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Helping children become first-rate fact-finders on the net

In years gone by you could feel confident when young people were carrying out research that they were using respected sources – usually books and journals.  Today the internet is the main tool that students use for research. But while teenagers might be whizzes with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snap Chat they’re not necessarily good online researchers. In fact many of them are sorely lacking in digital literacy skills. One word in a google search box and that’s it.

The World Wide Web has brought many positives – a much wider array of information is available, it’s constantly being updated, and there’s easy access to pictures, diagrams and videos which can be downloaded into projects. But digital technology has also brought challenges. Apart from the obvious safety issues, the volume of information is overwhelming and much of it is from potentially flawed sources. The result is that pupils are now more likely than ever to hand in work based on inaccurate and unreliable material. 

One of the biggest surveys that’s been done on the issue, an American survey of nearly 2500 teachers, highlighted the problem. The majority said their students had difficulty judging the quality and accuracy of information they found online and that they lacked patience and determination when researching on the internet. They also said students struggled to recognise bias in online content and to use multiple sources to support an argument effectively.

It seems that while the internet has opened up many possibilities it’s actually put a dampener on skills such as perseverance and the ability to think critically. And these are skills which only become more important when young people reach higher education and the workplace. So how do we do we help Generation Z become as savvy at information gathering as they are at using social media?
 

Search smart

Many people look no further than the top 2 or 3 results on google, assuming, quite often wrongly, that they are the best ones. Or they don’t search effectively and waste time going through masses of results unrelated to their query.

Thinking carefully about search terms is key to successful research. The more keywords entered, the greater the likelihood of finding exactly the right source. Encourage pupils to be as specific as possible e.g. “Australian desert snakes” or “Australian desert landforms”. Using quotation marks around search terms will ensure they are finding results with that exact wording in them. And double check that they know the difference between sponsored and regular results.

Refining searches is another important skill. On google students can use a minus sign to eliminate something from a search, use the word “and” between search terms to get results that relate to two different subjects, and use an * to get google to fill in the blank. They can also scan results for words that pop up a lot and add them to their search to improve the quality of the results. Try “A google a day” to get them testing out their new skills. It poses difficult questions and students must use their searching expertise to find the answers.
 

Keep going!

Children who’ve grown up in the digital age expect to have information at their fingertips and they’re easily put off when answers are hard to find. Research becomes a rapid process aimed at finding out just enough to complete a project. We need to re-ignite a love of research among the young generation. It should be a thorough, considered, intellectual pursuit, where you carefully comb through and assess information. Challenge pupils to go deeply into a topic and persevere when the first few results don’t bear fruit. Remind them to try different search engines too. Google isn’t the only option. 
 

Is it trustworthy?

As the old adage goes, don’t believe everything you read! You’d think by secondary school children would know this but do they? Evaluating the quality and validity of websites is a vital skill in the digital world. How do you know whether a site is trustworthy? How do you know whether the information it contains is accurate, or has it been written by a nobody with zero expertise? Not only is the web truly vast, it is a minefield when it comes to finding reliable information. Never has it been more important to teach young people to distinguish between fact and fiction.

The basic rule is always question a site’s credibility. Pupils should think about whether it’s the site of a recognised organisation, one that would be universally regarded as authoritative such as a university, museum, specialist journal, the BBC, or National Geographic. Publications from these institutions are considered authoritative in the “real” world, so students can obviously rely on them online as well.

Checking the name of the author of the piece, or, if a journalist, the sources they are quoting from, is another good test. A reliable source will be one that draws on the expertise or knowledge of someone who is linked with a named university or institution. If still in doubt, searching on the name of that person or their institution should help. A good site will mention facts that can be corroborated by other authoritative websites. Other things to look out for include: Does the site have links to respected websites?  How up to date is the site/article? Are there any dead links? 

Taking the attitude that no single source “has it all” is probably wise — and it takes only seconds to browse again through search results via the back button.

What about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia has sometimes been cited by suspicious parents and teachers as “unreliable”, on the basis that anyone can contribute to or amend it, whether expert or not. The truth is that its articles are regularly updated and checked over by an army of assiduous contributors, usually with a range of highly reliable and academic sources cited in support. This peer review system is somewhat more rigorous than that adopted by many publishers of information books. So Wikipedia can probably be regarded as a fairly accurate and up-to-date repository of information. However it’s still worth getting pupils to analyse the sources it lists. When in doubt, go to the original source, don’t just quote information taken from it and used on another site.

Fact or opinion?

Developing an awareness of bias is critical when establishing the credibility of a site. Much of what we read on the web is based on personal opinion not fact. Some websites may appear official and authoritative but actually be far from impartial. As well as investigating who the author is students should consider what the purpose of a site is and who its intended audience is. Is the site commercial and if so who is its sponsor? There’s no need to completely avoid such sites when researching, but if the language is overly persuasive treat it with a healthy dose of suspicion. It’s all about thinking critically.
 

A searching culture

Creating the right culture is half the battle. Reward thorough searching, source checking and cross referencing. Get pupils to keep a log of their searches with web addresses for the sites they’ve visited and ask them to include citations and bibliographies in their work.

And last but in no way least, remind them to look beyond the web. The Internet might be the number one research tool in a student’s armoury, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Other sources such as books, reference librarians, knowledge passed on from family, newspapers and magazines are all still an important part of the mix. 
 


Nicholas Harris is the managing editor of Q-files.com, the free online encyclopaedia for children. He is also the founder of Orpheus Books Limited, a long-established specialist producer of children’s information and reference books for publishers all over the world.