Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reliable Website? Ask the Conscious Burritos

Today I had my high school class do a second assignment on finding reliable information on the web. I used part of the excellent ICYouSee: T is for Thinking guide to critical thinking about what's on the web.

Specifically, I had the students group in pairs then go out to look at sites on the Mayan Calendar and The Sixties. The selection of sites given is excellent. They cover the range of reliability well, and different sites draw in different students. The result was that no two teams did full evaluations on the same sites, but there was enough overlap to make things interesting.

While I asked the students to evaluate how reliable the information was on the websites they chose for deeper evaluation, I did little to define reliability for them beforehand. We had one prior exercise in web research during which I covered the idea. In the course of the class I had the question raised, as one group struggled with the distinction between honest but misinformed and reliable.

This triggered a short conversation about the distinction between belief and demonstrable, or at least supportable, truths.

When the groups finished their evaluations we did round robin reports of our findings.

The link to Conscious Burritos on the Dreamspell site pretty well sealed that site's degree of authority with the class.

The evaluations opened up a number of conversations about reasonable measures of authority. We agreed that the appearance of a website definitely affects the perception of its authority. If, for example, a science website has images of little pink ponies dancing across the screen it'll be hard to take seriously, even if it's written by an authority in the field with excellent supporting links. On the other hand, sites that have a spartan design say less in a direct fashion about reliability one way or the other.

The subject of quantity arose, as well. One of the student groups felt that the volume of data on a site added to its authority. In another case, a large volume of information on a wide variety of loosely related subjects was felt to detract from the site's reliability. After I provided some possible counter-examples in each case, it seems like the class pretty well agreed that volume of content had no direct bearing on the reliability of information on the website. However, in each case I think the students were expressing feelings concerning the approach to organization of the website, and how that reflected the thinking of the creators.

We also had a discussion about supporting material. We talked about sites that link to like-minded sites while ignoring divergent points of view, as well a the idea of "sock-puppets" and other techniques for creating a false appearance of supporting data. We also discussed potential conflicts of interest and how these might color the information that people post on the web, as well as the fact that a single conflict of this sort may affect a large number of people, having a similar effect on them, creating what appears to be a large body of consensus, when actually we're seeing a small community that's heavily cross-linked.

I saw more lights going on in people's heads today than after our prior exercise. It turned out really well, and the feedback I've gotten from the students so far has been positive. Time constraints kept us from covering things as well as I would have liked. For example, I would have liked to have the class study some websites with very authoritative appearances and find the "gotchas" that undermine their reliability as sources of information.

I may yet do this in a future class. The number of sites on subjects such as health and ethics that maintain a very authoritative appearance while having a decided slant and underlying purpose are many, and I would like to give my students an introduction into applying their critical facilities to these sites.