Evaluating Educational Resources on the Web

One of the biggest issues facing educators who want to use the web as an instructional resource is the issue of quality: basically, whether or not the web site is any good. Unfortunately, there are many more issues of quality that are relevant to web sites than there are for other, more traditional kinds of resources: educators need to think about not only whether the materials will be useful in their teaching but also consider factors related to technical reliability, objectivity, and accuracy.

In this section, we will explore some of the characteristics of a good web site as well as address some specific issues related to sites whose intent is to provide materials for use in education. The qualities we'll discuss are the following:

Technical issues such as reliability (can you access the site regularly?) and speed (do the pages load quickly, given the type of connection you use?). We'll look at how and why sites may be unreliable, and provide alternative strategies to use when you can't connect to the web site that you're looking for.

Objectivity and accuracy of the materials at the site. Because web pages often lack information about authorship, it's important to adopt a critical attitude toward any material encountered online. We'll talk about how to find out who created a site as well as discuss the probable differences in materials created by group and individual authors, and materials at commercial and non-commercial sites.

If the site is purported as being an educational web site, the materials presented must be held to the same criteria as other educational tools. A generic evaluation criteria that can be used when visiting educational sites will be presented and we will take a look at the efforts of organized groups to rate or evaluate educational sites on the web.

Major Issues to Consider When Evaluating a Web Site

When you're trying to decide if a web resource is appropriate for use with students, you will want to gather some information about the site which you are planning to use. The general guidelines discussed earlier give you some information about the site, but you will want to consider a number of issues in the context of how these resources can be used as part of your instruction. In the next section, we will look at some of the main issues you need to consider.

Content

Of course, the biggest consideration in evaluating a web site is the quality of its content. Is the information at the site accurate and current? Is there enough content there to be interesting? Some sites are "thin," without much depth beyond the initial headings on a main page. Again, you'll need to think about how you plan to use the material before you can decide for certain whether the content is appropriate for you.

Age-appropriateness

Is the design of the site easy for kids of the target age group to understand? If it's not, you can guide them through it, but this will require more work and planning on your part than simply sending them to the site and relying on the site to guide them. Some web sites may contain material that is too complicated for a child's level of understanding, but the opposite may also be the case with web sites that are so simplistic that their message becomes almost meaningless.

One problem with web sites specifically designed for children is that they often try to encompass too wide a range of ages, such as 8-13. Eight-year-olds and 13-year-olds not only have different reading levels but also respond best to different visual presentation formats. Bright colors and "kid-style" fonts may read as being too "babyish" to someone at the top of the age range.

Source

As mentioned earlier, the background of a web site's author is a critical factor to consider when determining the usefulness of a site. You need to consider the credentials and motives of the author. If it's a commercial web site, such as Disney or Dole Fruit (both of which contain materials aimed at young people), how much valid information is being interspersed with advertisements for the company's products? The Disney web site may contain lots of fun resources, but can you use the good materials there without continuing the ongoing promotion of Walt Disney products? As an educator and a responsible parent, you must decide how much, if any, advertising and promotional material on a web page is acceptable.

Once again, we have to remember that anyone can publish a web page. If it's a personal web page (or even an organizational web page) you must evaluate the source. The adage "don't believe everything you see in print" is multiplied a billionfold on the web. While you can usually trust what you read in the daily newspapers, there's nothing approaching that level of editorial filtering on the web. Anyone can say anything, even if it's ridiculous, untrue, or simply mistaken.

What this means is that you have to be an extremely critical consumer of information that comes to your from the World Wide Web. At the worst level, you can find all kinds of incorrect and inflammatory theories like Holocaust denial; at a less obvious and more important level, all kinds of opinionated and unsubstantiated materials such as bad science, bad history, or any other type of misinformation may be found on the web.

The important point, and it cannot be overstated, is that while it may be tempting to want to use a web site that looks appealing and genuine, you should always consider where it comes from. Don't take anything at face value without doing some investigating on your own. All of the critical reading skills in media literacy that you use with traditional materials must also be used on the web and to even a greater degree because of the web's lack of editorial review and often non-existent accountability.

One strategy is for you to try to stick to the web sites of well-known entities such as NASA, the New York Times, CNN, etc., since these are sources whose material you can pretty much trust in the first place. However, this does not mean that other less well known web pages put up by individuals aren't going to have good information, because many of them do, and a number of them have been mentioned throughout this course. It just means that what all of us already know: educational use of the World Wide Web demands that you be a careful consumer of information.

Stability

Will a web site that you like and want to re-visit still be available the next time you try to access it or will it have disappeared? As we discussed earlier, many web pages routinely come and go; although this situation is one that you may find frustrating, it is accepted as a fact of life on the web. If you plan to rely on a web site for educational or informational purposes, you should attempt to verify its stability before getting your heart set on using it.

Layout and Design

On the printed page, layout and design are important factors in ensuring that you can find the information that you're looking for. But in computer-based interactive multimedia, such as on a CD-ROM or the web, layout and design is critical in helping you not only find the information on the page but also in determining the navigational path. Some sites with great information can be rendered unusable by a visually confusing interface design.

A Strategy for Determining the Educational Value of Web Sites

The checklist you'll find below provides a general strategy for evaluating educational web sites. This list is a compilation of several evaluation criteria put forth by educators to evaluate educational sites on the Internet, as well as strategies for evaluating educational materials in general, and represents the efforts of teachers, librarians, and university professors. Although no single evaluation technique can anticipate every possible situation, the following items provide a good starting point as you try to determine whether a particular resource may be a useful addition to the classroom.

The major categories covered are:

  • Layout and Design - which includes items about a web site's organizational structure and ease of navigation, the use of graphics and multimedia objects, and whether the site contains online documentation and help files.
  • Content - which deals with a number of questions about a web site's content, such as its appropriateness for a specific audience and how well it covers its stated objectives.
  • Authenticity - which includes questions concerning who developed the site, their qualifications for producing educational material and the motives behind the web pages.
A Checklist for Evaluating Educational Value of Web Sites

Web Site Layout and Design

Is the site well organized and easy to navigate? 

Do all of the hypertext links work?

Are the graphics informative and not flashy or overpowering?

Is additional documentation and/or help about the site available?

Web Site Authenticity

Are the developers of the site identified? Is contact information available for the designer or development team? 

If the web site was developed by an organization, can you tell if it is a university, government institution, or commercial business?

If the site was developed by a commercial institution, is there advertising that overpowers or influences the content of the site? 

Does the site contain references with bibliographic information or links to other sources?

Web Site Content 

Are the site's objectives stated clearly and objectively?

Is the content appropriate for the intended audience?

Is the content accurate and up-to-date? Can you determine when the material was last updated?

How comprehensive is the content? Does it provide a well-rounded view of the topic or are there "missing pieces?"

Can you distinguish between fact and opinion in the presented information?

If there are several media objects on the page, will the content be strongly affected if the document is viewed without the media objects or as text-only?

Can the web site be used to support a constructivist learning style?

Can the information found on a web site be used to supplement other information such as books, magazines, and videotapes? 

 

A Rubric to Evaluate the Value of a Site

The value of the site should be based upon the site's:

    • Authority
    • Audience
    • Context / Coverage
    • Accuracy
    • Currency
    • Evaluating the Content of Websites

Other Evaluation Forms

Kathy Schrock's Teacher Helpers: Critical Evaluation Information
( http://school.discovery.com/schrockguide/eval.html )