From the Principal's Office: Strategies for Teaching Students to Critically Validate Online Information

“With all these online searching aids at our disposal, we should be committing to teaching our children accurate and creative searching techniques that are applicable across every discipline.” Alan November, Who Owns the Learning: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age

Our students hold within the palms of their hands and within their laptops, access to all of the world’s information, updated continuously and free, yet like Alan November indicates, I am not sure we consistently teach our students “accurate and creative searching techniques” that they can use in all content areas and in multiple contexts, to validate information. As educators, we still too often leave students to their own devices when sorting through online search results. Also, we only critique their sources when we evaluate their end products, instead of helping them in-process. But in our 21st century classrooms we desperately need to employ specific activities and teaching strategies designed to foster our students' abilities to critically validate online information.

In his book, Who Owns the Learning: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age, Alan November advocates for turning students into researchers as a means to having them take ownership of their learning. For students to effectively take ownership of that learning though, we can ill-afford to turn them loose with Google and expect them to dazzle us with what they find out. Though many students use the Internet daily, they are still most often “web-illiterate” in that they do not know how to validate the information they find on the web. As educators, we owe it to them to teach how to examine the validity of what they find during their research activities.

If we want to begin today teaching our students to critically validate what they find on the web, what can we do immediately in our schools and classrooms to make this happen? Using Alan November's suggestions, here are some starting points.

  • “Train students to understand when, why, and how to use online content.” This means teaching students to know when turning to online sources will yield the information they want, and when going offline for information is more effective. For example, students might find a considerable amount of current information about the Boston Bombings on the Internet. However, if they want to find out what their local municipality is doing to address these kinds of dangers, there might not be much information available on the web. Instead, they might set up an interview with the town police chief or mayor to get information specific to their town or city. The reasons for using online content in the first place is to obtain the most current information available on a topic because the web’s information is quickly updated. Also, the web offers access to sources not readily available elsewhere.
  • Teach students as November suggests to “Assess Online Information Sources.” This involves three things:
  • Teach them to examine the purpose of the online information. The hidden message behind online content is not always apparent. Teaching our students to look for those hidden messages is important. Once they are able to critically examine why the content exists, they are also in a position to validate it. For example, too often content is provided by business, industry, and ideologically oriented sites to shore up their agendas. That does not make the information wrong or invalid, but it should caution students to further check facts. Why information exists on the web is an important consideration when trying to validate it.
  • Teach students to examine the author. Being able to search the web and elsewhere for other work published by the author is a key literacy skill for our students. Because anyone can publish anything checking out the author is important. The web makes it easy for students to verify the credentials of content creators. Once again though, they will need to verify in multiple ways those stated credentials and that other stated publications are valid too. Knowing the author of web content is a key way to determine web content's validity and our students need to know ways to do just that.
  • Teach students to examine the context of the online information. As Alan November points out, there are indicators of web content’s reliability by where that content is placed. For example, content on a personal web site is often not as reliable as content on a major university’s site, or the site of a well-known, highly regarded publication. Still, students need to always be cautious. Even the most reliable web places can be wrong. Remaining skeptical until information can be verified in multiple ways with multiple sources is an attitude we should foster in all our students.

As we move toward getting our students to do more and more authentic, 21st century learning activities, it is vital that we focus more on the process of validating web information in our teaching. As November indicates, our students might use the web and Google every single day, but they do not often know how to validate all the information coming at them. As 21st century educators, we must teach students how to critically validate all the online information they encounter.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.