Web 2.0 Meets Information Fluency: Evaluation

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Here’s another section of my upcoming chapter for Terry Freedman’s Coming of Age 2.0. This section examines evaluation skills in the Web 2.0 information landscape.

Evaluation

This fluency involves determining accuracy, relevance, comprehensiveness; distinguishing among facts, points of view and opinions; and selecting the most useful resources for a particular information need.

The traditional publication process made evaluation a much simpler skill back in the days before digitization, and in the days before information assumed new democratic formats. And while it was easier to teach evaluation in a controlled, black and white world, a world where resources fit into neat little boxes, we now live in a wonderfully rich confusion.

New, as well as traditional questions emerge as learners evaluate the information they find. What is authority? Whose voices are valid and when? Is it best to examine the collective knowledge of the public, or the expert knowledge of academics? What is the information context? Is it a casual information need or a formal or critical project? Who is the audience for my project? Is it an instructor who values scholarship and depth? Is it a breaking issue for which scholarly material does not yet exist? Is the best source scholarly, popular, trade; “on the ground” and timely, or retrospective and reflective; primary or secondary; biased or balanced?

Just as mega-store sites like Amazon address the long tail or the niche market, the Web, and blogging especially, promote the flourishing of the niche opinion, a great democratic concept, but a challenge for learners struggling to evaluate context and bias.

We’ve been offering advice for evaluating websites for more than ten years: use a healthy amount of skepticism when examining any source regarding authority, credibility, accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We’ve suggested students perform Google link checks to see who has linked to a site in question or consult http://whois.org to identify the origin of a domain. Similar advice should be applied to Web 2.0 sources. Kathy Schrock offers a rich collection of evaluation tools for both 1.0 and 2.0 on her Guide for Educators (http://school.discovery.com/schrockguide/eval.html).

How should students evaluate and select blogs as information sources? With blog space doubling every six months and technorati http://technorati.com tracking more than 37 million blogs (Sifry, 2006), how do we help learners to cut through the noise?

Blogs are essentially primary sources and can provide lively insights and perspectives not documented by traditional sources. They compare in some ways to a traditional interview, with the speaker controlling the questions. Ripe for essays and debate, blogs present not only the traditional two sides of an issue, but the potentially thousands of takes. And those takes take less time to appear than documents forced through the traditional publishing or peer review process. Blogs allow scholars and experts written opportunities to loosen their ties and engage in lively conversation.

Blogs require new types of examination. Some questions learners might ask as they evaluate blogs:

  • Who is the blogger? With so many blogs offering spotty or nonexistent “about” pages, this may be a clue in itself.
  • What sorts of materials is the blogger reading or citing?
  • Does this blogger have influence? Is the blog well-established? Who and how many people link to the blog? Who is commenting? Does this blog appear to be part of a community? (The best blogs are likely to be hubs for folks who share interests with the blogger.) Tools like Technorati http://technorati.com and Blogpulse http://blogpulse.com can help learners assess the influence of a blog.
  • Is this content covered in any depth, with any authority?
  • How sophisticated is the language, the spelling?
  • Is this blog alive? It there a substantial archive? How current are the posts?
  • At what point in a story’s lifetime did a post appear? Examining a story’s date may offer clues as to the reliability of a blog entry.
  • Is the site upfront about its bias? Does it recognize/discuss other points of view? (For certain information tasks–an essay or debate–bias may be especially useful. Students need to recognize it.)
  • If the blogger is not a traditional “expert,” is this a first-hand view that would also be valuable for research? Is it a unique perspective?

For our 8th project on the Middle Ages, we illustrate the process of evaluation by pulling up a slightly cleaned up Google result list. Together with the classroom teacher, we model decision-making–students discuss whether or not items on the list would make appropriate choices for the particular research task. We look at portals, and blogs, wikis, student-generated sites, personal sites, and university sites. The teacher discusses whether it makes sense to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias as sources. For many of our teachers these reference tools are good places to start. They may work as strategies for building vocabulary, identifying experts, and locating additional resources.

Over the past couple of years a big issue in learning to evaluate has been what to do about Wikipedia. Its content is heavily accessed; its articles appear on nearly every result list. Its democratic editing process provokes questions relating to the wisdom of crowds and the value of experts. Wikipedia forces us to examine the dynamic nature of information and to explore how knowledge is built. Whom do we trust and when do we trust them?

If a project has to do with breaking news, a hot topic, technology, or popular culture, Wikipedia may be the very best place to start. One of its advantages over print is that it is not limited by traditional publishing restrictions of cost or size. It is able to address the long information tail, providing something for nearly any interest.

But when teachers encourage students to find scholarly materials, Wikipedia may not be the best place to start. Academics, concerned about tenure and promotion generally find other avenues for publication. High school and university students need to know that teachers and professors will expect them to reach beyond Wikipedia.

I want my students to succeed in any academic setting. I want them to find the best possible sources for their specific needs. In some circumstances Wikipedia, or any traditional encyclopedia may be embarrassing to cite. In an interview quoted in David Weinberger’s Joho the Blog, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, speaking as a panelist responds to an audience question (http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/annenberg_hyperlinking_in_web_1.html):

I get at least one email a week from a college student who says he got an F citing Wikipedia. I write back saying, “For God’s sake, you’re in college. Why are you citing an encyclopedia?” We tell people to be aware of what it is. It’s pretty good but any particular page could have been edited five minutes ago, incorporating a new error. It’s generally “good enough.” (Weinberger, 2006).

Wikis can be an evaluation challenge. In many edit histories, contributions are more likely to be identified by silly screen names than academic credentials. As students evaluate wikis, they might ask a few questions:

  • What is the purpose of the collaborative project and who began it?
  • How many people appear to be involved in editing the wiki? Does it seem that the information collected is improved by having a variety of participants? How heavily edited were the pages you plan to use?
  • How rich is the wiki? How many pages does it contain?
  • Does the project appear to be alive? Are folks continuing to edit it?
  • Does the information appear accurate? Can I validate it in other sources?

More next time–on social responsibility and information ethics

Sifry, D. (206). [Weblog] State of the blogosphere, April 2006: Part 2: On language and tagging. Sifry’s Alerts. Retrieved September 10, 2006, from http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000433.html

Weinberger, D. (2006). [Weblog] Hyperlinking in Web 2.0. Joho the Blog. [Weblog] Retrieved September 9, 2006, from http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/annenberg_hyperlinking_in_web_1.html

2 thoughts on “Web 2.0 Meets Information Fluency: Evaluation

  1. Joyce, you are amazing. I know that you get plenty of accolades, so you probably already know that you are amazing, but I thought I’d point it out again. Thanks for this great post.

  2. Fantastic postings! I have been researching this very area a little : Web 2.0 and what it means for Information Literacy. We are catching up with this in the UK, but have a way to go yet. It does give us tremendous opportunities for use in how we deliver our teaching in HE, but also we MUST include the new tools in our programmes. THe days of just teaching students about our databases are over! Thank you.