Media Literacy

Evaluating Websites as Information Sources

Using a six-point strategy, teachers can help students learn about responsible web research by assessing the validity of most information that they’ll encounter online.
photo of a student using a computer
twenty20.com/@spnal

Studies suggest that many U.S. students are too trusting of information found on the internet and rarely evaluate the credibility of a website’s information. For example, a survey found that only 4 percent of middle school students reported checking the accuracy of information found on the web at school, and even fewer did so at home (New Literacies Research Team & Internet Reading Research Group, 2006). At the same time, the web is often used as a source of information in school projects, even in early schooling, and sites with inaccurate information can come up high in search rankings.

Shenglan Zhang and I thought that we could help address this situation by laying a foundation for website evaluation in elementary school. In particular, we wanted to:

  1. Increase students’ awareness of the need to evaluate information on the internet for credibility
  2. Develop students’ understanding of the dimensions on which we should evaluate website information
  3. Improve students’ overall judgments about the credibility of a given website

To achieve these aims, we developed the WWWDOT Framework. WWWDOT in an acronym for the factors to consider when evaluating a website as a possible source of information:

Who wrote it and what credentials do they have?
Why was it written?
When was it written or updated?
Does it help meet my needs?
Organization of site
To-do list for the future

In teaching WWWDOT, we elaborate on each of these factors. For example, we note that whether a website is up to date is not important for some categories of information. We explain that "Does it help meet my needs?" refers to the relevance of the site for the student’s purposes rather than the credibility of the site’s information per se. We explicate that the last element here -- "To-do list for the future" -- can include sites or other texts that students plan to cross-check for whether information is consistent with the site that they just evaluated, content experts that they might consult, and so on.

In a study of fourth- and fifth-grade students, we found that those randomly assigned to learn the WWWDOT framework became, as compared to their pre-test and to a control group, more aware of the need to evaluate information on the internet for credibility and better able to evaluate the trustworthiness of websites on multiple dimensions (Zhang & Duke, 2011). However, on average, students' overall judgment and ranking of the relative trustworthiness of websites was not improved -- although it did improve for a subset of students (Zhang & Duke, 2008).

In the study, the WWWDOT Framework was taught in four 30-minute sessions. In the first session, the teachers introduced basic concepts and concerns about information on the internet and introduced the WWW in the framework. In the second session, the teachers reviewed the WWW components, taught the DOT components, and took a careful look at a hoax website to further students’ understanding that we cannot trust everything we read and see on the internet. In the third session, the students completed WWWDOT sheets (see the page 93 download) with three websites on the same topic (we used the underground railroad). In the fourth session, the students had a debate about which of the three websites was most trustworthy, which was least trustworthy, and why. The article "The WWWDOT approach to improving students’ critical evaluation of websites" (Zhang, Duke, & Jimenez, 2011 -- see below) provides further detail about teaching the WWWDOT framework, with a description of and artifacts from instruction in a fourth-grade classroom.

Students realized, as do we, that the web offers a wealth of information -- truly unprecedented in human history -- but that it also requires a rich understanding of why and how to evaluate credibility of information found there.

Notes

  • New Literacies Research Team & Internet Reading Research Group (2006). "Results summary report from the Survey of Internet Usage and Online Reading for School District 10-C" (Research Rep. No. 1). Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut, New Literacies Research Lab.
  • Zhang, S., & Duke, N. (2008). "A comparative verbal protocol study of fourth- and fifth-grade students’ website evaluation strategies." In K. McFerrin (Ed.), Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2008 (pp.1921-1929). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education.
  • Zhang, S., & Duke, N.K. (2011). "The impact of instruction in the WWWDOT Framework on students' disposition and ability to evaluate websites as sources of information." The Elementary School Journal, 112(1), pp.132-154.
  • Zhang, S., Duke, N.K., & Jiménez, L.J. (2011). "The WWWDOT approach to improving students’ critical evaluation of websites." The Reading Teacher, 65, pp.150-158.