Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Critical Thinking and the Web

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Critical Thinking and the Web

Article excerpt

MORE STUDENTS THAN EVER are turning first to the World Wide Web when conducting research. As you read their papers you become painfully aware that many do not differentiate cyber-treasures from cybertrash. Students tend to approach online information the same way they approach the professional literature found in the library: with complete faith. They seem to chant "I searched, I found, and I used" when questioned about the quality of the Web-based articles cited in their papers. They can be frighteningly trusting of the information they find and often fail to critically evaluate online sources before using them.

What can be done? The amount of scholarly work online is increasing. As social workers, students need to learn how to evaluate and use online resources in direct practice, grant writing, and advocacy. In the field, students encounter clients who seek help. These clients are vulnerable to e-commerce theft, phony miracle cures, unqualified counselors, and many other rip-offs. In practice, students need to assist clients in discerning factual information from hogwash. They will also need to respond to questions from clients who have read online about other approaches that often conflict with service recommendations. This kind of conflict can also occur when students find information online that contradicts what is said in class. Teaching critical thinking and evaluation skills for the Web is vital.

Extending Critical Thinking Skills to the Web

Teaching students to evaluate online information provides an opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills. Specific criteria include noting a website's domain, sponsorship, authorship, currency, scope, and accuracy.

Start with the Domain

Instruct students to pay attention to the domain in a website's address or Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Those three letters signifying a federal governmental (.gov), military (.mil), educational (.edu), commercial (.com), organizational (.org), or network (.net) website, are one clue to the quality of the website's information. Government websites, especially federal ones, may have checks and balances to increase the likelihood that the information posted is accurate. Social Security regulations, for example, are posted with care (http:// www.ssa.gov). Federal websites are easily recognized by the .gov domain. Students can easily access all federal websites through federal gateways or the portal found at http://www.firstgov.govwebsite. State sponsored websites do not use the .gov domain but usually follow an easily recognizable convention. The www in the URL is followed by .state and the postal abbreviation for the state, and the URL ends in .us. For example, the Illinois URL reads http://www.state.il.us. Military websites may be of interest as well. Most veteran's hospitals and research-affiliated clinics have the .mil domain.

University websites, as well as websites for individual departments and faculty, often sponsor research institutes and post information related to their research focus. However, some caveats are necessary. Diploma mills and fraudulent research institutes can get .edu domain addresses too. The tilde (~) followed by the faculty member's last name in the URL may mean the university does not stand behind the information posted on these personal pages hosted by the university website.

Service oriented organizations (nonprofits) use the .org (organizational) domain. Encourage students to look closely at the purpose or mission of these websites to get a sense of the organization's underlying values, since these values may shape the content. One approach to teaching how to critically evaluate .org websites is to give examples of nonprofit mission statements and have students compare the stated mission with website content.

Larger nonprofit organizations with national reputations and research resources may post more accurate information than smaller ones. …

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