Reliable Sources
by Diane S. Kendall, 02/15/11

I am coming to believe that misinformation, including out and out lies, disguised as valid information residing on well-designed, attractive websites, is one of the biggest impediments to the progress of students today. Much of how I feel was confirmed by a recent interview between David Pogue of the New York Times and John Palfrey, Harvard Law School professor, co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and author of "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives." In this interview, Palfrey echoes many of the concerns discussed on this site over the years about the need to give kids the skills that they need to sort credible from non-credible information. Palfrey says the curriculum designers are asleep at the switch when it comes to this and even suggests using Wikipedia as a curriculum on the subject.

I'd love to see that curriculum, which would have to be updated constantly for obvious reasons, when it is developed, but in the meantime teachers are caught with curriculums that require students to write traditional research and persuasion pieces. The usual student approach to doing these assignments is just to go out online and to find whatever resources pop up first, with the truth being that no teacher has the time to vet all the sources student's use. So where can teachers turn to help guide the process using valid resources, especially the first few times students attempt these complex assignments?

Two such resources are the ABC-CLIO Databases for Middle & High School Students and the Proquest SIRS Issues Researcher. They are both subscription-based databases for grades 6 to 14 and even if you think you are familiar with them - I have known about them since they were strictly paper copies - I suggest you look at them again. There are some differences between them, especially that the ABC-CLIO product offers databases on various historical periods, as well as the vetted resources they both deliver on current issues- the SIRS package, for example, covering 300 leading issues of the day (although SIRS also has some historical content databases as well). Besides content, though, they both have tools for guided analysis of topics and can enhance any curriculum that involves the assignment of research topics or persuasive writing.

Both have the kinds of multi-media resources, including video, audio and other graphics, which used to be missing from more academic databases, making them seem like exactly what they are - enhanced and vetted web searches. The Proquest SIRS Issues Researcher, for investigating current issues, even goes a bit further than your average web search offering the lexile of each article found and tools for sharing the item, translating it (albeit machine translation) to 7 different languages, and proffering a text-to-speech option. It even takes that last option further letting students save an article as an mp3 file to be later listened to on their iPod, iPhone or other enabled device. (Talk about no more excuses!) Students and teachers can also sign up for RSS feeds on topics of interest, again eliminating the excuse that "I didn't know the database got updated" for long-term research projects.

I used to think these kinds of corralled resources just weren't a real world approach to having students do research. But there is no hand feeding here. Instead these in depth sources make sure that students don't have to struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff, the junk from the accepted sources, and the extremist views from the normal spectrum. It is hard enough learning how to find, analyze and state the pros and cons arguments of many of today's issues (which both products can help with), and set those out in a well formulated paper, without also having to figure out which information is real versus some kind of extremist chatter. Both these resources give students that kind of break, as well as not having to shift hundreds, if not thousands, of sources in trying to get to the meat of the matter.

Both of these resources also offer a variety of tools and templates that can help you instruct your students in the best practices of how to write a good research or persuasive paper as well. Both are worth a look despite the expense of a subscription, as the subscription price is actually a great investment in letting them learn the best way to write these complex papers unencumbered by the worst of what the Internet brings to the research process, at least the first few times out.

Something to think about.

 For more information and pricing see:

ABC-CLIO Databases for Middle & High School Students

Proquest SIRS Issues Researcher