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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

21st Century Information Overload: Differentiating Fact from Fiction

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a bright high school student about what could easily be categorized as a controversial topic.  She had a well-developed argument and some facts to back up her position.  When I asked how she knew these facts to be true, she told me, "I read it on the internet." 
This conversation led me to think about life in 2014, and our constant exposure to an overabundance of information.  Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by it, and often we can't escape the glut of information and communications even when we try to "tune out" for a moment.  Many of us receive hundreds of e-mails each day, social media is omnipresent, and of course, we can find an answer for almost any question within a few seconds by a simple web search.  And for those with smart phones, there's 24/7 access to more information than we can possibly absorb.
The constant onslaught of incoming information from a variety of sources can be thought of as troublesome, but it actually creates a great opportunity for us as educators and parents to model good judgment and discernment with the variety of information that comes our way.  We also have an opportunity to teach our children that facts, stories, and mistruths co-exist in our digital world.  Far too often, distortions of facts masquerade as the truth on social media and websites.  Given the fact that absolutely anyone can post on social media sites, anyone can create a website, and anyone can send e-mail blasts, how do we discern good information from incorrect information?  How do we teach our children to be savvy internet users when much of the communication we access and receive is anonymous?
To answer these questions, I looked for assistance from the keepers of information in the academic world:  librarians.  Since this is a post about finding reliable information, it seemed that the libraries at prestigious universities, including UC Berkeley, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins (links provided below) would be obvious sources for guidance.  It is clear that there is general agreement from universities, and I would bet that our own highly-skilled TUHSD librarians would concur, that there is a relatively standard set of criteria we should use to evaluate sources as well as a set of questions we should ask ourselves as we discern useful information from inaccurate or unreliable information.
1.  Author ~ Who is the author of the information or the site?  What qualifications or credentials does the author have, and is there contact information provided?  Clearly, anonymous information should be viewed with an appropriate level of skepticism.
2.  Accuracy ~ Is the information reliable and accurate?  Are the sources cited from actual research or are they opinion pieces?  There are no "fact-checkers" on the internet, and there are no industry standards for factual information as there are in traditional print media.
3.  Objectivity ~ Does the information or website have a subtle or obvious bias?  Does the information seek to persuade or include advertising?  Does the author seem to have an unstated goal?  We should keep in mind that a perspective is not necessarily a fact.
4.  Currency ~ Does the information have a date on it?  How old are the links included?  Information that is not current may sometimes indicate that no new information is available to support the ideas.
5.  Coverage ~ What topics are covered, and how in-depth are they?  We need to remember that much of what is on the internet is nothing more than personal expression.
The internet provides a forum for every opinion and every idea, as well as facts and valuable information.  It is an important resource in our lives, and almost all of us can no longer imagine our world without it.  As time goes on, we will have access to even more information in places that we can't even imagine.  We often talk of essential "21st century skills," but perhaps none will be as critical for both adults and our children as the daily practice of critically analyzing communications, websites, and social media postings, to distinguish accurate information from misinformation.  And finally, when we determine that the information that we receive is not accurate, we need to take the time to look further to find truth.
Links to more information:
Johns Hopkins University:  Information and its counterfeits:  Propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation
University of California, Berkeley:  Evaluating Web Pages, Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask
Virginia Tech University:  Evaluating Internet Resources
Harvard Guide to Using Sources
Cornell University:  Evaluating Websites, Criteria and Tools

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