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Blog by
Greg McVerry
Dec 13 2011

Publishing as the Province of a Participatory Culture

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Understanding Perspectives when Reading Online

I hear it all the time as I spend countless hours watching screen captures of students reading online, “This website is reliable because it has all the information I am looking for.”

Why have all of my efforts to teach students to evaluate websites been so futile? I think it is because I relied on the most common approach to teaching website evaluation: providing a checklist of strategies. I now realize this approach relies on two fallacies when reading online: 1) a stable taxonomy of skills exists for online reading, 2) metacognition is an “inside the head” experience.

Decontextualized Reading

Creating taxonomy of online reading skills, which can be applied as a universal approach will never work. As fans of Gee and Street note, reading is always a social practice. Using this perspective, every inquiry task students engage in is overlaid with the residue of contexts, culture, relationships, and power structures.

When we provide students with a simple checklist, we are attempting to strip away this context in search for a set of universal skills. Instead we need to focus in on the practices of reading online while introducing a variety of contexts that recognize how perspectives shape the words and images authors use.

Metacognition versus Strategy Exchange

The second fallacy is that metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is a solitary act that happens in the “mind.” After spending the better part of half a decade researching how students read online I realize it is more about strategy exchange than simply thinking about what good readers do.

Students, when they are engaged in the practice of online inquiry, learn when they can share, collaborate, and remix what works when reading multiple sources. It is more of an issue of social regulation rather than self-regulation.

Using Remixes to Understand Perspectives.

How can I focus on the context and encourage strategy exchange? Like most things digital I found the answer at NCTE. I recently had the pleasure of attending my first #HackJam in Chicago this year; organized by the National Writing Project and facilitated by Andrea Zellner. At this event we were introduced to Hackasaurus, a project run by the Mozilla Foundation. Basically using their tool, X-Ray Goggles, a Firefox plug in, you can remix any website. I quickly realized this would be an effective method to get students to consider perspective while reading multiple online sources.

What better way to have students look for markers or credibility as they read by having them rewrite them into websites. My thought was to take two opposing viewpoints on a controversial issue and have students remix and “flip the perspective”

Reading Remixes

For example they could begin by analyzing remixes I made (in just a few minutes) and look for markers of credibility. I would send them to my remixed Vegan Action page and my remixed National Rifle Association page. Then we would discuss which pages had a more effective message and better markers of credibility. My students would realize that the remixed NRA page used authoritative quotes, credible sources versus the sarcasm on the Vegan Action page.

Ready to Remix

Then I would have my students “flip” perspectives on a controversial issue. I would first provide brief training videos (similar to this one made for teachers): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qW8WdkwMW9c

Then I would let students loose and work in small groups to remix two websites by providing the simple tutorial tools provided by hackasaurus.

Building Better Digital Reader and Writers

This project would have many benefits. Students would have opportunities to exchange strategies without decontextualizing the reading. They would work with the html code that is still the backbone of digital writing. Finally they would understand how perspectives shape the words and images authors use while building their argumentative writing skills.

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<p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thanks; great post. We need a deep conversation about teaching this element of critical digital literacy because (as you say) it's just not working. I don't know that it was any easier when the item to evaluate was a reference book, but I do wonder if the ease of clicking site by site, copying and pasting information, etc. might lull the reader into a more 'easeful' approach to evaluating sources. Hackasaurus demonstrates visibly how easy it is to author on the internet, reminding us that it is a 'conposing' platform with real authors and easy ways to create effects.&nbsp;</p> <p>It does seem a great vehicle for teaching the evaluative and critical competencies around internet research.</p>
<p>Elyse,</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thanks for the reply. I agree that we also had to look on the world, even the reference section, with a critical eye. Hoever, now that we no longer have an editor and then a librarian vetting our sources it is even more challenging and critical. When you ad on top all of the design elements and ranking of search results that shape the information we find it is even more critical.</p> <p>The idea of "flipping" perspectives really grew out Ian O'Byrne's work. He had students create their own "hoax" websites to see if they would then look at other sources with a greater critical stance.</p> <p>These are just a few ideas we have had not to strip the context away from the inquiry task. Another idea is to do online role play in social networks, but I will save that for my next post.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
<p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I look forward to your further posts and would love to have you create a resource and/or curate a collection of favorite sources for thinking about these issues. Use the 'contact us' button in the footer to reach someone to talk with you about that if you're interested.</p> <p>By the way, I completely agree. When I said I wasn't sure it was easier in the reference section, I wasn't referring to the challenge of determining credibility or teaching about credibility and critical assessment of sources. That challenge is exponentially harder now. It is even harder today than three or four years ago with the dramatic growth of dynamic features keyed to the user's identity. As you say, our search results are tailored to us and our online behavior, feeding us ever more customized information. And many (most?) websites now include dynamically generated elements that create quite different overall experiences of common static elements across viewers. These sorts of emerging practices in web design make us yearn for the days of the 'northwest tree octopus'. </p> <p>And then there's amplification through social media. I hear many students say that in their day to day lives, they avoid visiting a source website altogether. Instead, they read, like, forward, and amplify information snippets that have come to them through social media, counting the 'endorsement' of friends as a kind of credibility. (I'm reluctant to call that curation, unless everything remix act is curation.) They may use different behavior when they are researching a paper, but for most information interactions that surround their decisions about public affairs, etc. they say they don't.</p> <p>What I was really musing about in my sketchy comment, actually, was the relative ease/challenge of teaching this area as inextricably linked with students' engagement with inquiry, with a real need to know that motivates a desire to search, to ascertain credible information, including information that contradicts our viewpoints or is harder to find. When Google, seemingly, returns so much information to us with so little effort, how do we engage our students in setting a higher bar? &nbsp;I sensed in your post that you were working that angle too in your teaching, not just the curriculum pieces but also the establishment of a context (of argumentation?) where they set that bar. So I hope we get to read more of your thinking about this over time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>