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Fitzgerald Skills

Fitzgerald Skills

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Skills for Evaluating Web-Based Information
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology
University of Georgia
Skills for Evaluating Web-Based Information
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology
University of Georgia

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Published by: imgstacke on Nov 23, 2007
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Skills for Evaluating Web-Based Information
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Ph.D.Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional TechnologyUniversity of Georgia
Children can do anything with technology; they are born with a chip in their brains that makes them naturally attuned to all things wired. Along with this new physical endowment, theyare naturally able to navigate the Internet, seeking, finding, and applying information for alltheir needs. They are invulnerable to the scams and low-quality information lurking there.
Absurd? Yes. However, this false belief – that children are somehow naturally moreable to use technology and are also somehow more Internet savvy – is a common one. Problemswith Internet information and in more traditional forms of information are well documented.Professors of entering college undergraduates observe that students “are ill prepared to functionin a technological and information-rich environment” (Quarton, 2003, p. 120). The StanfordWeb Credibility Project (Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, 2004) documents gullibility inthe entire Internet-using population.While it is true that many of today’s youngsters live in a wired world from birth and arehence more comfortable and adept with technology than their elders, problems remain. Theseproblems are old problems: how to detect misinformation; how to tell when someone is lying;how to counter the subliminal commercial messages that saturate much broadcast media today;and how to evaluate the strength of an argument, among many others. While much could andshould be done to apply technology to improve web information quality, a major portion of thetask will continue to fall on users. Children and youth are traditionally considered among themost vulnerable members of our society. This paper focuses on the skills that people, especiallyyoung people, need to evaluate information.With this focus, I can only provide a brief overview of a vast territory, synthesizedthrough the lens of the user’s cognitive perspective. The important problems of informationquality and the philosophical controversies concerning censorship and filtering are beyond thescope of this paper. The first section describes and defines the basic process of evaluation,synthesizing ideas from cognitive psychology and critical thinking theory. The second sectiondiscusses the importance of goals and information context, and the third discusses the criticalSkills: Fitzgerald 1
beginning of the whole process. Finally, I list the special problems children have in evaluatinginformation, skills we all need to evaluate information, and remaining research questions.
Evaluating web-based information: Breaking down a complex process
Discerning the credibility of web-based information is essentially an evaluative task. Assuch, it is usually situated within the context of a larger task, such as increasing backgroundknowledge, making a decision, or constructing an argument. Research shows that evaluatinginformation is itself a complex task made up of many smaller elements (Fitzgerald, 2000).What, then, are the specific skills needed to evaluate information on the web? Conversely, whatfactors may inhibit the process of evaluating information well?In simplest terms, to evaluate is to judge the quality of an idea, an object, or a person.Components of evaluation include critical thinking, metacognition, epistemology, priorknowledge, and strategies, leading to deliberation and eventual decision. These components aregrounded in some kind of information context and influenced by a set of possible factors.Evaluation as a process has been mapped by at least three teams (Fitzgerald, 2000;Fitzgerald & Galloway, 2001 [seeAppendix A]; Fogg & Tseng, 1999; Wathan & Burkell, 2002),all of which owe much to Petty and Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (1986). All threemodels are theoretical, supported by some empirical data, but not yet thoroughly tested. Ratherthan spend a great deal of time analyzing, comparing, and explaining them here, I will simplysay that they are complex. Interestingly, the three have many characteristics in common. Twoof them (Fitzgerald/Galloway and Wathen/Burkell) point to the iterative nature of evaluation,meaning that users may cycle back and forth in some evaluative situations. All three containstrategies and algorithmic questions. While these need more study, here I will discuss severalprimary components, leading ultimately to the list of skills that is the goal of this paper. Thesecomponents include a cluster of processes known as critical thinking, metacognition,epistemology, prior knowledge and bias, and strategy use. I will also provide related findings,which often point to problems in the process.Skills: Fitzgerald 2
Critical thinking
Evaluation is closely associated with critical thinking. Some writers such as Beyer(1985), D’Angelo (1971), and Yinger (1980) seem to equate “critical thinking” with“evaluation.” Most theorists, however, describe critical thinking as including evaluation amongseveral other higher order thinking processes such as problem solving, decision making, andanalysis (Cromwell, 1992; Ennis, 1989; Paul & Elder, 2001). Another key relevant theory isBloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive skills, which places evaluation at the top (or most complex) of arange of thinking activity (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathworhl, 1956). Because of theseties between evaluation and critical thinking, much theory and research about critical thinkinginforms an understanding of evaluation.Within the critical thinking paradigm, evaluation is defined as the making of judgmentsabout the value, for some purpose, of ideas, works, solutions, methods, etc. The target of evaluation can be an object, as in a piece of art, an idea, or a person. Most writers list componentprocesses such as finding inconsistencies, comparing and contrasting, and judging by criteria(Ennis, 1987). When information is the object of evaluation, a person typically studies it forreliability, quality, credibility, and personal usefulness. These qualities overlap in meaning, buttogether they describe what a person considers when judging information, leading to the idea of criteria discussed later.Bloom et al. (1956) also acknowledge a “link with the affective behaviors” (p. 185), dueto the inclusion of values. This affective link is richly born out in empirical literature, leadingoften to biases, to be discussed later.Within the world of education, it is vital to note that standardized tests provide onlyrudimentary measures of critical thinking and information literacy (Dunn, 2002; Partnership for21
Century Skills). This shortcoming is understandable when given the parameters of rapid,mass assessment. Unfortunately, standardized testing tends to drive curriculum. Therefore,difficult-to-assess skills like critical thinking and information literacy are often neglectedsystematically in schools.
Although the relationship between metacognition and evaluation may not be readilyapparent, effective evaluation may not be possible without at least some thinking about one’sSkills: Fitzgerald 3

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