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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Information-Literacy Primer: Learning to Research on the Web

Knowing how to navigate through and research on the Web is a skill. Following are some pointers and resources.
Kathy Schrock
Educational technologist

Kathy Schrock's Web site provides links to valuable resources that support all aspects of information literacy.

Credit: Discovery School Channel

The concepts underlying information literacy are not new. The idea that students must first decide what type of information they need, figure out where to find the information, consider how to find the information, and then determine if the information meets their needs, has always been the basis of the traditional research cycle. It used to be easy -- students used an encyclopedia or other print reference source to acquire a knowledge base about their topic, used a periodical guide to locate relevant magazine and journal articles, and finally used books to gather in-depth information dealing with their topic.

The concepts underlying information literacy have not changed. However, the sources available to gather information have exploded to include online material including Web sites, e-zines, and direct communication with experts. The process of gathering information has not changed, either. Students still need to figure out what information they are looking for, use a source to acquire a knowledge base in that topic, search and evaluate the information they find, and compare it to what they already know about the topic to see if it meets their needs.

The Questioning Process

With the huge amount of information available, both in print and on the Web, students now, more than ever, need to define their topic very carefully before beginning a search. A broad topic such as "farming in the 1930s" will retrieve huge amounts of information, while a topic such as "the effect of the Dust Bowl on migration patterns in the United States" will present the student with a manageable amount of information when searching. Identification of keywords, synonyms, and search strategies should be done before going on the Web.

There are quite a few information literacy models created that focus on the questioning process as the basis for the research model. These include:

From Now On: The Research Cycle

The Big6 Information Problem-Solving Approach

Pembina Trails Info Zone Research Skills

The Research Cycle and many other materials and links are available at Jamie McKenzie's "From Now On" Web site.

Credit: Jamie McKenzie

The Searching Process

If library media specialists were taking care of the organization of Web information, it would all be catalogued using a thesaurus of terms and would be as easy to use as your local library card catalog. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Searching for information on the Web differs from search tool to search tool. Students should be directed to first read the help files in the search engine or directory they choose to use. The help files include instructions for the creation of the queries, as well as provide helpful tips and tricks for use of that particular search tool. One tip to point out to them is the use of the advanced search page of any online tool, which allows students to narrow their search by eliminating words not needed, by date, or by type of information.

Some useful tutorials for searching may be found on my Web site and include:

Recommended Search Strategies: Search with Peripheral Vision

Choose the Best Search Engine for Your Information Needs

Finding it Online: Web Search Strategies

The Evaluation Process

One information literacy skill that has become more integral to the research process, due to the amount of information found on the Web, is the skill of critical evaluation of information. Information can be published by anyone on the Web, without any editorial or expert review. The ease of use of Web page creation tools also can make information "look" very credible, when in fact it is totally untrue.

Five questions students might want to ask themselves when reviewing information found on the Web:

  • Who wrote the pages and are they an expert in the field?
  • What does the author say is the purpose of the site?
  • When was the site created, updated, or last worked on?
  • Where does the information come from?
  • Why is the information useful?

There are many informative sites on the Web dealing with the critical evaluation of information at all levels and tips and tricks to determine the validity of a site. A collection of these online tools and articles may be found at discoveryschool.com/schrockguide/eval.html.

One fun activity to try with students is to have them critically evaluate a site that is totally bogus. Two of the favorite sites for this exercise are Feline Reactions to Bearded Men and Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide.

Critical evaluation of information can only be done properly once the student has a knowledge base in the topic. This is still best obtained through traditional print reference materials. Until the student knows a little bit about the topic, it is difficult for them to evaluate whether the online information they find is credible or valid. Another fun exercise to allow students to easily see there is incorrect information on the Web is to allow them to view pages dealing with topics in which they do have a knowledge base, such as sports, music, Pokemon, movies, cars, videogames, etc. It will not be long until they find some posted information that is incorrect, and they will soon realize that all information on the Web cannot be taken at face value.

The Landmark Project Web site provides tools such as a form students can use to get permission to use Web sites in their projects.

Credit: Landmarks for Schools Copyright 1998 © by David Warlick

The Citation Process

Bibliographic citations are more important than ever for Web-based information. First, they allow students to easily revisit a resource they find to support their research. Secondly, citations allow educators to verify, in fact, the information handed in was not simply cut-and-pasted from a Web site. The Napster controversy has brought the concept of the respect for intellectual property to the forefront, and students should be knowledgeable about the need to respect intellectual property rights. Students should learn to ask permission to use other's information in a presentation or paper, as well as completing the correct citation format for electronic information used. Here are some sites to help with these skills:

NoodleBib: The MLA Bibliography Composer, and Student's Permission Template for Harvested Internet Resources.

A Final Word

Information literacy skills have not changed with the advent of the information explosion, but have become a set of skills important for all students to master. With information growing exponentially, the need to be able to state what information one needs, search and evaluate the information found, and assemble a bibliography of sources used, will become as important a life skill as balancing a checkbook or filling out a tax form!

Kathy Schrock is an instructional technology specialist for a school district on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She is the creator of the popular site for teachers, Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators, and has recently authored a book, Writing and Research on the Computer.

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