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«IR 056 588 ED 412 944 Fitzgerald, Mary Ann AUTHOR Critical Thinking: Tools for Internet Information TITLE Evaluation. 1997-00-00 PUB DATE 18p.; In: ...»

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IR 056 588

ED 412 944

Fitzgerald, Mary Ann


Critical Thinking: Tools for Internet Information





18p.; In: Information Rich but Knowledge Poor? Emerging


Issues for Schools and Libraries Worldwide. Research and

Professional Papers Presented at the Annual Conference of

the International Association of School Librarianship Held in Conjunction with the Association for Teacher-Librarianship in Canada (26th, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, July 6-11, 1997); see IR 056 586.

Evaluative (142) -- Speeches/Meeting Papers (150) PUB TYPE Reports EDRS PRICE MF01/PC01 Plus Postage.

Content Analysis; *Critical Thinking; Elementary Secondary


Education; Evaluation Methods; *Evaluative Thinking;

*Information Literacy; Information Sources; Online Systems;

Protocol Analysis; *Search Strategies; Thinking Skills;

Users (Information); Validity; *World Wide Web Technology Integration



As World Wide Web access expands into schools and homes, children will likely encounter the misinformation often found in this medium.

This qualitative study describes strategies employed by sophisticated adult World Wide Web users as they evaluate authentic Web information with the purpose of adapting these strategies for children in K-12 settings. The six participants in this study followed think-aloud protocols and answered interview questions about two Web documents containing numerous misinformation devices. Evaluative strategies from these verbalizations were extracted and analyzed. Findings include a list of strategies and a description of three evaluative "styles." Suggestions are made for the use and teaching of these strategies in elementary through middle school.

(Contains 41 references.) (Author/SWC) ******************************************************************************** * * Reproductions supplied by EDRS are the best that can be made * * from the original document.

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and Improvement

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As World Wide Web access expands into schools and homes, children will likely encounter the misinformation often found in this medium. Are children, often alone and unsupervised, equipped to sort good information from bad? What specific vulnerabilities and dangers do they face? How can educators equip them with the evaluative skills they need to sift through this new wealth of information?, Purpose The literature establishes misinformation as a potential problem for Internet users (Neavill, 1993;

Viehland, 1993). The primary cause of this situation is an almost universal lack of gatekeeping and central authority. As a safeguard against nuclear attack, the Internet was built without a centralized controlling authority to distribute the information base throughout the United States (Stoker & Cooke, 1995). Because of this lack of control "anybody can publish anything." (Neavill, 1984, p. 87) Without editorial control, documents flawed by bias, mistakes, lies, scholarly misconduct, or any of a number of other flaws, can circulate freely and instantly. Two related but less important causes of the misinformation problem are anonymity and hacking. Because the Internet allows anonymity, authors publishing misinformation fear no reprisals.

Hackers often break into government servers, intercepting, interrupting, and changing data without discovery (Stephens, 1995). If hackers can access data, they can change it. University servers, the most complete repositories of online information, are particularly vulnerable to hacker attack because of inadequate preventive measures (Coutorie, 1995).

Although censorship and technological screening have been suggested as possible solutions to the misinformation problem, the most practical approach is for readers to evaluate Web information themselves (Breivik, Senn, & Gee, 1989). This issue is a practical as well as a philosophical one. It is unlikely that professional information managers can keep pace with new information on the Web in their efforts to index, evaluate, and screen information. Screening software, while effective to a degree, cannot filter out all objectionable material or misinformation. Even if these measures were totally effective, the philosophical and legal issues of freedom of speech and individual interpretations of truth present insurmountable dilemmas. For now, Internet users must recognize the need to do their own sifting and evaluating of Web information.

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A Are Internet users equipped with the skills they need for such a task? Critical skills to evaluate Web information may or may not be similar to those needed for general information literacy. Little is known about information evaluation in any medium, and existent studies indicate potential difficulties. Grice (1975) theorizes that people tend to believe that most information is true, and this theory harmonizes with Gilovich's assertion that people do not evaluate all incoming information for efficiency reasons (1991). At least two researchers have noted a remarkably passive acceptance of misinformation in memory studies (Belli, 1989; Highhouse & Bottrill, 1995). Analyses Studies of scholarly misconduct demonstrate that have highlighted this problem in even the supposedly discerning academic community is prone to evaluative passivity arenas (Kochan & Budd, 1992). Others writers have compiled case studies and long catalogs of successful hoaxes in the mass media hoaxes (Bird, 1996; Fed ler, 1989; Tamarkin, 1993).

A review of psychological and social psychological literature reveals several disturbing possibilities about the effects of misinformation. People seem highly vulnerable to the manipulation of superficial presentation characteristics. An illustration of this fact is that subjects tend to accept without question information presented by a person perceived as having high status or expertise without question (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). In addition, readers rate texts with greater numbers of messages as being more believable than texts with fewer messages, regardless of message quality (Petty & Cacioppoe, 1984). Audience members are more likely to accept arguments greeted with the enthusiasm of their fellow listeners (Axsom, Yates, & Chaiken, 1987). In addition to these flaws in evaluative practice, people are vulnerable to the effects of misinformation may have disquieting manipulative effects upon memory. Loftus (1975) initiated a major trend in memory research with her discovery that witnesses of complex events exposed to conflicting misinformation after the event often reported the misinformation as part of the original memory.

