I’ve heard Will Richardson speak a number of times, including twice last month. In his keynote addresses, he usually includes this:
We have to figure out who we can trust. We can’t have our kids simply looking at something and accepting it. I know many of you have seen this. Martinlutherking.org. This is the stump site for people talking about information literacy. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it comes up in the top results on the Google search when you search for Dr. King. It looks like a pretty decent site. “Attention students. Try out MKL Pop quiz.” They’re marketing this to kids. “Death of the dream.” “Civil rights library.” It looks pretty good until you read over on the right where it says “That night King retired to his room at the Willard Hotel. There, FBI bugs reportedly picked up 14 hours of party chatter, the clinking of glasses and the sounds of illicit sex — including King’s cries of ‘I’m F-ing for God’ and ‘I’m not a Negro tonight!’.”
Now if our kids are doing research on Dr. King and they come to this site and they read that and a little bell doesn’t go off in their brains that something is not quite right with this page, that’s problem number one. If the bell does go off in their brains and they say “that doesn’t sound like something really accurate” but they don’t know how to figure out who owns this site and what the motives of the people who own this site are, that’s problem number two. And the biggest problem of all is if I gave you the quiz right now, and I said you have a minute to figure out who owns this site and what the motivations of those people are, that’s a huge problem if you cannot pass that quiz. Because, guess what. In this world, if you can’t do that, you are illiterate. Because that means anybody can tell you anything at any time.
In this example, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page, and find the “Hosted by Stormfront” link. I didn’t link to either page, because I don’t want to do anything that would improve their Google results. Clicking on the Stormfront link at the bottom of the page will give you a pretty clear picture of the motives behind the website. But what if it’s not that easy?
I’m going to pick on the Hudson City Schools for a minute. This is a school district in northeast Ohio. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I used to work there, and I’m friends with their technology coordinator. But there are a couple red flags that come up when you go to their web site. The first of these is that they use “hudson.edu” as their domain name. Normally, “.edu” is reserved for a college or university. Most K-12 schools in Ohio use something like “hudson.k12.oh.us.” So how do I know that this “.edu” site is the real site for the school and not just some prank hosted by a disgruntled former student at a university somewhere?
One thing I can do is look up the organization that controls the domain name. If I go to whois.net, for example, I can search for “hudson.edu,” and it tells me it’s registered to Hudson High School. It gives the name and contact information for the person responsible for the domain name, and it includes the valid street address and phone number of the school.
Let’s try another one. What about “tasteoftech.net?” That’s registered to me, and a whois search confirms that. How about “bbhcsd.org?” That looks like the official site for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools, but the “.org” makes me suspicious. It lists valid contact information for me, as well as the school’s name and address. You’ll also note that “www.bbhcsd.k12.oh.us,” a web address that more closely follows the convention used by Ohio schools, also goes to the same place.
Let’s look at one that looks a little less plausible. Genochoice offers prospective parents the ability to genetically engineer their children. Using sophisticated probes and DNA amplifiers, they can identify genes that predispose people to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and dyslexia. By eliminating these genes at the pre-embroyonic stage, they can decrease the risk of these babies developing those types of conditions later in life. The page is very professional-looking, and the site appears to be affiliated with RYT Hospital. Whois lookups on these sites reveal the fact that their owners’ identities are being protected by the domain name registrar. This has become a common practice now. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, but it also doesn’t vindicate the sites.
Looking closely at the site, you see a couple things that give it away. The “credits” page, for example, explains that the site was created by artist Virgil Wong. Then there are the links to the “male pregnancy” site and the Glyven project, which simultaneously cured Alzheimer’s while giving a mouse the intelligence of a human. But you might miss those at first glance.
How do we teach this stuff? Back in high school, my American History teacher taught us to always consider the source of information we read. This is the class where we spent six weeks digging through primary sources about the battle of Lexington and Concord. People write things from their own points of view to justify their own actions, decisions, and opinions. Two eyewitness accounts of the same event will often differ, because the witnesses report things from their own frames of reference. Without knowing anything about the author of something on the web, then, it’s difficult to establish its credibility. The Genochoice site is an artistic work that can be misinterpreted as a real medical site. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there would be a fake school site online somewhere. Whitehouse.net (and .org and .com, and, to be honest, .gov) are all run by people with political axes to grind.
Ironically, this may be a case where sites like Wikipedia become more credible. A collaboratively written document is vetted by a number of people with different points of view. The likelihood that it represents a single perspective diminishes as more people contribute to it.
How do we solve the third problem? I’m not sure we can. But the first first step is to be skeptical. Challenge the assumptions. Make the sites prove their credibility. Don’t believe everything you read. Use your 21st century information literacy skills.