With the worldwide web literally at students’ fingertips, it would be easy to assume that they can find out anything they need any time. While this is technically true, it’s also a case of being spoiled for choice. The abundance of options make it difficult for students to know where to turn. For every reliable source of information online, there are hundreds of misinformed, poorly researched, or intentionally misleading sites.
If you’ve ever tried to find out more about what the doctor told you on your last doctor’s appointment by Googling your diagnosis, you know how hard it can be to know which sites to trust. A July 2016 article for the National Emergency Medical Journal looked into this situation by Googling “chest pain” and evaluating the first 30 pages, eliminating duplicates. “Only half mentioned potential tests that might be used to diagnose symptoms and less than a quarter discussed treatments” (Ali S. Raja, MD).
If something as seemingly straightforward as finding out what chest pain could mean, imagine the difficulties students face when researching the Syrian refugee crisis, the role of women in Victorian literature, or how significant the New Deal was in ending the Great Depression. As educators in a digital age, it is vital that we outfit students with the tools to navigate the vast pool of online information. It isn’t enough to just tell students, “Don’t use Wikipedia for your research.”
We need to empower students to be knowledgeable consumers of online information.
Teachers must help students find their way through the detritus of unreliable internet sites to reach the valuable ones. Because today’s teens are so eager to adopt new technology, we often assume that they are experts. Barbara Coombes of Charles Sturt University conducted research, however, that proved that more often than not, students, whom she calls digital refugees “have poor Internet literacy skills, rely on keyword searching, and trust search engine results.” She goes one to state, ” This generation’s lack of understanding of how the web works, coupled with high levels of confidence, means they often fail to realize the limitations of their abilities and assume that if they can’t find it on the web, then it doesn’t exist” (researchgate).
Unfortunately, both teachers and students suffer from insufficient training in internet research techniques. We’ve all been thrown into the deep end of the pool together, and not all of us were taught to swim. Fortunately, the research techniques that many of us employed in the dusty card catalog drawers of the past still stand us in good stead for today’s techniques. Although it is much easier to get your ideas in front of a reading public today, questionable information was always available. In fact, one of the Spanish-American War is perhaps the first war fought in the presses. According to PBS.org’s Crucible of Empire, “William Randolph Hearst understood that a war with Cuba would not only sell his papers, but also move him into a position of national prominence” in the birth of yellow journalism. Of course, this problem is magnified by easy access to supposed information. In fact the 2014 World Economic Forum placed the rapid spread of misinformation online in its top ten list of concerns. Clearly, educators need to help students sort the wheat from the growing level of chaff (Farida Vis PBS.org).
This calls for new training in education. Just as teens are assumed to understand technology, but are in reality often floundering in an undertow of too much information to sort through, teachers are expected to organically follow this new digital publishing world. While we certainly do our best to keep up, even the journalistic profession acknowledges the need to develop new policies to deal with the rapid spread of false information online. “When it comes to verifying information online, journalism could be seen as a type of frontline service in dealing with false information online. Initiatives such as the Verification Handbook offer important insights and guidelines about how to deal with different types of false information. It essentially encourages readers to assume online information is false until verified” (PBS.org). In 2015 The American Press Institute stated, “False information on Twitter overpowers efforts to correct it by a ratio of about 3 to 1,” and further noted that the public was confident about the accuracy of the false information. A report “The Science of Why People Don’t Believe Science” helps explain why false information is so easily propagated: “People gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select sources that deliver it”(Mooney). Although this is hardly a ground-breaking revelation, it explains why so many people fail to question otherwise obviously questionable information online.
The Internet “research” is often a tool to confirm already deeply held beliefs, rather than a search for truth. While people have always sought to confirm their own ideologies, a Twitter hashtag search or a visit to their favorite Facebook page makes this easier than it was in the past. This will lead to deeper divisiveness on issues, instead of more understanding to bring people together unless our up and coming generations are taught how to conduct real research online and find facts.
Schools and schools systems must develop curricula to help students navigate this increasingly confusing digital field of information.