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Fact v.s Phony: A Digital Tool Belt for Online Research

Abby Adams, Communications
The Marshall Memo is a weekly memo-style blog designed to keep principals, teachers, and other educators informed on current research and best practices. In the October 2, 2018 issue of the Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall breaks down “Teaching Students to Navigate the Online Landscape,” a recent Social Education article about helping students to distinguish between legitimate, objective online material and information created to mislead. Parents can play an important role in supporting strong research skills at home, so we are sharing the memo here.
In this article in Social Education, Joel Breakstone, Sarah McGrew, Mark Smith, Teresa Ortega, and Sam Wineburg (Stanford University’s History Education Group) look behind the discouraging findings about students’ gullibility and uncritical thinking when viewing online material. “What mistakes do they tend to make?” ask the authors. “How might we build on what they do in order to help them become more thoughtful consumers of digital content?” They discovered three mistakes people frequently make:

Focusing on surface features– Again and again, students (even college students) put too much stock in a website’s URL, graphics, design, lack of advertising, having a .org domain, and the Aboutpage. “Not one of these features is a sound indicator of a site’s trustworthiness,” say Breakstone, McGrew, Smith, Ortega, and Wineburg. “Any well-resourced organization can hire web developers to make its website appear professional and concoct a neutral description for its Aboutpage.” 

Accepting evidence unquestioningly– Students are far too quick to believe that if a website has evidence– graphs, charts, infographics, photographs, and videos – it is trustworthy. “The mere existence of evidence, the more the better, often does the trick,” say the authors. “Students do not stop to ask whether the evidence is trustworthy or sufficient to support the claims the site makes.” 

Misunderstanding Wikipedia– “Despite students’ general credulity,” say the authors, “they are sharply skeptical about one website: Wikipedia. Their responses show a distorted understanding about the site and a misunderstanding of its value as a research tool.” Many students believe that because anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, it can’t be trusted. Students aren’t aware of “how Wikipedia regulates and monitors its content,” say the authors, “from locking pages on many contentious issues to deploying bots to quickly correct vandalized pages.” Students also don’t appreciate the value of the many links on Wikipedia pages that can be used for deeper research. 

 “There is no silver bullet for combatting the forces that seek to mislead online,” conclude Breakstone, McGrew, Smith, Ortega, and Wineburg. “Strategies of deception shift constantly and we are forced to make quick judgments about the information that bombards us… We believe students need a digital toolbelt stocked with strategies that can be used flexibly and efficiently.” From their own research, and drawing on the techniques of professional fact-checkers, the researchers came up with the following ways students can improve their critical online skills:

-  Scan laterally when checking out a website – that is, open up new browser tabs along the screen’s horizontal axis to see what other sources say about the site’s author and sponsoring organization.

-  Dig to ascertain who is behind a website, and think about their motives – commercial, ideological, or otherwise.

-  Look for the evidence on the site, where that evidence comes from, and whether it really supports the site’s claims.

-  Find out what other sources say, consulting multiple sources – one of them being Wikipedia.
“Teaching Students to Navigate the Online Landscape” by Joel Breakstone, Sarah McGrew, Mark Smith, Teresa Ortega, and Sam Wineburg in Social Education, September 2018 (Vol. 82, #4, p. 219-221), https://bit.ly/2QnIjc9; Breakstone can be reached at breakstone@stanford.edu; the ongoing work of the Stanford History Education Group is at https://sheg.stanford.edu