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Friday, July 22, 2005

A Guide to Evaluating Websites

Stephen Downes wrote a really good guide to evaluating websites a few days ago that I wanted to share with you here. In 'Principles for Evaluating Websites' he asks…

“How do you know whether something you read on the web is true? You can’t know, at least, not for sure. This makes it important to read carefully and to evaluate what you read...”
It’s a very good piece (and is very comprehensive) so I won’t say too much more on it here, I’d just suggest you go along and have a read. I will just tell you why I’m recommending it though.

There have been other things written to help you to evaluate websites. All of the VTS tutorials for example, devote a whole section to encouraging you to ask “Can you trust what you find on the Internet?” (In their Judge sections, like this one).

The tutorials are good at pointing out things we ought to consider, but I liked this guide in particular because it asks us to go beyond judging who - where - when, to consider motives, appearances and generalisations. For example can we trust authorities? If not why not? This guide says…

“…Authorities used to be people you could trust. When you read it in the newspaper, for example, it was probably true. When a scientist reported a finding, you could count on it. But today, you can’t trust the authorities.

Why not? There are many reasons, but here are some of the major ones:

  • Authorities lie. Not all authorities, and not all the time, but frequently enough to mean you can’t simply trust them.
  • People impersonate authorities. A site may look like a newspaper or a government publication, but it might not be.
  • Authorities are sometimes fooled. They may rely on bad data. They may be reporting something they heard

Even if you trust the authority you are reading, you need to evaluate what they say for yourself. People don’t always mean to mislead you, but they do...”

And this is just one of the sets of the things we have to also consider. The rest of the article suggests nine more.

In summary, it’s worth making a note of this guide, and referring to it from time to time, especially if you’re teaching others how to develop evaluation skills, perhaps even when evaluating information yourself. It also includes some useful examples, so offers a lot of food for thought.

So finally, why the elephant? The elephant is included for two reasons:

1) A friend sent it to me yesterday and I wanted to share it
2) If it doesn’t seem unusual, look again and ask how many legs does it have?

Things on the web aren’t always what they seem.


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