I am in my first year as a school librarian, working with students in grades 6-12. I am on a flex schedule and, while I generally appreciate this schedule, its downfalls were recently brought to my attention. I was approached by the 9th grade English teacher who wanted me to cover the topic of web evaluation with his students in 49 minutes or less. His class was beginning research on world genocide and would be using both our school’s databases as well as websites. After preparing my lesson and teaching his students, I was reminded of two critical fundamentals of our profession:
1) Information literacy must be embedded into the curriculum and not simply a hit-or-miss exercise and
2) Some students may know how to navigate devices quicker than many adults, but they are overwhelmingly deficient in understanding how to evaluate the information they access on these devices.
Knowing full well that librarians are fabulous resource sharers and that re-inventing the wheel is time-consuming and foolish, I posed this question on the MSLA listserv:
Does anyone have any particularly useful teaching materials for web evaluation, either web-based or not? I'm especially looking for bogus websites that look legit (I seem to remember a faux NYT website?). I teach students grades 6-12 and am most interested in high school level content, but will happily take tips geared to all levels.
Within moments, my inbox was full of a wealth of information. Next, my job was to sort through the myriad responses, choose websites that best suited my lesson objectives (introduce 9th grade English students to the broad topics of web evaluation to inform their research on world genocide), and create a presentation easily digestible in one class period.
I chose PowerPoint as my method of presentation. While it can be a dated and dull format, I couldn’t possibly remember all I needed to say without a guide, the embedded YouTube video and hyperlinks helped make it more interactive and engaging, and the visual reinforcement (i.e. text) of what I would be sharing orally with the students would help my visual learners.
The good news was that the students were engaged and curious throughout this presentation. One class period (49 minutes) was not nearly long enough; an extra class period would have been great, but two even better. I had wanted students to evaluate a website they were using for their project in class, though due to time constraints they did this for homework. Additionally, the topic of media bias (which cannot be divorced from evaluating media websites) needed at least another class period, and – better yet – its own course.
I was stunned by how little students (whether advanced or not) thought critically about the media they consume. Many of the hoax/joke websites that I thought we would breeze through raised furrowed brows and confusion. A great website is the Ova Prima Foundation, whose mission is “to shed light upon the primacy and importance of the egg, in a peaceful, non-violent, multi-disciplinary exchange of information and ideas between scientists and scholars worldwide” and ” to provide funding for research efforts that build a body of scientific evidence showing the egg came first.” The students were confused and took this at face value until I encouraged them to think a bit deeper. Once they finally reached their “ah-ah” moment, awkward giggles ensued. This notion of being skeptical of information is clearly a new exercise for them.
They were equally naïve when it came to identifying marketing propaganda. Sharon Hamer was kind enough to share with me two sites with identical content and which appear to share scientific information on the health benefits of the acacia berry. However, take a look at the URLs:
Though the latter website is no longer active, this exercise clues consumers into being critical of URLs and starts to tease out the less than ethical steps marketers take to pull the wool over consumers. My students took this information at face value and believed it until I prompted them to think more critically.
I am grateful for this learning experience as I had thought that our students would be more critical of the information they consume. Having gone through college reading “The Onion” and now a fan of “The Daily Show” with John Stewart and “The Colbert Report,” perhaps I find their utter and total confusion more unsettling than others. Can they separate fact from parody? In my students’ defense, perhaps I am simply forgetting how young they are. However, their youth will not get them off the proverbial hook, as these students had better become more critical consumers of information – and quickly – as they are surrounded by media 24/7.
While I am surprised and disturbed by their naiveté, I realize that most students are rarely told to think critically about the messages the media assaults them with moment to moment. In many ways, the average teenager allows media to guide how they dress, think, and behave. I think the same can be said of many adults. Therefore, our work as school librarians is more important than ever. We must continue to impress upon our students the need to be critical consumers of news, fashion, and all other media. We must continue teaching students the skills to think critically, evaluate, and analyze the information they encounter day to day. And, we must realize that these crucial lessons cannot be jammed into one library period. We must collaborate with teachers and work with our administrators to embed web and media evaluation into the curricula, in all disciplines and at every grade level.