Internet: Part 2 – evaluating sources

If you read Internet: Part 1 – Please Define, the topic under discussion was what do teachers mean when they refer to the Internet in regards to student research. I posited that the problem we have is with semantics – that subscription databases/DISCUS are NOT “Internet” resources. On the SCASL Ning, after giving my opinion of how teachers and students should perceive subscription databases, I then posed the question concerning how will we be evaluating the evolving nature of web resources as applied to student research:

“… now that many periodical resources are moving to limited print runs and/or to solely online subscriptions, how will we define them? Internet, free web, subscription databases…? Do (or can) blog entries be considered valid sources – do we simply apply the web evaluation methods for other websites to blogs, too?”

Are blogs credible/reliable reference sources?

Last year I had students performing research for their English IV papers who were citing blogs as credible sources. My initial reaction was – not acceptable! I’d like to point out that I hadn’t yet jumped on the Web 2.0/blogging bandwagon and didn’t REALLY know anything about blogs. The only blogs I had heard of were celebrity or rant blogs. So, being the smart librarian I am, I challenged the students to apply the same web evaluation guidelines (credibility, accuracy, reliability, relevance, date, sources, scope/purpose) to the blogs, that we do for all web pages – fully expecting blogs to fail the test. To my surprise, we found some of them to actually be acceptable – along with many that weren’t acceptable.

Subscription/Newspaper Databases

Recently a teacher assignment required students to find a current (last two weeks) newspaper article that related to their subject and write a summary. They had to provide a copy of the article with their summary. The teacher wanted them to use print newspapers. The problem was the library no longer subscribes to print newspapers. For one thing, no one ever read the daily paper. For another, I could count on one hand the number of times a student asked for the newspapers last year. So the newspaper subscriptions were a casualty of the library budget cuts I had to absorb this year.

Since we didn’t have newspapers for the students to use, and knowing DISCUS had the electronic database Newsbank, which, at the time, included The State Newspaper and a couple of other South Carolina newspapers, I showed students how they could access articles from there to use for the assignment. Some other bright students simply went to The State Newspaper website and found articles to use. You’d think the students would be praised for being resourceful in order to complete the assignment. NOPE. The teacher didn’t accept them because they weren’t what she asked for…WHAT!!! The explanation given by the teacher was that the articles were from the Internet and not from a print source. Students weren’t to use the Internet for the assignment.

(Picture me banging head on desk)

How could they not be what was asked for? – the articles used were all the same, whether they came from the print newspaper, the database, or the newspaper’s OWN website. They had all the same words, written by the same author, published the same day … *sigh*

If newspapers are no longer printed on paper, are they still newspapers?

Which brings me to print newspapers that have ceased print circulation and moved solely to online publications. I’ve read that many small town/city newspapers have already or are considering moving to online only publications. For educational purposes, are these online publications no longer acceptable sources because they are “Internet” sources? Are teachers going to limit the number of online newspapers students can use in research simply because they are online? You can also pose this question as it applies to print magazines and journals that publish their content on their websites as well as in print. And don’t forget about ‘zines – magazines that are only published online. Are all of these sources usable for student research?

Bottom line, evaluate!

In a perfect world, teachers wouldn’t need to specify number and type of reference sources for their research assignments. Students would naturally choose a wide variety of acceptable and evaluated sources (print, subscription databases, websites.) Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world; therefore, students (and many teachers) need to be taught how to evaluate materials, regardless of format. As the teacher librarian, that’s where I come in – it’s my job to teach these skills to my students and teachers!

Internet: Part 1 – Please define?

Okay, what do teachers mean when they add the statement “students may only use three Internet sources” in their research assignments?  How do you define “Internet” resources?  This question was posed on our SCASL Ning as to whether or not subscription databases (such as the ones found on our state’s DISCUS Virtual Library and others such as EBSCOhost, FactsOnFile, etc.) are “Internet” resources.  It was further explored in a post by my friend Cathy Nelson over at her blog.  (Please read her post then come back here)

Here was my response on the SCASL forum:

“In my opinion, electronic databases should NOT count as Internet resources. Yes, you access them through the Internet (the delivery method), but someone has to pay to access them – hence the name subscription database. In addition, these resources have already been “evaluated” in some form. When teachers refer to the Internet, they are mostly referring to the WWW and/or free web = sites that any john doe can create. Like you said above, electronic databases collect materials that were originally in print – magazines, journals, pamphlets, brochures, reference books, etc. as well as web resources that have been evaluated and approved to be of some authority. My teachers will allow students to use as many references from DISCUS/subscription databases as they can find, but limit the number of free websites/sources.”

But some would argue that you have to pay an Internet Service Provider in order to have access to the Internet.  True, but your ISP isn’t saying that everything you can access through them has been authorized or evaluated as authoritative sources.  I can tell you that I’m pretty sure Gale’s InfoTrac isn’t going to have an article taken from Mrs. Smith’s 5th grade science class webpage and have it indexed in it’s database.  But it will have an article from Scientific American, which was originally posted as a print magazine, which in turn meant that it had to go through some authentication process before it was ever printed.**

Which also brings up the fact that subscription databases contain information that if found on your physical library shelves would be considered PRINT sources.  You wouldn’t tell a student you can’t use that reference book article because you’ve already got three print sources.  Why would you tell the student he/she can’t use the reference article from DISCUS just because he accessed it via the Internet and he already has three WWW/free web sources?  Remember, most subscription databases contain information that was originally published in print (magazines, journals, newspapers, reference books, pamphlets, brochures, etc.)

Bottom line, the Internet is a delivery method.  The Internet IS NOT A SOURCE! Sally student wouldn’t list AT&T as a source, but instead she would cite the telephone interview she conducted with Oncologist Dr. Smith for her cancer research project.  Johnny student wouldn’t list Time Warner Cable as a source, but instead A&E Biography (the specific show) for information he used in his biographical essay on Albert Einstein.

I believe that the real reason teachers put a limit on “Internet” resources is that they want students to use a variety of sources and not just “Google It.”  However, teachers need to be more specific when they write their assignment guidelines.  Instead of saying only three Internet sources, they need to specify only three free web sources.  As Cathy pointed out in her blog, and what I do for my teachers and students, is explain the differences between the free web and subscription databases.   I remind them that they can use as many subscription database/DISCUS articles as they want.

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** Note: I do remind students that articles in subscription databases must still be evaulated, less for “authority” and more for bias, relevance, and timeliness.