Tool Tweaks: Reliable Sources in the Internet Age

Which source would you cite?

When I teach, and when I talk with colleagues about quality of work by students in our courses and classrooms, I have a strong conviction that you need to find a way to instill media literacy and a sense of what are respectable sources for information.  Regardless of the age of student – whether it is a professional pursuing an advanced degree or a first year student – there exists a need to orient students with what is and is not acceptable to cite in scholarly writing.  We sometimes take for granted what are sources of reputable information, and far from trying to make a political statement about how journalistic sources are oriented, there is a deeper concern when the internet is such readily available, and exploitable, resource.  The following post is an overview of my experience with the teaching and using of reliable sources, and how to work with your scholars to make sure they are using the best resources available to them.

I have worked at some excellent academic institutions with students who continually surprise you with ther professionalism and willingness to go the extra mile in their work.  At the same time, I have seen many examples of students taking sketchy sourcing at face value as a result of the seeming inherent legitimacy of the information being in print.  As a result, it became apparent to me that media literacy, respecting multiple voices, and careful skepticism were traits that I wanted to foster in my students and that undergraduates (and even graduate students) do not always come equipped with that skill set.

My usual protocol is to hold a special lecture or session early on in the semester that addresses what resources are available to the students on that particular campus.  Couched in a larger discussion about writing a strong research paper, the message becomes about maintaining your academic reputation rather than devolving into an argument about the merits of Fox News versus MSNBC.  It’s more about making clear that there is not one singular voice on a topic, and you strengthen your writing and your argument by exploring multiple facets and debates surrounding your topic.  The presentation moves through what makes a strong thesis statement, the ability to address counterarguments to that thesis, leveraging the resources at your college or university library, and what official sources of data from NGOs and governmental organizations.  Also incorporated in the presentation is an orientation for students on the difference between peer-reviewed and journalistic resources, and the need to leverage journalistic resources only when they are reliable, proven, and necessary to the thesis.  This is a basic overview that will, hopefully, set the tone for the quality I expect in my classroom and point the students to the resources necessary to be better researchers.

I have found that though there are some students who eye roll a bit at the start of this presentation, they almost always take away at least a few ideas they did not previously have.  A few illustrative examples [see World Bank example below] usually drive home just how appearances of legitimacy can be deceiving.

If learners are more savvy about their analysis and engagement with the material, it will get them on the right track for creating respected and legitimate research for their academic career.  I feel that it is my role as an educator to help students navigate the widely variable resources available to them on the internet and in the media.  The academic reputation of my students depends on it.


Additional Resources:

  • Harvard has compiled A Scholarly Guide to Google that gives guidance on the use of internet search to find academic resources and reliable resources for a variety of research projects.
  • The PBS Teachers website has an excellent compilation on digital media literacy n the K-12 classroom that includes a quiz, resources, and information.
  • Make sure students know about the resource WHOIS for checking the validity of websites.  For example, look at this World Bank website and then this one.  Which is the true website?  This is a little more apparent now that the WTO official site has been redesigned to look miles more professional, but at one point, there was not much of a difference in style.  And both asserted they were the “official” website of the World Bank.  Using WHOIS, one can do a quick lookup to see a domain holder’s name and find whether or not is really is an “official” website.
  • In 2009, the National Council for the Social Studies released a special position statement outlining media literacy as one of the fundamental skills for engaged citizenship and they recommend exercises to build those skills in the K-12 classroom.  More on that standard can be found here.

One Comment on “Tool Tweaks: Reliable Sources in the Internet Age”

  1. […] that aggregate a wide variety of resources for your needs.  And of course, make sure that you are using reliable resources.  Look for peer-reviewed work or work that comes from a known institution with credentials on the […]

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