Assessing the Quality of Internet Resources: Challenges and Useful Tools

Article excerpt

Patrick was 62 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the three months that followed his initial diagnosis, he did everything he could to become an expert on the disease. He started doing his research as soon as he got home from the doctor's office and estimates that he spent seven to eight hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week on the computer until his surgery. As Patrick stated,

 
   There's a world of information out there. 
   I mean, it's unbelievable how much 
   information is available on the Internet 
   about prostate cancer. You've 
   got to be patient and wade through a 
   lot to get to the good information. But 
   if you persevere, you can become as 
   knowledgeable as any lay person can 
   be about this. 

Patrick's motivation was to make the best treatment decision that he could in the face of his cancer diagnosis. He didn't think of himself as a self-directed learner but rather as someone who wanted to be well informed. He said, "I want to know everything there is to know about whatever I'm doing or going into ... That's just my way ... I do not like to be blindsided.

Knowles' (1975) defined self-directed learning as "a process in which individuals take the initiative with or without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying human and material resources, selecting appropriate learning strategies and evaluating learning outcomes" (p. 18). That is exactly what Patrick did in response to his prostate cancer. Stories like his story are replicated hundreds of thousands of times daily as more and more people turn to the Internet as a major resource in their self-directed learning.

Using the Internet for Self-Directed Learning

Gray (1999) defines the Internet as a network of computers from all over the world that are connected in such a way that they can communicate with each other and information can be shared. Many people think that the World Wide Web is a synonym for the Internet and the terms are commonly used interchangeably. Technically, however, the Web is a part of the Internet. Its distinguishing feature is its use of hypertext which allows for instant transfer or linkage to related sites. In any case, the Internet has been cited "as one of the most powerful and important self-directed learning tools in existence" (Gray, p. 120).

Use of the Internet and the World Wide Web is increasing rapidly. Determining just how many people are currently making use of this technology is extremely difficult because many are accessing it through school, work, or public libraries and not necessarily through home computers. Kling (1999) estimates that, "In 1995, about 28.8 million people in the United States 16 years and over had access to the Internet at work, school, or home; 16.4 million people used the Internet and 11.5 million of these people use the Web" (p. 58). Those numbers have grown tremendously for experts suggest that access to the Internet in the United States doubles every two years.

Spear and Mocker's (1984) landmark study regarding self-directed learning resources contributes an interesting perspective on the critical nature of the Internet's impact on this process. Their findings indicated that self-directed learners "tend to select a course from limited alternatives which occur fortuitously within their environment, and which structures their learning projects" (p. 4). They called this concept the "organizing circumstance." Now with the proliferation of the Internet, anyone with a computer, Internet access, and the appropriate skills has the ability to tap into vast resources that are electronically available about any subject. In a sense, it provides everyone that can use it with the same "environment," thereby profoundly impacting the "organizing circumstance." However, as the Internet eliminates geographic location as a factor in accessing abundant resources for its users, it simultaneously increases the importance of skill in distinguishing quality resources from junk. …