Anderson (1965) established that people tend to believe information presented first in a sequence, and disregard conflicting information presented later. These fragmentary and contradictory glimpses of how misjudgment and misinformation affects critical judgment and memory illustrate the fact that the poorly understood reader-misinformation interaction can potentially have profound results.

The few scholars who have studied misinformation in telecommunicated contexts report interesting findings. Aycock and Buchignani (1995), Hemon, (1995), and Viehland (1993)found a passive acceptance to misinformation in the electronic medium similar to that found by psychologists in other media. Sachs (1995) noted how the online discussion group he studied tended to reinforce the political biases of its readers. In addition, Aycock and Buchignani, as well as and Viehland, remarked upon how quickly and widely telecommunicated misinformation spread in their analyses of authentic online misinformation cases.

Several scholars and practitioners have published skill sets for online information evaluation (see, for example, Stripling & Pitts, 1988; Weisburg & Toor, 1994). Hernon (1995) asserts that Internet information is similar to information in other media in terms of quality. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that evaluative skill needed for online information differ little from skills needed for information in more traditional formats. However, this assumption has not been adequately tested. Also, as the literature shows, our knowledge of the thinking processes of readers as they encounter misinformation is fragmentary. One possible approach to this lack of knowledge is to examine the strategies of experts as they evaluate information. The purpose of this study is to describe the strategies used by sophisticated Web users as they make critical judgments about the quality of information found in authentic Web documents, and to adapt these strategies for use in K-12 settings.

For the purposes of this study, "misinformation" is defined as material presented as true although it contradicts facts presented in standard reference works. Information quality literature describes how authors can misrepresent facts through an array of linguistic tactics (see, for example, Lazere, 1982). These misrepresentations relate directly in some cases to the presentation manipulation findings described above.

These linguistic tactics are labeled here as "devices of misinformation." The term "trigger" refers to the linguistic signal that marks the presence of a device. An information "problem" is a shortcoming of the.

information that can make it misleading, such as lack of currency or authority.


–  –  –

METHOD Data collection consisted of Web document selection and downloading, interviews, and observations of expert participants as they explored authentic Web misinformation documents. The project began with the location, downloading, and careful examination of 23 Web misinformation documents containing misinformation. Because it is difficult to escape the effects of personal bias in a study of this nature, A specific criterion was used during document selection. This selection criterion required that a document contain one or more of the devices of misinformation listed in previous work (Fitzgerald, 1997).

(Still, it is necessary to admit that my personal beliefs ran strongly against the information contained in these documents.) Theoretically, information may contain devices of misinformation but still be valid. In general, however, authors of strong positions do not need to resort to such devices and avoid them because they lead to challenges from discerning readers. Therefore, misinformation devices are a fairly reliable means of identifying suspicious literature.

From these 23 documents, two were chosen for use in this particular project. The first document, which claimed that the Holocaust is a hoax and, contained a rich cataloging list of misinformation devices.

The other document, a report attempting to legitimize parapsychology to support the commercial psychic service operating out of the same server, contained few devices but several major problems. Neither document was at all believable, in the researcher's opinion. Several other scholars and all participants in the study confirmed this assessment.

PROCEDURE The hour-long audiotaped interviews and observations took place in a private office equipped with a networked Windows computer loaded with Netscape 3.0. Each session consisted of three phases: preinterview, interactive evaluative task session, and post-interview. To begin, participants answered questions about pre-existing factors such as education, technological expertise, and bias about document topics. Next, they read each document in turn, followed think-aloud protocols as they read and answered assessment questions at completion. At the end of the session, the researcher debriefed each participant about the misinformation they had seen and answered any questions that occurred about the procedure.

The interactive task portion allowed participants to freely browse the two sample Web documents and simultaneously describe their thoughts. When the participant fell silent, or gave responses requiring further explanation, the researcher interrupted with probing questions. Participants were encouraged to talk as much as possible in a stream-of-consciousness manner. In addition, the researcher placed no limits upon the amount of time spent reading each document but explicitly stated that participants could read as little or as much of the document as they thought necessary. At completion, summary questions sought to uncovered specific judgments, reasoning processes, cognitive ambiguities, reasoning, and evaluative criteria.



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Participants were recruited from personal colleagues at a major research university. Six graduate students, all with advanced Web expertise, participated in the study. Five of the students were enrolled in a doctoral educational technology program, while the sixth was completing a second master's degree in another field. All six had extensive experience with telecommunications and the Web. All but one were competent in constructing Web pages and writing HTML code. Three had participated in research projects directly related to Web information quality. Finally, four participants had backgrounds in the fields of communications, political science, advertising, and media production that gave them added expertise in media literacy. In sum, these participants were adequately qualified as Web information experts. Two were male and four were female. Ages ranged from 28 to 47.

It is important to consider pre-existing biases in relation to the subject matter of the two documents, the Holocaust and parapsychology. Without exception, participants believed in the reality of the Holocaust.

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