The Web Demands Critical Thinking by Students

By Kari Boyd McBride and Ruth Dickstein

Scholarly resources abound on the Internet along with unfounded claims -- and librarians have not assessed the reliability of the information before students use it

Some critics of the World-Wide Web question its usefulness as a scholarly resource, especially for undergraduates, who may rely exclusively on it for their research. But the Web will continue to affect learning, and we believe that professors and librarians must take on the task of equipping students to examine the information available there critically.

In assignments that we have given to our students asking them to use Web sites and other material in their research, we have not found that the Web has adversely affected the quality of their writing. Instead, we have found that the public nature of communication on the Web can help us teach students to be better readers, writers, and thinkers. Thus, the problems posed by the Web have become opportunities.

Many college students do find it a challenge to construct a complex argument, especially in writing. But it is not just the Web that has taught them to think in sound bites. Several aspects of our culture -- from politics to MTV -- value the obfuscating over the lucid, the nugatory over the thoughtful, the insipid over the challenging.

What has really changed with the advent of the Web is that students no longer get most of their information for class assignments from reputable print sources in the library. On the Web, scholarly resources, unfounded claims, and advertising are all mixed up together, and librarians have not assessed the information's reliability before students use it for assignments.

Scholars and librarians clearly must organize material on the Web in better, more-usable ways for students and experts alike. To make reliable information in their fields easier to find, some academics have developed Web sites that include authoritative bibliographies, historical overviews, biographies, full texts of primary sources, photographs, and more. Others have created Web pages for academic disciplines, such as women's studies and medieval studies, that refer visitors to the best on-line sites for research in the discipline.

Many on-line library catalogues now list such Web pages and scholarly sites. Librarians evaluate Web sites by the same criteria that they have always used when they select books for their libraries -- accuracy, currency, and authoritativeness. The more complete, effective, and up-to-date such sites are, the more they will replace random searching -- with erratic and unreliable search engines -- for doing academic research on the Web.

But the Web pages provided by faculty members and librarians cannot, by themselves, make our students critical readers, thinkers, or writers; those sites just make it easier for students to find material that academics value. We must remember that the Web is only one source of information that students can turn to in conducting their research. They also have access to CD-ROM indexes and computerized library catalogues.

So the first step for academics is to teach students how to find information from all scholarly sources, whether in print or on line. The second step is to teach students how to read that material critically, even suspiciously.

To that end, we have developed an exercise that asks students to do research in a topic using an array of resources -- a book, an article, a reference work, material found through a CD-ROM index, and a Web site -- and then to report on one resource, summarizing the information it contains and evaluating the reliability of the author and the plausibility of the argument.

We created this exercise in response to students' uncritical use of Web resources, but it turned out to have a much broader payoff than we'd anticipated. For example, it has shown students that even encyclopedia articles can be biased. Our students have learned to look for and to evaluate the author's sources and to ask what makes a particular argument persuasive, by examining the qualifications of the author as well as the logic of the argument.

More significant for the development of students' critical-writing skills is that we ask students to post their reports to a class listserv (an e-mail forum). The knowledge that their peers (not just the professor or a teaching assistant) will be reading their work has a remarkable effect on the amount of time they put into the project and on the quality of work that emerges. The same goes for assignments that require students to create Web sites rather than term papers. They work harder and write better when they see their essays as part of a public, scholarly dialogue, not simply another hoop through which they must jump to satisfy course requirements.

Inevitably, our engagement with on-line resources and our attempts to equip students to use those resources knowledgeably will alter how we do our own work. A librarian who participates in a class listserv, in effect, sits at a "virtual" reference desk, available to give students quick answers to their research questions. As a result, students who would never have the nerve to consult a reference librarian become comfortable making frequent use of this human resource. Although librarians cannot join every class listserv, they could be particularly helpful working with entry-level and research-oriented classes. Students who make a habit of consulting a librarian learn to recognize what information they really need, develop research strategies for finding the resources that will meet their need, and evaluate what they find.

The explosion of instructional technologies also is changing the way in which professors teach, making essential their collaboration with librarians, who are experts on using the increasingly complex technologies. No longer can either party afford to be a Lone Ranger; our students need both kinds of skills.

Kari Boyd McBride is a lecturer in women's studies and Ruth Dickstein is a social-sciences librarian at the University of Arizona.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 03/20/98
Section: Opinion Page: B6

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