Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When do you learn evaluation?

Had a brief conversation yesterday with Don Tapscott, author of Growing up Digital, Wikinomics and Grown Up Digital. He uses a number of terms to characterize the digital generation. The one that puzzled me was skeptical. So I asked him if his research really shows that students are thinking about the information they find on the Web. After all, this generation has been described by others as very much the opposite: to them all information is equal.

He admitted that younger students (e.g., 13 year olds) weren't particularly skeptical but by college they have to be otherwise they'd be ridiculous. (I think his point was they have to be skeptical.) We were interrupted at that point by autograph seekers and the conversation shifted to other topics, but what I wanted to say is that many (the majority?) of students don't practice these skills when they enter college, which is why I've had plenty of discussions with college librarians wondering what they can do to quickly orient freshmen to the world of information fluency.

So when do you learn to be skeptical, and more importantly, decisive about information found online? It probably happens in fits and starts and is different for everyone--mainly because it is not systematically addressed. Few schools actually teach what I call information forensics, in which investigative search skills are applied to found information for the purpose of determining credibility. So it's left to the digital generation to discover on their own and in their own time the lesson that not all information is equal.

One of the teachable moments during which skepticism is developed happens when obviously false information is encountered. This is the real benefit of hoax sites. They stand out as red flags against a monochrome backdrop of information that has credibility by virtue of publication. Not all hoax sites are so obvious, but sites like Snopes and the Museum of Hoaxes do a pretty good job of cataloging pages that are intentional spoofs or malicious deceits. Hoax and hoax-related sites perform a valuable service by illustrating that information has more than one purpose (to be believed). There are parallels: students don't believe jokes or tall tales to be true once they know their purpose. They learn to be skeptical based on the intent of the information and/or its believability. They just don't recognize this online much of the time.

I think it's obvious that students need to be exposed to jokes, tall tales and Web hoaxes if they are going to learn what makes information not equal. It will happen by accident given enough time online. It will happen much more efficiently if educators make it happen. And it should happen before the freshman year of college. Let's aim early, say, before 9th grade.

This is why I really like the concept of the Internet Search Challenge. They are puzzles to be solved. Most students respond well to the idea of a challenge. They are easy to use and are useful for demonstrating (and diagnosing) skills needed for information fluency. Dennis O'Connor and I have spent the last few months creating a new set of challenges, which we call an assessment playground. We are publishing what amounts to an elaborate hoax. The playground is a suite of sites and blogs that is partly fact and partly fiction. Some authors are legit, some are using aliases, the publishers are questionable, evidence found in articles and elsewhere must be fact-checked. Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development (CTD) will use this site, together with challenges (pretest), self-paced tutorials and another set of challenges (posttest) for all middle school and high school students enrolled in their summer programs. The CTD leadership understands the need to be intentional about engaging young people in becoming skeptical and helping them develop requisite skills.

We'll have more to say about the assessment playground in future blogs and how you can put it to use in your school.

In the meantime, I leave you without a search challenge this time, but hope you will join in and fill out the discussion about "when did you or when do the students you know learn to be skeptical about information online?"

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