THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT INTERNET SOURCES

 

To the Teacher:
The internet has become the reference source of choice on just about everything. It is invaluable, but just as students need to learn how to examine critically information presented conventionally in newspapers, books and magazines so they need to apply those skills to the cyberspace world.

The reading below offers a student introduction to some of the skills needed to use the internet critically. Also available on this website are the following sets of materials bearing on the teaching of critical thinking: "Teaching Critical Thinking," "The Plagiarism Perplex," "How to Stop Cheaters," "The Essential Skill of Crap Detecting," and "Thinking Is Questioning."

The website of education technology specialist Alan November (www.novemberlearning.com) provides an internet "Information Literacy" quiz that might be a useful starting point for discussion with high school students.

 


Student Reading:

Questioning Websites

Your teacher assigns a paper on undocumented immigrants, a major issue likely to be hotly debated during the 2006 Congressional election campaign. You have narrowed the subject to the following questions: Should the U.S. government allow all undocumented immigrants in the country to enter a path toward citizenship? Why or why not?

Soon you are in front of a computer to begin an internet search. You begin by going, perhaps, to Google. Keep in mind: "The efficiency of today's search engines arises from their ability to analyze links among websites," and Google leads "in ranking sites by how often they are linked to other highly ranked sites... Instead of looking at which papers are cited most often in the most influential journals, it measures how often web pages are linked to highly ranked sites—ranked by links to themselves." (Edward Tanner, "Searching for Dummies," New York Times, 3/26/06)

You type in "undocumented immigrants" and up comes a long list of websites. You try one at random, the Center for Immigration Studies (www.cis.org), and see that it provides a lot of information. But before you begin, you need to ask some questions:

1. What, if anything, does the website say about its purpose?
2. Does the website include information and commentary that has to do with your questions?
3. Who writes the material on the website?

4. Are there sources cited for the information provided?
5. What are their qualifications?
6. What is their point of view on the subject? Do they take into account other points of view?
7. If not, does this omission and possible bias mean that the website is useless for your purposes?

Websites usually include a statement about their purpose,mission, or vision. By clicking on "About CIS," you will learn that this organization has a "pro-immigrant, low immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted." What does this tell you about how CIS would view making it possible for some 12 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens?

Among the CIS writers is its director Steven Camarota. Googling his name will provide his educational background, publications, and reports of testimony before Congressional committees. From a sampling of them you can get a sense of his point of view, possible biases and the usability of what he has to say.

At www.immigrationforum.org you will find the National Immigration Forum. Click on "Inside the Forum" and note a point of view different from that of CIS. The NIF says that it wants to "legalize the status of hardworking immigrants caught in legal limbo." Click on "Board of Directors" and you will have a list of Forum activists, some of whom you can check as you did Camarota.

Both websites quickly reveal a point of view and possible bias on the issue of undocumented immigrants that you need to keep in mind as you read and take notes on their materials. Questions for you to consider include:

1. What facts and reasons does the website provide to support its position?

2. Does the website report facts accurately?

3. How clearly and well does the website support the reasons for its point of view? To what extent does it include verifiable information? opinions supported with evidence? unsupported generalizations? anecdotes rather than evidence? words with strong, even inflammatory, connotations?

4. Compare two or more websites: Do they agree on what the important facts are? If not why not? Do they agree on how these facts are to be interpreted? If not, why not? Do they ignore facts and arguments that support another position? If so, what inference might you draw?

5. How fair do you judge each website to be in its presentation? Take into consideration that you yourself may well have a point of view and a bias in making such judgments.

Your internet search will probably turn up Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia containing a great deal of information. But you need to read carefully what Wikipedia says about itself: "...anyone with access to an Internet-connected computer can edit, correct, or improve information throughout the encyclopedia, simply by clicking the edit this page link (with a few exceptions... )"

Wikipedia then describes its "strengths and weaknesses" (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About). This information is important as you consider the reliability of what Wikipedia has to say about undocumented immigrants. "Wikipedia's reputation and internal editorial process would benefit by having a single authority vouch for the quality of a given article," wrote Randall Stross in the New York Times, ("Anonymous Source Is Not the Same as Open Source, 3/12/06). For while Wikipedia has many virtues, he says, "anonymity blocks credibility."

 


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Check the websites of the following organizations and take notes about them. Come to class prepared to comment on the point of view represented on each website and to explain how you came to your conclusion.

Migration Policy Institute (www.migrationpolicy.org)
American Patrol (www.americanpatrol.com)
American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org)

3. Go to www.wikipedia.org and find what Wikipedia has to say about undocumented
immigrants in the US Come to class with notes and prepared to respond to the following questions:

  • Does Wikipedia report on undocumented immigrants factually and objectively? What makes you think so?
  • Does the Wikipedia report include any opinion words? If so, what are they?
  • What evidence does Wikipedia cite to support them?
  • How do you judge the strengths and weaknesses of the Wikipedia report? What evidence from the report supports your view?


For inquiry

On the website of education technology specialist Alan November (www.novemberlearning.com), under "Alan's Favorite Sites," the teacher will find exercise materials to promote critical thinking about internet sources, including a seemingly innocent website on Martin Luther King that turns out to be operated by white supremacists. The website also includes an archive of November's articles.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org