This is the second post in the series on developing critical and information literacy. The first post explored the need for critical literacy when learning from the web. This post explores strategies, tools and techniques for evaluating and verifying the credibility of information discovered online. The third and final post explores social media and how to verify its validity.
The ability to publish to a global audience is within the reach of anyone with a device and an internet connection. Identifying the signal in the noise is a challenge for anyone, and is a skill that must be taught. Fortunately there are many tools and tricks that make this easier.
Alan November, is an international consultant who is known around the world for his work in educational technology. He presents a great strategy for students (and anyone!) to apply whenever they are researching and need to confirm the reliability of the source of their information. He calls it the ‘REAL’ test. REAL stands for:
1. READ the URL: When browsing the web or doing research, it is easy to follow one link after another, ending up somewhere completely different to where you started. Reading the URL in the location bar is the best way to answer the question where am I?. It is good to have the habit of checking the URL to see if you are where we thought you were, and to check the credibility of the website and therefore its information.
This diagram breaks apart a standard web address:
Most web addresses begin with the letters ‘http’, which stands for Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol – the protocol which allows two computers to communicate. If you see an ‘s’ added (https), this indicates a secure protocol is being used. You are most likely to see the secure protocol being used on sites where personal information such as banking details or credit card details are being communicated, like when shopping online.
The domain is the part of the URL which commonly identifies which company, agency or organization may be either directly responsible for the information, or is providing the computer space where the information is stored. In 2014, the number of active domains reached 271 million. The domain name may give clues as to whether the information can be trusted, but it is not the only part of the URL that is useful. The domain extension usually identifies the type of organization that created or sponsored the resource: e.g. * .com which identifies company or commercial sites,*.edu for educational sites,* .gov for government sites or * .net for Internet service providers or other types of networks.
If the domain extension is two letters, it identifies a country, e.g. .us for the United States, .uk for the United Kingdom, .au for Australia, .mx for Mexico or .ca for Canada. This can be useful if you are researching country specific information. For example, I often add site:.au to my searches if I am only looking for Australian results.
Information after part of the address is the file path, which shows where the file you are looking at is stored. This is really important. You can see in the example above that the file path is /~oddone/tutorials/page1. While the domain name is useful to identify the validity or quality of a website, the filepath is also really important to look at. If the filepath has a personal name, a tilde, a percentage sign or the words ‘user, people or members’ it might mean you are on a personal site.
This is often the case with sites that have the extension .edu, – it is quite common for universities to give personal space on their servers to students – this means that the information on the page has not been published by the university, but is the personal page of student and therefore the information is not subject to the checks and balances that would be on the official university pages.
A good example of this is this website, the life and work of Jacopo di Poggibonsi which can be found at http://www.umich.edu/~engtt516/lifetimes.html. Although the site is hosted on the University of Michigan’s website, it is a very cleverly created forgery – no such person ever existed. The presence of the tilde indicates that the website is merely being hosted by the University.
The currency of a webpage can often be seen by the date at the base of the page. However this only really tells you when the page text was copyrighted or last published. How can you see if the information is regularly updated, or if the website has changed over time? We can chart the progress or history of a web site thanks to the Wayback Machine.
The Wayback Machine: allows you to browse through 430 billion web pages archived from 1996 to a few months ago. To use this site type in the URL of a site or page of which you would like to research, and click the Take Me Back button. Once you have conducted your search, select from the archived dates available. This gives you an idea of how the site has developed over time, whether changes have been made and how regularly the information is updated.
3. Ask about the publisher or the author: Using a domain lookup service like easywhois, you can see who owns the site or who has published the material.
Alan November the example of martinlutherking.org because it is one that students could easily choose (it comes up very high in search results) and has been published to look appealing to students. Using a domain lookup to find the owner of the site reveals it is actually hosted by the server stormfront.org . If you search stormfront, you will find that it is a white supremacist organisation. You might not use this type of tool all the time, but if you are looking at information which could be controversial, open to bias or if you would like to know more about the publisher, this can be a handy tool to use.
Sometimes it just takes a simple Google of some key information from the site to check its reliability – take this example: The idea of conducting Lasik laser eye surgery at home doesn’t immediately ring warning bells – and this graphic from the website should be warning enough!!
However, if users are still unsure, a simple Google search for the Doctor who appears on the site confirms that this is indeed a hoax:
4. Look at the links: Students usually only search using one search engine. They also believe that the top hits are the most important. Sadly, this is not in fact the case. Many businesses specialise in SEO – Search Engine Optimisation. SEO is all about improving the visibility of a web page in search engines search results. The higher ranked on the search results page your website is, and more frequently your site appears in the search results, the more visitors it will receive. The process of getting a website to appear high in the listings returned by a search is not based on luck, but on a complex series of strategies, including how the website has been built, and what key words are embedded in the metadata of a website.
A great activity to explore the way web rankings work is to get students to enter Australia into the Google search bar. These are the results they will probably get:
Why did WIKIPEDIA get first hit?
What is common about top three sites?
The search looks at the search terms and tries to compare with other content. When lots of pages have similar titles or content, it is the links that make a difference. Wikipedia almost always comes up at the top of a search not just because it is well known and popular, but also because there are so many sites that link to each Wikipedia page.
You can find out what sites are linking to the site you are evaluating by typing in the word link: and then adding the web address. Take the first site- Wikipedia address and type link: with address. It returns a list of websites that link to the site. Quite often, the more links the website has to it, the higher it appears on the hit list.
Here is an example of how you can use this tool as another way of evaluating its content. When I searched using the link: strategy and the blog post I wrote during my time at Brisbane Catholic Education, you can see that three hits show that other educational websites have linked to the blog. If these educational websites consider the blog of value to share to their readers, then it is more likely that the content is reliable.
The links to site will allow students to build a map of related commentary -who uses this site and considers it important enough to link to it?
The third and final part of this blog series explores using verification strategies when searching for information using social media. If you missed the first part of this three part blog series, click here.