Discussion: Validity on the Internet


If you wanted to plot the growth of sites on the Internet over the past decade, a linear scale would reveal exponentials, quickly shooting off the chart. [Hillis, 1997] With this growth there is an enormous potential for gathering and disseminating information. There is a myth, however, that, "The content, value, and quality of information and knowledge is improved just because it is offered in multi-media or over the WWW." [Fisher, 1996] Is everything you find on the Internet valid? Available information is growing because anyone can publish on the Internet. Unlike more traditional forms of media (broadcast news, radio, newspapers, books, and magazines), there are no standard editorial reviews for material published on the Web. [Robin, et al, 1997] Some see this as empowering - no committees filtering people's opinions. [Engst, Dickson, 1994] However, that empowerment implies responsibility and a greater need for skills in analyzing and evaluating the merit of information found on the Internet. In essence, we need to assume the role of the journalist, accumulating information, ascertaining its validity, and forming an objective report of the issue at hand.

What does this mean to educators and students wishing to use the Internet as a learning aid? For one thing, it provides a considerable challenge and opportunity to teachers. Since many professional work situations require the ability to make decisions based on incomplete, conflicting, and suspicious information, we should be focusing on skills that develop this ability. [Dede, 1995] For instance, how do we know if the information we find on the Web is factual? Unfortunately, as in many of life's situations, we don't always know. However, there can be a valuable lesson in this dilemma. Now that we know there is an increased need to scrutinize the information we find, another question arises. How can we evaluate the credibility of the resources we find on the Web? As educators, how can we guide students to examine all resources critically?


Tips and Strategies for Teachers to use when Guiding Their Students


Questions You Should Ask Yourself while Viewing Information on the Web

Who Authored This Material?

One of the most important things to determine when evaluating a resource is the author. Many reputable resources include contact information, such as name, group affiliations, and email or postal address of the author. If the author's identity is not explicitly cited, it does not automatically indicate an unreliable resource. Furthermore, even if there is explicit information identifying the "author", remember that anyone can publish on the Web. There is nothing preventing false claims, even concerning identity. So what more can we do? Examining the "address" or URL can provide some useful insight. Let's look at some examples. In the URL, http://nasa.gov, you see only a "domain name", nasa.gov. You also see the domain suffix .gov. This indicates that the site is administered by a governmental organization and is likely to have credible information. Here's another example, http://www.colorado.edu/education. Here you see a domain name www.colorado.edu. In this example the domain name contains the suffix, .edu. This indicates that this is an educational institution or university. Additionally, you see a path name, education, after the domain name. In this case it indicates the University of Colorado's School of Education. Let's look at one more, http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~agorman/Home.html. In this case we see the domain, www.cs.colorado.edu. This is the University of Colorado's Department of Computer Science. Here, the Department of Computer Science has their own domain. But, what does the path, ~agorman/Home.html, mean? When you see the tilde (~), it often means that the site is a personal account on the domain. This may or mat not be authoritative so be more cautious. Here is a table summarizing some different domain suffixes and their associated implications.

Suffix

Designation

Implications for Validity

Com

Companies or Commercial Organizations

Many companies are investing in educational content in their Web sites (see http://www.att.com/attlabs/ brainspin/, http://www.hypergami.com/ and http://trp.atg.apple.com/EdEc onomy/), however, many commercial sites also contain excessive advertising and biased information.

Edu

Educational or Research Institutions

These can also provide credible information about research being conducted at the institution. Hovever, be cautious with personal accounts; they may also contain useful research information, but they may not.

Gov

Governmental Organizations

These are sites that belong to government and military institutions. These are generally credible and some are geared toward education (see http://www.nasa.gov/)

Mil

Military Organizations

Org

Not-for-profit Organizations

Given that these are organizations and generally not individuals, the quality of information they provide can be high (see http://www.pbs.org/ ). However, there is a stronger potential for a particular bias in what they present. (see http://www.greenpeace.org/)

Net

Network Providers

Network providers offer accounts to individuals and small businesses. Again, they may have interesting information, but be skeptical.

 

Other Qualities to Examine

For more tips on evaluating Internet resources see: [Robin, et al]


Recommender Systems and Collaborative Filtering: A Look into the Future

As the amount of information grows, our ability to deal with this growth must also increase. Methods used today may not be viable tomorrow. In an effort to help people manage this ever-expanding information explosion, new tools are being created. Capitalizing on the collaborative nature of the Internet, researchers are exploring ways to harvest the recommendations of Web communities, thus pointing community members toward community-recommended resources. One such system is PHOAKS (People Helping One Another Know Stuff). [Traveen, 1997] PHOAKS is a research project at AT&T Labs that uses natural language processing to "understand" the content of Usenet messages. It scans the content of messages posted on Usenet groups for Web sites that have been recommended by the community. Specific Internet communities, such as educators and students can use a tool such as this to harness the collective recommendations of the entire group. While earlier methods, such as Magellan's Education Page, have relied on a small group of people to explicitly provide reviews, these new systems can collect the explicit and implicit recommendation of an entire community. This can serve as a starting point, making it easier for students and teachers to find material on the Web, but it still only provides a push in the right direction. Students and teachers still need to develop skills in evaluating what they find.


Conclusions

When presenting a web page to a class it is very important to evaluate the validity of the web page and to help the students learn how to determine its authenticity for themselves. The author(s) should include some background information about themselves to help illustrate their credibility and clearly define their motives for creating the web page. The information needs to be accurate, and informative and in some cases recent. Anyone can create a web page and it is essential for everyone to be able to make an informed decision about the validity and authenticity of different web pages. While tools can be used to make searching for resources easier, they can not take the place of careful scrutiny. The Internet can be a powerful resource, but if used haphazardly or thoughtlessly, it will not contribute to student learning. Approaching web sites, like all resources, with a critical eye will help students make sense of the information overload that characterizes modern life.


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