With tons of information in cyberspace, and much of it coming from unreliable sources, here’s help for teaching your child how to decipher what’s true and what’s bogus online.
In school, kids spend time learning the three Rs, but what about the three Es? For all their proficiency at texting, gaming and social networking, many young people skim the surface of technology and are unable to extract, evaluate and express new information. These three skills are crucial in an age of TMI (too much information). The facts your children learn this year are likely to be obsolete before they finish school. The ability to access, critique and share information will be valuable for the rest of their lives.
The advantages to being E-literate are huge. People who have these skills can laser in on the information they need to make good decisions about everything from movie or theater reviews to medical treatment, college courses and vacation destinations. They are less likely to be taken in by the foolish or fraudulent information that is so prevalent online. Equally important, young people who have these skills are more employable – more than half the jobs in the United States are now classified as “knowledge workers,” people who get paid to access, apply and generate information.
Teachers and librarians in many school districts are working hard to identify and teach these skills in part because a test of tech literacy will be part of the National Educational Assessment starting in 2012. Naturally, there’s debate about what such a test should cover. Most educators agree, however, that it has to go beyond technical details – how to use a search engine or fill in a spread sheet – to cover critical thinking, i.e., which search results are credible and why would you use a spread sheet in the first place?
Several private organizations already have suggestions about how to evaluate tech literacy. I-Skills, a test offered by the Educational Testing Service, is being used by universities and employers to evaluate how quickly students can identify relevant and accurate information. A typical question asks students to use a search engine to identity treatment options for a family member who has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Parents who are curious about what younger children should be learning at different ages can find useful guidelines from the Society for Technology in Education (www.tinyurl.com/2jga2m and Learning.com (www.learning.com/tla/modules.htm. Although ideas about tech literacy differ in the details, they all boil down to three Es that students should learn at school and at home.
The first step to finding information is figuring out what you want to know. Encourage your child to ask questions about interests ranging from what pet turtles eat to the rules for new drivers in your state. Once you’ve clarified the question, help your child think about the best way to track down the answer. Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of various sources such as books, newspapers, magazines and Web sites. Compare results from search engines including Google, Yahoo and Bing. Talk about the differences between reference works that are written by experts (www.encarta.com) and those that are produced by collaboration among strangers (www.wikipedia.com). Ask your child’s teacher or your local librarian to identify portals that will simplify the search for information in specific subject areas, or visit www.ala.org/greatsites.
Critical thinking is the single most important skill a young person can have in the age of information overload. Talk to your child about point of view and how it affects the reliability of information. How can you find out who produced information, especially on Web sites? What are their credentials? Some authors such as reporters, researchers or teachers are trying to make an unbiased presentation of facts. Others have an agenda. Help your child figure out what it is. Do they want money, a vote, cooperation, respect or self-indulgence? Teach your child to be skeptical, not cynical. In a free society, people can say whatever they want. It’s up to your child to evaluate information by asking hard questions: What’s the evidence? Does this make sense? What’s the other side of the story?
Writing a report, making a PowerPoint or taking a test may still be a valid way of determining whether a student has mastered new information, but that’s only the beginning. A recent survey from Speak Up, a national online research project, found that many young people now have to “power down” when they go to school. Teachers and parents should unleash that power by encouraging students to express what they have learned through social networking groups, photo sharing, spreadsheets, video blogs, CAD projects, interactive games and virtual worlds. Students don’t need anyone to teach them this technology but they do need adults to help them deepen their thinking. Encourage your child to consider the pros and cons of various forms of expression. Who is the audience? What is the message? Will collaboration make the project better? How can you be sure everyone gets credit for their ideas?
The three Es should, of course, be embodied in every school’s curriculum, and parents should encourage both teachers and school boards to make these skills a priority. Still, considering how critical information management is in the 21st century, parents should take every opportunity to help their kids extract, evaluate and express at home.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.
It’s up to your child to evaluate information by asking hard questions: What’s the evidence? Does this make sense? What’s the other side of the story?