the fiction.  But if I cannot even tell what’s the difference between the real and the fake on Wikipedia, how is a 7th grader supposed to? 

            Researching is hard.  I wrote a paper last semester that had over 60 sources.  It was difficult work finding them, and took even more time reading them than it would have to just Wikipedia search the topic.  Do you see the potential problem in regards to giving students an online research project?  It is so much easier to go into Google, type “Scottish Enlightenment political theory” and see what comes up then shift through the scholarly, peer reviewed, published articles on EBSCOhost or JSTOR.  I’m not trying to say that student’s are lazy or they don’t want to work hard.  For some students this is the case, but I like to believe most students value their education.  But when it comes to researching for a project, they want to get it done as quickly as possible.  Google will find you some great websites with loads of useful information, but how do you know it’s truthful? 

            I feel like learning how to spot reliable/unreliable information on a website while researching is one of the ways my high school failed me.  I was told to go to a website, look for an author and publication date, and if it had these, it was probably reliable.  If the information seemed ridiculous and deliberately doctored, then do not use it.  But the more controversial a topic, the more likely any account of it is biased.  If you are young enough to remember using the internet in school, do you ever remember any instruction on how to use the internet for researching that went beyond these basic steps? 

            See the problem?  We have students using the internet to find information without any real knowledge of how to find the right information.  I am not suggesting taking the internet out of the classroom.  One, that’s an impossibility these days, and two, you’d be missing out on a HUGE resource.  What we need to do is do a better job of teaching students how to use the internet and research databases.  Wikipedia may be a good place to start, but students need to know how to build off of that foundation.  I don’t have the answers to this problem.  I am still faulty at telling the difference between what is real and what is fake on the internet.  I know that when I come across a “fact” that seems extraordinary to check it against other websites.  But determining if the little details are true or not is something that takes experience to get used to.  I feel that, as it stands, we don’t do enough instruction on how to use the internet properly.  But this is essential to becoming an informed researcher.  Before unleashing a student onto the World Wide Web, we need to instruct them of its shortcomings.  Otherwise we can be mislead and learn something that is not true.


5 responses to “Fact or Fiction? The Internet as a (faulty) Resource

  1. ncallah1

    I totally agree with you. Something to note about Google and other search engine sites is that they stream line the information you search and the advertisements you see based on your previous searches and online profiles. If you are savvy enough to know this, you can change your Google settings to stop this from happening. Most people do not have the knowledge or the time to be aware of the rapidly changing settings and aggressive marketing tactics which are being pushed on them daily.

  2. ncallah1

    One other thing… Companies pay search engines top dollar to show up first in line when someone executes a search. And the sources which come up in the first two pages of items are sources which are most commonly clicked on, not what is most accurate or most helpful.

  3. adunn7

    Mike, you have hit the nail on the head again! I also love wikipedia as a quick way to gain some background information or an overview on a topic–but verifying that info can be daunting! And you are right– How can a student be expected to determine whether something written on wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet is true or false if I can’t even tell?

    Along with more instruction on how to research and how to find out if a source contains valid information or crap, I think we also need to educate our students to become critical consumers of information. They must understand that you can’t believe everything you hear or read. You must consciously question information and check it against other sources and do a deeper investigation. I think that with this mindset, there is a natural segue into approaching the verification process.

    Also, why don’t high schools do more in teaching student how to do scholarly academic research? I used EBSCO host and Academic search elite maybe once in high school but when I got to Naz, I used them almost exclusively. I think we are doing a disservice to students by letting them use mediocre websites found through a regular internet search in their high school research projects. Why are we dumbing-down the research process in high school? Who is this really serving, the students or the teachers?

  4. Stephen Ransom ⋅

    Great thinking here. Information literacy has taken on a new layer in the digital era… and that is digital information literacy. Not only do we all need to be able to find relevant information efficiently, but we also need to know how to validate that information. Doing so in a digital world requires a host of skills and savviness that MUST be taught in school from the earliest of grades. Wikipedia has improved a great deal, requiring entries to disclose if the article is lacking in terms of accuracy or sources, and sources can now be found at the bottom of most good articles, allowing the reader to follow the information presented to the source in efforts to validate it. However, validation takes effort, and in this era of quick and easy, it is indeed important to prepare students to be critical consumers of information and give them the tools to do so.

    Here’s a relevant article that addresses some of this problem with college students that you might find interesting:

    …along with a great TED talk called The Filter Bubble.

  5. I wrote about the same topic this week! I did not know how to find accurate information on the web until College when I began using the databases you mentioned in your blog. Unfortunately, I don’t think giving high school students those databases would be the best solution. The sources you find through JSTOR are written at too high a reading level for most high school students to understand. Your blog made me wonder if there are any databases like it with sources written with high school students in mind.

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