Friday, April 30, 2010

The Value and Challenge of Unsolicited References

I've been busy developing a new Information Fluency assessment and training program for Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development. As a result, I'm off my pace for posting new challenges.

The approach with the assessment and training is to focus on investigative searching skills. These are the competencies least engaged by Internet users. For one, they take time, although not as much time as you'd suspect. But the biggest reason is that the approaches are not easily "discoverable." They are best learned by training rather than trial and error.

One of the techniques, which I've written about before, is to investigate pages that link to the page or site being evaluated. This is accomplished by using the link: command. When I conduct workshops, very few people (teachers and students) already know about this operator.

Pages returned using the link: command are valuable because they constitute an unsolicited list of references. For the most part, authors of those pages voluntarily added a link to the site/page in question.

Just looking at a list of unsolicited references is not where the value lies. Herein lies the challenge. It requires reading and seeing patterns in the unsolicited references. This becomes difficult for students.

The easiest way to introduce link: to students is to see who links to bogus sites such as Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, etc.  The pages returned contain keywords such as 'hoax' which are easy to see in the snippets.

If a site/page is credible and a lot of highly respected organizations link to it that is also easy to detect. For example, links to the Institute for Library and Information Literacy Education include lots of libraries, schools and Websites for teachers. By association, if so many reputable sites link to it, it helps to establish credibility. Of course, just looking to see who links is not enough. What they have to say is also important. Plenty of schools link to the Tree Octopus site. What they say about it is what is important.

Querying link: for an organization you do not know may be helpful. By comparison, querying one you already know (like National Geographic) is a waste of time for the purpose of establishing credibility.

Seeing patterns in link: results is the challenge. And it becomes more difficult when the site/page being investigated doesn't lie at the extremes of universal respect or hoax.

The example I am wrestling with is an assessment item to determine if students know how to use the link: command. I'd also like to determine if they know how to make sense of the results. This is harder to do.  How would you intrepret the results for this query:  link:   (Copy and paste this string into Yahoo).

The content is about suppression of alternative energy innovations. Over 500 pages link to it in Yahoo and many tend to support it. Does this mean it is credible? Who thinks it is credible is critically important. I'd like to hear how you interpret or wrestle with the results.

No comments: