Teaching Internet Information Literacy: A Critical Evaluation
by Michael O’Sullivan • Instructional Media Coordinator/Librarian
Thomas Scott, Ph.D. • Social Studies Teacher
Rosemount High School, Rosemount, Minnesota
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2000
[Editor’s Note: This feature is the first in a two-part series that shares the practical results of the authors’ action research project, modeling the power of collaboration between library media specialists and classroom educators. The second, to appear in the next issue of MULTIMEDIA SCHOOLS, will present the authors’ findings from a questionnaire administered to 309 students in grades 9 through 12 in their social studies and language arts/communication classes. The reasons students use the Internet, the frequency of usage, student likes and dislikes of the technology, and how students evaluated their own Internet use skills will be examined. In addition, the authors will discuss how collaborative efforts among school librarians and teachers can promote information literacy throughout the school’s curriculum.]

Internet Dependence
One benefit of the Internet is the quantity of information available. When a search is done [on] a topic many thousands of sites come up containing information on that topic, so a person almost has unlimited information.

As this comment from a student at our high school illustrates, the Internet has become a definitive resource for students conducting research. However, in the rush to connect schools to this “information superhighway,” little research has been conducted at the classroom level to evaluate the Internet as a learning tool.

Teachers and librarians face a dilemma with respect to the use of the Internet in the classroom and as a research tool. As teachers in a high school, we witness the high school students’ infatuation with the Internet on a daily basis. No matter what their topic, students are convinced they can find it on the Internet.

What is this fascination among high school students with the Internet? Why will they ignore all the other resources at their disposal, determined to find it on the Net? Recent articles in the literature cite examples of ways students are becoming more dependent on the Internet as their sole source of information. While students may be technologically sophisticated, they are deficient when it comes to developing effective research strategies and judging Internet information.

Personal observation of student use and acceptance of Internet information and comments from the literature prompted us to analyze student use of the Internet in a two-prong action research study. This article discusses the design, development, and analysis of results from an Internet Information Literacy unit.

Reliability Dilemma?
The perception that the Internet provides easy access to a vast array of information is a powerful inducement for students to utilize it for conducting research. However, the ability to separate good information from bad information on the Internet is a complex task.

About a year ago, we were involved in an all-too-familiar high school Internet research scenario. One of the students in the social studies class was using the Internet to find information on her topic of “capital punishment.” She had located a site featuring quotations about the death penalty from former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and Coretta Scott King. Since a bibliography was required, the student requested help in identifying the author of this Web site.

Identifying a specific author or the source of certain Web sites can be difficult, and is not always possible. After retracing the student’s path and searching the screens for some indication or link to a “home page,” we were able to locate the source of her information. We discovered the “authority” for this information on capital punishment was a 17-year-old with his own Web page.

This student was astute enough to know she did not have reliable information. However, many students blindly accept the information they find on the Internet and use it as part of a research paper or multimedia project.
Student Name:

Web Site Evaluation Worksheet

Topic:            Search Engine:              # of hits:             URL:

1. Accuracy (Is the information reliable? Are the links accurate? Sources cited? Information believable?)

2. Authority (Who is the author of the site? What are his/her qualifications? Is the site sponsored by an organization? Is the organization reputable or legitimate?)

3. Objectivity (Does the information reveal a bias? What is the point of view of the author? Is the information trying to sway you? Do the links also reflect a bias?)

4. Currency (When was the site last updated? Is the information kept up to date? Is the publication date indicated? Are the links up to date?)

5. Coverage (How is the information presented? Heavy use of graphics, text, statistics? Topic coverage cursory or in-depth?)

Teaching Information Literacy Skills by Evaluating the Internet
To address this lack of understanding of the quality of Internet information, we developed a 3-day Internet Information Literacy unit, designed to improve students’ critical-thinking skills in using the Internet. Our observations and research indicate a naive understanding on the part of students of the content, structure, and kinds of information found on the Internet. The blind acceptance of Internet information by many students is one of the critical reasons why students need to be taught information-literacy skills. Information literacy provides students with the knowledge and skills to efficiently and effectively access information, while accurately evaluating and assessing the information they receive from any source, particularly the Internet.

