According to The Atlantic, there were more than 1 billion web sites in 2014. In my first research lesson with grade 9 students, after discussing databases, I discuss vetting sources and authority with regard to researching Shakespeare and his times.
Searching for Shakespeare online gave me 45,800,000 hits in Google today and 34,900,000 hits in Bing.
Despite these dramatic numbers, students often look at the first 5 answers they find in a Google search and write research papers based on the information on those sites. I ask them to acknowledge this reality and then I ask them how they know that these top five offer the best information out of 45 million choices. How do they even know that it is good (accurate) information? In our first lesson in information literacy on the World Wide Web I tell them...
"Look for the experts."
I ask the students, "If the Internet did not exist [big collective 'GASP'], where would you go in the world to find someone or something that has information about Shakespeare and his times? Let's say I'm going to give you all the money you need to fly somewhere to find an expert. Where are you going to go?"
"Absolutely!" I say. "Have fun on your trip!
Our discussion continues. We back up and I ask them what an expert is. An expert has credentials. We discuss what kinds of credentials are appropriate for a Shakespeare expert. In grade 10, I co-teach a marine biology research project. In grade 10, we talk about credentials in marine biology.
We then talk about where in particular they might find an expert. Their first answer is invariably a library. (Which gives me warm fuzzies all over.) "YES! Which library? Did you know that there is a library called the Folger Shakespeare library? It's actually not in London. There are also University libraries in London and around the world with information about Shakespeare. Also think of museums. Is it possible that someone may know about something and not have a PhD?" I ask. "Maybe someone who has worked in a place for a long time?"
As a librarian, my database discussion acquaints students with where to find authoritative secondary sources. Using my background as an archivist, my inclination is to emphasize primary source materials and those who work with them. Asking students where in the world people find primary sources gives them a different perspective on authority.
I talk to my students about the types of places around the world that people work in various fields. We discuss the rebuilt Globe theater, the Shakespeare Trust, Elizabethan museums. We discuss their archives and artifacts. I explain how these types of sites often (not always) post information and publications for educational purposes. We discuss media sites such as PBS and BBC and how such organizations often work with experts to put together documentaries and other useful educational materials. I provide students with links to these places to help them become better acquainted with authority.
I also add, "There is so much information about Shakespeare on the Internet, why would you settle for anything less than an expert?"
I caution that there are so many people who love Shakespeare and make web pages about him, there is quite a bit of information of lower quality. "Let's say, for example, that there is a neurosurgeon who studies Shakespeare as his hobby. Would you use his page or someone with a PhD in Elizabethan studies with a Shakespeare concentration."
A student asks, "Well, what if the neurosurgeon has been studying Shakespeare for a long time?"
"Okay," I encourage, "How can you tell if he knows what he is talking about?
"Look for the word 'About' on a web page
"It may also say something such as 'My background.' If that neurosurgeon tells me that he's published about Shakespeare in a big journal, I'd use his work. Otherwise, I'd look for a true expert who has."
Determining authority and vetting sources is an ongoing discussion that must occur through the primary and secondary school years for students to develop a deep understanding of it. For students to be truly information literate by the time they leave high school, they must be exposed to a wide range of good and bad sources. In my next blog post, I will discuss a tool I use to help ninth and tenth graders to dig deeper into locating and vetting sites on their own.