"I’ve used them but besides that when I’m going through random websites and I’m trying to figure out which one can actually be used, it’s, kind of, hard because there really isn’t anything, there isn’t like a stamp that, you know, someone puts like, ‘This one’s real.’"
USA, emerging female, age 19
Students in the emerging educational stage are operating in the largest information environment. That is to say that emerging stage students are most likely to simply Google and use the first few links returned as their main source of information.
As students transition through the educational stages, their study-related information environment becomes smaller in tandem with specialising in a given discipline. They become familiar with the authoritative, subject-specific online sources and information and increasingly use formal sources, such as peer-reviewed journals.
Most of our participants in the earlier (emerging and establishing) educational stages were preoccupied with the validity of the information they discovered, as were those in the later (embedding and experiencing) educational stages if they were tackling a new subject area.
What many students describe themselves doing is not the critical evaluation of the content of the sources they need to use. Rather, they are describing the evaluation of the provenance of the sources, looking in particular for signifiers of credibility. They are not, particularly in Emerging educational stages, capable of evaluating the content critically, because they do not know enough about any given academic field.
Information literacy instruction commonly replicates this process of evaluation via provenance by recommending that students go straight to library databases. The assumption is that these databases are populated with quality, credible sources, and therefore students do not have to exercise a great deal of critical thinking once they acquire those sources.
Faculty members and graduate students are far better equipped to evaluate sources not located in officially-sanctioned locations such as library databases and university press publications. Their expertise allows them to critique the content, and no longer rely on the ‘surface’ qualities of sources as a proxy for credibility.
The question becomes how do instructors give student opportunities to practice the evaluation of content in the absence of expert content knowledge. Our research indicates that individuals exercise a great deal of critical evaluation of sources in non-academic contexts (as in the case of looking for good restaurants, or shopping for new cars, for instance). It may be of value to explore these personal evaluation practices with students, encouraging them to apply them in academic contexts.
This, over time, helps to shift the focus from finding ‘credible’ sources to critically evaluating the substance of the sources itself and helps to counter the ‘think less – find more’ problem. Another way to potentially develop students’ thinking in this area is the integration of more resident forms of online practice into the curriculum. Using the web to convene relatively open discussions about the credibility of certain forms of knowledge both highlights the issues and encourages students to become part of a healthy discourse about the value of the subject.
Such web-based practices can also facilitate students developing their own learner or professional personas online.
Many of our participants regularly used a combination of the following methods to assess the validity of non-traditional online resources.
1. Comparing the ‘top three’ links returned by Google: If they say roughly the same thing, then the information is often treated as valid.
"Well I don’t like pick the first one I see. I try to evaluate two or three and see if there’s some common things between them. Like if two of them say the same thing then that must be right."
USA, emerging male, age 17
"I’ll try and check a couple of different sites to see if they are all the same and that’s also how you check credibility; if they are all saying the same thing you know one sites not messing with you."
USA, emerging male, age 19
2. Checking the provenance of the website via the URL. Trusted provenance includes established institutions such as universities, established charities or ‘good quality’ media organisations such as the BBC. Interestingly in the US students are often advised not to trust .com sites as they 'will be trying to sell you something.'
So, usually I’ll do .gov, .org, .net. A lot of people, I know, will just put something on the internet and it won’t necessarily be true; like Wikipedia. I’ll try and limit the searches to ones I know will be real, and not just someone’s opinion.
USA, emerging female, age 17
"So I usually just stick to journals. Sometimes I’ll, like I said, just Google it for some general information. Maybe like current events and things like that but unless it’s .org or .edu or something like that is another way that we kind of signal that those are okay. But usually, in political science as an undergrad, I was told usually don’t use .com because it’s kind of like can be for an organisation or a certain group of people like bias or steered in one way."
USA, embedding female, age 23
"…just looking at the websites themselves, I mean he said use anything that ends at edu or gov or org, stuff like that. You know, try to avoid the .com’s because they’re usually just people who make websites. I mean, it is not like their answers are wrong but they’re just not acceptable I guess in a college essay."
USA, emerging female, age 19
3. The ‘look’ of the site: If it has a clean design (looks contemporary) and is not coated in adverts, then the information is usually seen as more valid.
"Usually websites that have like one colour backgrounds, where it’s a lot of just like basic text, there’s not a lot of graphics. They don’t really look nice, they look, kind of, like somebody just threw a website together and put it up online. It’s like I don’t trust those because it’s like, you know, they didn’t put a whole lot of time into this, I wonder how credible they are, so I don’t trust them usually."
USA, emerging male, age 19