“And You Learned That Where?” (Wiki’s fine for a bar-bet, but for a research paper? Not that much)

You’re doing that research/persuasive/white paper, and you need some verifiable facts to make your case. So you Google/Bing/Whatever-the-engine, and likely the first or second entry you’ll see will be a Wiki (Wikipedia) entry. It’s likely full of great stuff. Easy-peasy, yes? Nope. The problem in using information from a Wiki or Wiki-type listing is simple: Anyone can edit it. From experts with a couple of PhDs and years of experience, to a 10 year old working on his tablet. Usually Wiki entries are reviewed by experts and often contain incredibly useful information, but people reading your paper have no idea if that particular source was correct that day. There are ways of utilizing Wikipedia, but it takes an extra step, and we’ll talk about that in a few moments. In the meantime, some sources you should not use for scholarly works (that is, anything needing to be verified):

  • Wikipedia or other “Wiki” pages – As explained above, anyone has access.
  • Blogs – Unless the blog (or guest blogger) is a writer with verifiable credentials, we have similar issues as Wiki above. In fact, many high school and college instructors won’t allow blogs as research sources regardless.
  • About.com – This is not a shot at About.com. But, their answers are often gained by websearches, thus not allowing for verification in some cases, and in other cases, not citing their answers at all.

Sources you should be concentrating on for more uniformly creditable information include:

  • Peer Reviewed Journals/Publications – When an organization has its own recognized (scholastically) experts, they will often have a regular journal or magazine that is what is referred to as peer reviewed (sometimes “juried”). These are made up of articles that are reviewed by an editorial panel of those recognized experts. Some larger examples of this include JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) and the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 
  • University published or sponsored papers – This one is not a slam dunk automatic good source, but if the source site is educational (usually designated by ending with .edu), chances are excellent that it is a vetted and proper source to cite.

Then there are the “gray areas” – sites like History.com, and many nonprofit agencies (.org) are often considered to be reliable sources. These are the ones you may need to ask about. Even if they have biases, they are likely to provide data that is verifiable. But the easiest way to ensure compliance in research sources is to use a college (and sometimes high school) library’s databases to search. Most of those search engines have a filter to only show peer reviewed journals, if you decide to use it.

And finally, the how-to-use-Wiki tip I promised up there: In the more reliable Wiki articles, you will often find their facts annotated and cited. That is, the Wiki author gives where he/she found their info. Simply copy down the site source and go to it and use it yourself.

WebQuest – A Really Big Thing in Internet Research, or Smoke and Mirrors?

Have you heard of this thing? Apparently, WebQuest has been around forever (in Internet-Years). In fact, according to WebQuest.org, the original model for this was developed by Bernie Dodge at San Diego State University in early
1995. Personally, I’ve only been exposed to it in the last few months through a graduate-level course in Teaching with Technology.

While it’s been a useful tool in setting up lesson plans and even in larger curricula development, I’m thinking I might be missing some of the nuances of this, considering some of the “best thing since sliced bread” comments I’ve run across. There are quite a number of sites around that share WebQuest Lesson Plans, as well as providing templates for creating them. Two of the larger environments for them seem to be WebQuest.org itself, and Zunal.com. Zunal seems to be a more plug-and-play-friendly template home, whereas WebQuest talks more about what it is and how it was developed.

WebQuests are designed to enable a pretty deep critical thinking level of learning. The categories each WebQuest entails are (in order):

Welcome: A brief overview: What it’s about, who it’s for (grade level), and what discipline.

Introduction: Setting, background, overview of the assignment.

Task: The heart of the matter – What you want to see accomplished.

Process: How will your students complete the above task?

Evaluation: Pretty self-explanatory. How will you grade it, what are your rubrics for evaluating the work?

Conclusion: To wrap up for the student. What did they learn? What do they now WANT to learn?

Teacher’s Page: This one is to list any information any fellow educator who uses your WebQuest might want to know: Additional resources, credits, observations, etc.

Finally, WebQuest does in fact seem a useful tool, especially in the area of sharing standardized lesson plans and curricula with peers, and not having to reinvent the wheel when there are literally thousands of already completed WebQuests out there for sharing use. I’m still not sure it’s in that sliced bread category though.

Be Careful, Your Children Might Just Get the Education You’re Enabling

No profit grows where no pleasure is ta’en – In brief, sir, study what you most affect.                          

William Shakespeare

One of the drawbacks to being an older adult who has returned to work in Educational and Curriculum Design as well as Teaching after having first gone to school during the time between the Kennedy and Carter administrations  is that my first reaction to the state of the current educational system tends to sound like it comes from the guy that screams at your kids to stay off of his lawn all summer long. You know the type. The one that begins every third sentence with “When was in school… yadda yadda yadda”.

Oddly enough, with the money getting tighter and the technology branching out, we have two entirely different things going on: More kids are dropping out, and the ones that are not, are competing harder than ever to get into the best colleges. The problem with the former group is obvious. But the latter group is becoming an increasing problem “out in the world” as well. From the abomination that is “No Child Left Behind” (more about NCLB is a post for another day) to Common Core (also all kinds of problems, but then again, babysteps), the problem in trying to figure out who gets the limited finances available at the state level was dealt with by standardizing not only the tests, but the expectations.

On the surface, it’s a tidy little solution: We now have “STANDARDS”. We test the students, we match the matrix, we dole out money. Never mind a few little complications like:

  • We are giving the same lesson designed for an at-risk teen in Harlem or East Compton as we are for an affluent resident of Central Park West in New York, or a student who grew up on a farm in Ottumwa, Iowa . A noble idea, but with a little flaw: These three groups do not have the same readiness or support system. They are culturally as different as can be, and the same teaching techniques, curricula, and learning objectives will frustrate one group and bore another.
  • We teach ONLY these test answers, so that learning doesn’t in fact take place, just rote memorization.
  • We restrict money to schools (and thus to teachers, administrators and school programs) based on these scores, so schools have even taken to cheating, or at the very least, to contemplate cutting corners.

But we have so much more available to us in the way of options these days. We have the ability to Differentiate how we teach our students. Simply put, that means we figure out how to increase the number of ways we teach, the number of ways we assess, and the number of ways we challenge the next generation. New technology tumbles out every week from all over the world, not just Silicon Valley: new research is done every year about how we learn as a species; and new social media evolves to tie both together.

In the coming days and weeks, we’ll look at some of these alternatives, their advantages and disadvantages, and things we can do. One student, one parent, one educator at a time.