In Praise of the Internet: Shifting Focus and Engaging Critical Thinking Skills

Photo by Flickr user orangeacid

Photo by Flickr user orangeacid

By Ellie Collier

My alternate title for this post was “The Internet is awesome. Start acting like it.” It is a call to arms to shift our attitude away from magnifying the perils of online research and towards examining the many types of useful information along with how and when to use them; to shift our primary focus away from teaching how to find information and towards engaging critical thinking skills. Often we have just one class period with our students and “the greater need is evaluation; they already know at least one method of finding articles.” [1]

The kernel of this post emerged from a recent conversation with my brother. He asked me, “What would you estimate the ratio of inaccurate to accurate information on the Internet is?”

I hemmed and hawed and asked, “on the free web or including subscription sites?”

He clarified, “Well anytime I’ve randomly wanted to look something up … I’ve never come across something I’ve noticed to be faulty, but I wonder sometimes if A) I’ve totally been mislead by faulty info or B) if most stuff I’ve ever looked up is OK. But they make such a big deal to not trust things on the Internet unless you know the poster is reputable. I think information is more likely to be incomplete rather than flat out wrong. Go find something wrong on the Internet and give me a link.”

I sent him some of the standards:

He asked, “What search would bring those things up that you’d actually be looking for? I’m just curious sometimes about these things. I’m skeptical of the skeptics, you know.”

A bit of background: My brother and I are both within or at least near the cusp of the age groups defined as Millennials, digital natives, net generation, etc. We also come from a family that highly values education. We both have masters degrees; his is in science education. He teaches 9th grade science at a public school. In short, he’s an intelligent, well-educated, and Internet savvy young man. So his questions made me think hard about what I had learned about how to teach students to evaluate Internet sources.

Personally, I only know about those sites because people use them as examples when teaching how to evaluate websites. There are scores of sites that list examples for teachers to use. But I would argue that they are not the examples we should be using. They are not what will be on the first page of results on a real life information query. Or at least they wouldn’t be if so many education sites weren’t linking to them. [4] The real things they will typically encounter are much more complicated. And in all fairness, more likely to have decent information.

I’ll interject here with another anecdote as a case in point. I was helping a student who had to write a paper on psychedelic mushrooms. This is a recurring assignment from a Comp I professor who has his students write about various drugs, so I already knew from past experience that our library had relatively little information on this particular topic. The student had a note from her teacher saying she had relied too heavily on one particular source. She was frustrated because it had been the only place she had been able to find much of the information for her paper and now she wasn’t sure where else to look. It turned out to be an excellent teaching moment, and a much better example of the type of site we should be showing students how to evaluate. I explained the importance of looking for and reading the “about us” information and how she might not want to quote Fire and Earth Erowid in a college level paper. I also showed her that even though Fire and Earth don’t pass the credibility test, they did document their sources. It turned out that nearly every quote this student had selected for her paper had originally come from a government publication. Even better, the Erowid site included a direct link to the original source. I explained that the dates on these reports were a little older and showed her how she could find more recent information from the same government organizations. I very much doubt she followed up on every one, but hopefully she at least learned something about evaluating websites and following citations.

In “Dissecting the Web through Wikipedia,” Adam Bennington makes a similar case for using Wikipedia to teach these skills. [5]

“The goal here is to show students how to gather the same resources that support the Wikipedia entry. This helps expose the searcher to the wide variety of quality material contained in the library including the physical collection, electronic resources, and inter-library loan services (for resources not contained in the user’s home collection). It also gives the librarian a chance to explain how this content is different from what one might find with solely a Google search.”

I fully support Bennington in his focus on Wikipedia. It is a cultural phenomena that we ignore at our own (and our students’) peril. It is also another example of the complexity of Internet sources and another chance to practice critical thinking. When I discuss Wikipedia, I usually mention how Steven Colbert told his fans to change a Wikipedia entry on elephants to say “the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months.” So if you had seen it that day you might have believed that. In every class there are still students that didn’t know Wikipedia could be edited by anyone, so first it covers that feature. This example is not only about Wikipedia’s dangers though. The Wikipedia community responded quickly, fixing the error and protecting the page from further attack. So while it can be edited by anyone and errors do occur, so do corrections, another feature. We do our students a disservice when we dismiss such an amazing and useful resource, when instead we could be using it to teach them about the research process not to mention the power of individuals working together to share knowledge.

Using more realistic examples in our instruction and explaining the positive aspects as well as the negative will help both the students and our image. As my brother said, when he has searched for something online, he mostly receives decent information. Despite all the (certainly valid) questions about the secrets behind page ranking algorithms, a basic search will generally return fairly decent results with today’s technology. He (and our students) have every right to be skeptical of the skeptics. Condemning the Internet as a wasteland or a dangerous minefield when this is not the students’ personal experience only hurts our credibility.

Emily Drabinski summed up the severity of what is at stake in her comments on my first draft, “As a reference and instruction librarian, I feel like my entire job depends on whether or not students and faculty seek me out for help. Losing credibility by trying to convince students of a reality they have never experienced means I’ve lost a chance to seem authoritative and like I know what’s what.” If we continue to insist on this paradox between our authority and their personal experience we risk alienating the people we are trying to help.

In Free Culture, Elizabeth Daley discusses using various media in education, but her point applies here as well:

“You know, you’ve got Johnny who can look at a video, he can play a video game, he can do graffiti all over your walls, he can take your car apart, and he can do all sorts of other things. He just can’t read your text. So Johnny comes to school and you say, “Johnny, you’re illiterate. Nothing you can do matters.” Well, Johnny then has two choices: He can dismiss you or he [can] dismiss himself. If his ego is healthy at all, he’s going to dismiss you. [6]

In addition to using more realistic examples in our instruction, I’d also like to suggest a tiny change in vocabulary. When discussing sources let’s talk about whether they are appropriate to cite in the student’s paper, rather than whether they’re appropriate to use. There are many resources that are perfectly useful throughout the research process that may not be appropriate to cite in the final paper.

