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Virginia Journal of Education


A Closer Look



by Beverley Crane

The Internet has made it into just about every public school in the U.S. now. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), almost 100 percent had Internet access in 2005, up from 35 percent in 1994. Moreover, 97 percent have broadband, or "fast," access. In a representative sample of 1,205 public schools across the country, the NCES survey found that the ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access is 3.8 to 1, a decrease from the 12.1 to 1 ratio in 1998. And, nationwide, 83 percent of public schools with Internet access indicated that their school or school division had offered professional development to teachers on how to integrate the use of the Internet into the curriculum. Still, many teachers are not using the Internet in their own class assignments.

The beauty of the World Wide Web-that it offers teachers and students a rich assortment of material on almost any subject in the world-is also one of its challenges. There are millions of websites, some from reputable sources such universities, museums, education organizations, and companies, but also sites put up by just about anyone who wants to create one. Some sites can provide sound educational materials for educators in the form of lesson plans and information for class projects; others, however, may offer little more than individuals' opinions.

Unlike library resources where books, journals and other materials have already been evaluated by scholars, publishers and librarians using standard criteria, there is no formal standardized evaluation on the Web. Therefore, information ranges widely in quality. Unless they learn to differentiate among sites, users of the Web may be none the wiser.

Why am I pointing out potential problems on the Web when this article is supposed to be encouraging you to integrate the Internet into your teaching? Two reasons: One, by having your students do Web research, they will have access to a myriad of resources not available in the school library; and two, students will have to practice critical thinking skills, such as evaluating Web sources, analyzing the information they find, and synthesizing material from different sources. These skills-analysis, synthesis and evaluation-are important life learning tools.

If your students are going to be exploring websites, they need to be able to spot bias, identify unwarranted claims, and determine whether an argument has sufficient factual support. Thus, using the Web for research and resources is only part of its benefit. The skills needed to find information and assure its accuracy, currency and reputability are critical thinking skills that can be improved.

How should your students go about evaluating information they come across on the Web? We'll take a look at some evaluation criteria and use an illustration of a history assignment on the Civil War as a model. The assignment will use the American Memory website, produced by the Library of Congress, but I'll add additional sites to use as a starting point to explore the topic further. Of course, any subject could be used to achieve the same results.

Evaluation Criteria
We use evaluation to make decisions every day. Whether we're deciding where to go on vacation, which computer to buy or what restaurant to visit, we base our decisions on specific criteria. If we like to ski, we'll probably choose Colorado instead of Florida for our vacation, or we may feel more in the mood for Italian food instead of a Chinese meal. We made our choice by selecting features and comparing the vacation site or restaurant against those features. The same holds true when using the Internet for educational purposes.

Schools that use the Internet often create general guidelines for student use of it, and many have filtering software to prevent students from accessing inappropriate websites. However, implementing those policies is often left to teachers and library media specialists. Perhaps your school already has a set of criteria. If not, many school sites, such as the Springfield Township (PA) High School Virtual Library site (www.sdst.org/shs/library/evalwebstu.html ), provide evaluation criteria.

Here are some general criteria to consider when planning a lesson where students will be using the Web for research:

--Who wrote and published the material?
--How current and reliable is the information?
--How easy is the material to retrieve?
--What kind of learning environment does it represent?

Let's look at each point individually.

Authority. Websites can be sponsored or written by individuals who set up personal sites; corporations who want to advertise and sell products; government organizations; professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English; and educational institutions, for example, universities and K-12 schools and classrooms.

To assess a site's credibility of information, check out the authors. For example, upon what qualifications or education do they base their discussion of a subject? Their affiliation, perhaps to an educational organization, may also provide a clue. Read the site's "About Us" section; check the site's address to see if it contains .edu, .org, .gov, .net or .com; or enter the authors' names on a search engine, such as Google, to locate more information about them.

Reliability of the data. Some websites may slant data to support their own stances on issues. Many advocacy groups, for example, may bring an inherent bias to the material on their sites. In this case, you may want students to take one side or the other on an issue or present a balanced paper representing both sides. The important thing is that students recognize fact from bias so they don't misrepresent opinion as fact. Some points and questions that you and your students might check are:

Accuracy of the data. Have students use more than one electronic source as you would if they were using printed ones.

Appropriate content. Websites range from those created for doctoral students to ones suitable for elementary school students. Teachers may need to review sites for appropriate reading and ability levels prior to giving an assignment.

Currency of the data. The statistics cited at the beginning of this article, for example, show data from 2005 which differ significantly from the 1990s. You can also check the date a website was created and its last update date at the bottom of the homepage for currency. Pages with links that do not work are another clue that the site may be outdated.

Objectivity of the data. Do the sponsors of the site have a vested interest in the viewpoint they present? Are links on the site to other viewpoints included for balance? Are affiliations clear?

Detailed coverage. Is the subject covered in depth? Are there a number of links to other sites for more material?

