Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Need to Teach Evaluation of Information

The sheer volume of information available online today is often overwhelming. The problems this creates for those who do not have the time to sort through it all, or those who are inexperienced in evaluating the quality of information, became apparent during this past election. I would hazard to claim thousands of Americans, and likely many others around the world, relied on sources such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.org, and the Washington Post's Fact Checker to gauge the truthfulness of claims made during the campaign. But beyond a presidential campaign, what resources are available in evaluating information on the internet?

I recently spoke to a group of high school students, all pursuing research projects that excited them. All were also overwhelmed by the volume of information they were dealing with. The common question: How can we tell what's true? Simple corroboration was sometimes just not enough, and not unlike the rest of us, the more extreme claims stuck in their minds the most, for good or bad. Responsible research of their sources often led to competing claims regarding the agenda of that source, further complicating the picture of whether or not the information was truthful and objective. 

Fortunately, their teacher understands the problems and provides assistance. But what happens to the millions of other kids who may not be so lucky? Young people know how to operate the internet, but how many really know how to use it? To promote good citizenship, nationally and globally, students need to be taught how to evaluate information and the sources producing that information beyond the simple warning against reliance on Wikipedia.

The problem is not limited to the young. During the campaign, I received e-mails tying then-candidate Barack Obama to Armageddon by people who seemed to be believe Revelations clearly stated Armageddon would begin with the election of a US president approximately 40 years old and from a Muslim background. Never mind that Mohammed wasn't even born at the time Revelations is believed to have been written, nor that the US was about 1300 years from its founding. People receive unfiltered biased claims in their inbox every day without questioning the agenda of those producing it. After all, many of these e-mails are from trusted "sources," namely family and friends - the adult version of education on the grade school playground. For the newest in internet capabilities to inform and educate the masses, we should all take a lesson in fact-checking and information evaluation. Figuring out how is the challenge.

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