While pursuing my MSIS, I wrote a paper entitled “Writing Forms and Usage During the Viking Age.” Like every other student today, as part of my research process I did a Google search. I read Wikipedia entries. I also used the more encouraged sources, searching the library catalog and subscription databases, and browsing the shelves. This was an obscure subject and required a lot of digging. By far my most useful source was Vikinganswerlady.com. The Viking Answer Lady is Christie Ward. Her resume lists experience in computer science and web design, but no degrees and nothing related to viking studies. Our standard instruction would dismiss her site for not having an “about us” page and, after finding her resume, dismiss her as not an authority. Yet, reading through the site she is obviously dedicated, well read, and documents her sources.

from my bibliographic essay [7]:

“For a more in depth study of Viking Age literacy, I was lucky enough to be pointed towards James E. Knirk’s “Learning to Write with Runes in Medieval Norway” (Runica et mediævalia. Opuscula 2. Stockholm, 1994) and Aslak Liestøl’s “The Literate Vikings” (Proceedings of the Sixth Viking Congress. Uppsala, 1971). These two articles in particular provided much of the serious analysis that was missing from the easy to find general information. They also provided a large number of attempted and partial translations of runic inscriptions that helped inform my summaries of the various types extant.”

I was lucky enough to be pointed to those articles because I emailed Viking Answer Lady with my general thesis and asked her advice on where to look for more information. She might not fit the standard authority criteria that were established in the pre-Internet age, but I would argue she is most definitely an authority. Even if she is not an authority I would cite in a paper, she was an important step along the way of my research process.

We are quick to explain as it becomes easier and easier for anyone to put anything online that more and more incorrect, misleading, and otherwise “bad” information is becoming available. But the opposite is also true. It is just as easy for dedicated hobbyists, gifted amateurs, independent scholars and the like to put up incredibly useful information. (Not to mention marginal voices that are often excluded from more traditional modes of public discourse.) More and more organizations are providing their services and expertise online. We should be encouraging our students to take advantage of these wonderful resources, not handicapping them by refusing, discouraging, blocking, filtering, or otherwise denying access.

As we teach students to approach information critically we can also explain the importance of the intended use of the resource. To write a research paper on a medical condition you want to use reputable scientific information. But a chat room or forum might be much more useful for dealing with patients’ emotions and gathering first hand accounts, even if not all the scientific information in it is vetted. With these types of examples students can begin to learn to ask themselves questions about what types of information they need, who might have the information they are looking for, what type of person or group would have collected it and why, and where would it have been made available.

My brother asked in summary, “Basically, if you’re writing a paper for school, only use peer reviewed stuff.”

But it’s not that simple, is it? I sometimes moonlight at a wonderful four-year college where everyone has to take two courses that include in-depth position papers on controversial topics. Students (and even teachers sometimes) are often confused about whether what they’re looking at should count as authoritative. One of the examples I always give is that if you want to know the NRA’s stated position on gun control there’s no better place to go than the NRA website. If you want to know the statistics of children killed by their parents’ guns, I wouldn’t get it there. Another example: if you’re writing on Star Trek culture or the phenomena of fan fiction you would absolutely want to use fan sites. Rather than focus on these fan sites as examples of non-authority we should be focusing on clarifying your purpose and identifying what types of sources would fit.

I am calling for a shift in focus and in attitude. When deciding how to split your time, give precedence to critical thinking skills. Rather than extol the evils and dangers of the Internet, focus on the gems. In teaching how to find the gems we teach how to sift out the soil, sand and fool’s gold, but the emphasis should remain on the gems. Personal experience shows us that we can typically easily find anything we want online. Emphasizing the chaff discredits us. So as you go into your instruction sessions this next semester I encourage you to spend less time on Boolean and more time using realistic examples to help engage students in a critical discussion about how to best use the Internet for research.

Further Reading:

For lesson plans and concrete examples of how to incorporate these themes into your instruction see:

For more information on the growing importance of dedicated amateurs see:


[1] Quoted from: Miller, Sara D. “Learning Outcomes, Instructional Design, and the 50-Minute Information Literacy Session.” Presented March 7, 2008 to the Library & Information Sciences Section.

[2] Just in case it’s not obvious: dhmo = h20 = water

[3] The tin foil hat site is often used in K-12 for website evaluation exercises. Read their response. Amusing and insightful.

[4] A fascinating aside: I did a Google search on “octopus” to see if the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site would come up. It was the second result after the Wikipedia article, most likely because it is linked to off of so many education (read-reputable) web sites. But on the search results page, underneath the link, in brackets it says “Contains fictitious information.”

[5] Quoted from: Bennington, Adam. “Dissecting the Web through Wikipedia.” American Libraries. August 2008: 46-48.

[6] Quoted from: Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. While not directly related to this post, I wanted to share that this quote continues:

But instead, if you say, “Well, with all these things that you can do, let’s talk about this issue. Play for me music that you think reflects that, or show me images that you think reflect that, or draw for me something that reflects that.” Not by giving a kid a video camera and … saying, “Let’s go have fun with the video camera and make a little movie. But instead, really help you take these elements that you understand, that are your language, and construct meaning about the topic.”

[7] I just want to put a plug in for bibliographic essays as an excellent tool for ensuring real thought goes into selecting sources.

Thanks to Emily Drabinski, Emily Ford, and Derik Badman for their feedback and edits.