Clarity of the data. Are there headings, bulleted entries, pictures for young children so that students who access the site understand what they
are viewing?

Purpose of the site. Is the purpose instructional, entertaining, persuasive, informational, promotional?

Appropriate learning environment. Does the site allow for student input? Are there instructional support materials available? Does the material correlate with the curriculum? Does the site offer material not available in the school library?

It's important when creating assignments that include Internet use to ask yourself these questions and set up criteria that students can use to evaluate sites they use. In this way you are making the process part of the assignment.

Practical Example
It's always easier to understand a concept if you have a model to illustrate it. The Internet-based project described here might be used in grades 7-12 to study the Civil War as part of the history/social studies curriculum. Several websites well-known for their unbiased representation of history will serve as resources. In this example, we'll look at the American Memory site created by the Library of Congress (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwphome.html ) to see if it provides sources students might use in researching different aspects of the Civil War-for example, Sherman's March to the Sea or generals and the battles they fought.

Sample research topic: Your group of students is a newspaper staff working in 1864 during the Civil War. Their job is to report on one aspect of the Civil War as completely as possible. Field reports (using online resources) are available, as are photographs of generals, drawings of battle scenes, maps of battles and a timeline. It's their job to determine how best to cover the story, write it, and then create a front page for the "newspaper," highlighting the following:

. An account of the battle(s), along with battle statistics
. Maps of the various phases of the battle.
. Photographs of the battle scenes.
. An editorial position regarding one of the major issues of the period, (e.g., should Sherman have destroyed everything in his path on his march, or whether President Lincoln should emancipate slaves in the United States).

Students must consult at least five websites to provide a balanced view of the issue.

For our model we'll evaluate the American Memory Website using the criteria we just reviewed.

A clearly visible link for teachers on the Library of Congress homepage leads to a "Learning Page" designed specifically for educators and students. The page (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/start/inres/index.html ) describes the American Memory collection, including its primary sources, how to use them and links to find more information.

Authority/credibility/reliability. The American Memory site contains authoritative information from a host of researchers. Having the Library of Congress host name on each page ensures reliability.

Learning environment. Primary sources, secondary sources and how to use them are all available on the Learning Page. From there, you can also find a list of links to different subject areas researched by the Library of Congress, including lesson plans, teacher activities and student workshops. All this helps foster different levels of critical thinking.

Clarity of the data. A how-to page provides links to instructions on how to print and save information, cite sources, search effectively, determine what's available on the site and bookmark that information.

Detailed coverage. Civil War photographs and maps, documents and audio are contained on the site. Moreover, many links take you to additional authoritative sites, such as the New York Historical Society, which provide photographs of the war's impact in the North and South, recruiting posters from New York, and much more.

Purpose of the site. This site provides a wealth of sources to the public and even focuses on making the site educational, so you can easily introduce these materials to your students. This is just one example, among many, of a website that is credible to use in the classroom.

Other Websites of Interest
The sample assignment asked students to consult at least five websites. Some additional sites containing Civil War information present the material in different ways. Try having your students evaluate one of these sites based on the criteria discussed earlier:

. http://civilwarstudies.org/ - Civil War Studies, presented by Associates at the Smithsonian Institute, includes audio clips about Civil War battles.

. www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/music_in_poetry/index.html - Smithsonian Education contains resources for teaching history, culture, arts, science and technology for educators, students and families with examples at different grade levels.

. www.nyt.ulib.org/read.cgi?type=contents - New York Times news articles of the 1860s describe battles and generals during the Civil War.

. http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/OR/or2.html - The Valley of the Shadow, hosted by the Virginia Center for Digital History, focuses on two communities in the Civil War through official records, battle maps, letters and diaries, newspapers, a reference center and soldiers' records.

. www.history.com/civilwar/shermansmarch/ - The History Channel presents Sherman's March to the Sea through interactive maps and photos, as well as many study guides on other aspects of the Civil War.

. www.pbs.org/civilwar/classroom/lesson_accounts.html - PBS lessons on the Civil War, written by teachers, provide national educational standards for history and are based on archives of photos of battles and generals, newspapers and maps.

Conclusion
The evaluation of the American Memory website from the Library of Congress is based on specific criteria and serves as a model evaluation that you can use when creating a project where you want your students to use the millions of resources on the World Wide Web. The evaluation provides a two-fold activity-one that makes your students think critically and also introduces them to primary sources that they would not have access to otherwise.

Crane has taught English language arts and English as a Second Language at the middle, high school, and college levels. Her publications include two books on using the Internet in the classroom: Teaching with the Internet: Strategies and Models for K-12 Curricula (Neal-Schuman, 2000) and Internet Workshops: 10 Ready-to-Go Workshops for K-12 Educators. She has written numerous articles and writes a guest column on using the Internet in the curriculum for the INFOSearcher, a newsletter for library media specialists. She also creates training materials, including distance education online courses in searching techniques for Dialog, an information service, and is the editor of the Dialog customer e-newsletters.


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