To tell the truth

puffin hat (3)cWhen Adobe inadvertently made free downloads of Creative Suite 2 available, a student mentioned seeing it on Tumblr, but discounted it as one of those rumors so easily spread on the Internet. However, she was eager to have some version of graphic software that would work with a pen tablet she had received as a gift. So, I did my own research.

Unable to find information on Adobe.com, I sorted through recent posts on IT newsletters. (Some of my more reliable sources to deal with techno rumors.)  Armed with two links I was able to locate the actual page on Adobe.com and assure her that, although she might have trouble running it on Windows 7, the software did appear to be available at no cost. Even though Forbes said the free download was not available, it was. The following day she showed me a computer graphic portrait she completed with an out-of-date version of Photoshop.

Often, I hear teachers bemoan students lack the ability to do research on the Internet – to sort opinion, rumor, fact and find what is important. I have seen much work in which students have pasted text from web sites  without any form of organization, without citations, and obviously without fact checking. Anyone with access to a computer or mobile device can post on the Internet, and there are many sites that encourage them to do so. However, I do not completely discount information on discussion board threads. I would have never found the Adobe.com page for downloading CS2 if I had.

Teachers warn students to use only professional looking websites that list authors and site sources. Yet, edited magazines can often publish erroneously reported information. In 1998 now disgraced journalist Stephen Glass created a fake website to support fictitious claim in an article on computer hackers he wrote for the New Republic. The website was traced back to him, and brought his career to a halt. It turned out many of his prior articles contained the same kind of fiction.[1] Evidently, it is easier to write groundbreaking journalism using imagination than facts. Human attraction for shocking news often results in what is truly unbelievable.

The ease of contributing to the Internet has a side effect that makes finding verifiable posts more difficult. According to statistics on YouTube, three days of video are posted on YouTube every minute.[2] No one is going to be able to watch even one percent. With all those competing videos how do people make sure theirs are viewed? Show something unbelievable happening – it’s not that hard to fake. This clamoring for attention in the overwhelming flood of information is what clutters the Internet with half-truths and outright falsehoods. Students are not ignorant about this. They use the Internet heavily because it is easy, not because they believe everything on it. They learn to be cynical – what is true today, may be disproved tomorrow. Teachers often find themselves in the position of gatekeeper, restricting use to particular sites and data bases to ensure more reliable information.

Students eventually need be able to judge Internet sites for themselves. This requires they have knowledge obtained from other sources – ones that are peer reviewed or fact checked by editors – for comparison. Students should read several Internet news stories in areas of their interest, matching these to what they already know in order to gauge the reliability of sites. Typically information found on only one site is suspect. However, with rampant unattributed copying, one fictitious piece of information can spread rapidly. For example, the Internet is thick with unsubstantiated quotes by Albert Einstein. So students should search back to the original source if possible.

All articles should have contributors identifying themselves and their sources. Even blogs and wikis that present individuals’ personal experience can be usable if the contributors provide profiles that can be triangulated (verified using other sources). If a person contributes anonymously or quotes others without proper attribution, they do not deserve to be considered creditable. Finally, encourage students to spend time researching questions concerning Internet articles and news stories. The Internet does not save time, if what you find on it is false.

Artwork by S.L.Listman
[1] http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/bissinger199809 (accessed 16 Jan 2013)
[2] http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics (accessed 16 Jan 2013)

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