Our Internet Information Literacy unit, which we conducted with several high school social studies classes, can be adapted easily for any subject area. First, we teach students the structure and terminology associated with the Internet, how to translate and dissect a URL, and present examples of biased and unreliable Web sites.
Understanding how a URL is structured, including what each of the elements represents, is one way to begin an evaluation of an Internet site. Students need to understand the domain suffixes of .com, .org, .gov, .edu, and others. However, judging an Internet site by just the domain and its suffix is not enough. It is critical for students to employ other evaluation criteria to determine if they have found good or bad information. For example, the Starr Report, released as a .gov document, is not exactly an objective report. Rather than just presenting the facts of his investigation, the independent counsel chose to selectively present the evidence that supported his point of view. The fact that a Northwestern University Engineering professor published Holocaust revisionist theories from his nwu.edu site forces us to question information from academic sites as well.

Next, we introduce a five-step evaluation criteria, commonly used by librarians to evaluate resources, and adapted for Internet evaluation. The criteria include Accuracy, Authority, Objectivity, Currency and Coverage [Tate & Alexander, http://widner.edu/libraries.html]. Using these criteria, we evaluate three different Internet sites, all dealing with the same topic. Any topic can be chosen for this demonstration, but the three Web sites should dramatically illustrate the different ways the same topic can be treated on the Internet.

During the second and third day of the Internet Literacy unit, students select a subject from a list of social science topics commonly studied in a world history or a global studies curriculum, such as Buddhism, the cultural revolution, globalization, the Boxer Rebellion, or human rights. Using one of the common search engines, students type in their assigned topic. Using the Web Site Evaluation Worksheet (see sidebar), the students evaluate the first three Web sites listed in their search results.

The structure of the exercise is designed to emulate the typical high school student’s usual approach to conducting research. As we observe on a daily basis, students generally do not employ sophisticated search strategies when conducting research. The changing nature of the Internet requires students to learn strategies to effectively navigate each Web site they encounter.

The Students’ Internet Dichotomy
At the conclusion of the activity, students analyze their results, summarize their views of the Internet as a component of learning, and note their impressions of using the Internet to obtain information. In general, these reflective essays suggest the Internet presents a real dichotomy for many high school students. On the one hand, their comments reveal a captivation for Internet information. On the other hand, they admit to a variety of constraints and frustrations in effectively conducting research on the Internet.

For example, one student summed up the value of the Internet this way:

[y]ou have a wider range of information on one site on the Internet, whereas if you are looking in books you have to go find the book, look it up, get another book. On the computer you can just sit in one place and click around and print. Plus you can do the Internet at home and not have to go to a library.
Another typical comment was, “I think the Internet is a good learning tool. You can find the information you need fast and easily.”

As these comments suggest, access to information is viewed as a major benefit of using the Internet for research. This inflated view of the Internet’s capabilities may exist because it does uncover so much information, whether it’s relevant or not.

On the other hand, one of the most commonly expressed frustrations was the difficulty these students experienced in navigating the Internet and the time it took, as the following comment illustrates:

In general I never use the Internet unless I have to for a class. But it seems every time I try to find information I can never find any, and I end up wasting time that I could have used in the library looking up other reliable sources.
The fact that there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet was not lost on these students. One student succinctly illustrated this point:
I realized that [there] was a lot of false information on the Internet, but I never thought how much, and how I could be incorporating it into presentations or research papers, or who knows what.

Teaching Effective Research Strategies
One objective of this Internet Literacy unit is to create an awareness among high school students as to the kinds of information available on the Internet, while at the same time developing their critical-thinking skills. Giving students an opportunity to critically evaluate Internet resources helps them gain a greater awareness and understanding of the unrestrained excesses of the Internet.

In the process of evaluating different Web sites, the students became increasingly aware of the limitations of the Internet as a research tool. The students also realized the need to develop and use specific search strategies when using the Internet.

Through the evaluation and assessment process, students learned to discriminate and make judgments about the types and uses of information on a Web page. According to one student, “I found that the Internet can be useful to get information, but only if you know what you are looking for, and you know what you are looking at.”

Information Literacy: Critical Skills
Perhaps another lesson from this exercise shines a light on the critical need to incorporate information literacy skills throughout all areas of a school’s curriculum, not just in library orientation classes or in isolated skills presentations.

We cannot allow our students to depend solely on the Internet for their information. We need to emphasize and require that students use a variety of sources for their research, thereby making them aware that the Internet is just another tool that can be added to their arsenal of information-retrieval sources. It is apparent the Internet will continue to influence the school curriculum. Given this reality, students need to master information-literacy skills if they are to harness the potential of this “new age of information.”

Communications to the authors may be addressed to Michael O’Sullivan or Thomas Scott, Rosemount High School, 3335 142nd St. W. Rosemount, MN 55068; e-mail: osullimk@rhs.isd196.k12.mn.us or scotttj@rhs.isd196.k12.mn.us.

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