I tried a new exercise to teach critical thinking and web evaluation skills. I had a small class (10 students) and I passed each a website address to examine and evaluate. Each website was accompanied by a set of four questions.
1. What is this site about? For what purpose was it created?
2. What evidence do you see that would indicate this is a valid site for information?
3. What evidence do you see that would indicate that this might not be a good site for finding valid information?
4. In your opinion, is this a hoax site? If not, would it be a good site to use for information even if you think the site is strange or out of the mainstream?
Each student got a different site. Sites used included:
Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
TEXAS INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT
Southern Lake Michigan - Where You Will Meet The Whales and Dolphins!
Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
HAWAII - INDEPENDENT & SOVEREIGN
A Concise Grammar of Feorran
The First Human Male Pregnancy
Visit Exciting Fredericton
Dominion of British West Florida
Before I passed out the exercise, I went over with the class what to look for when evaluating a site. I used Five criteria for evaluating Web pages from Cornell as a guide.
The students had mixed success. They correctly identified the whale watching, shards of glass, male pregnancy, and tree octopus sites as being hoaxes. They correctly identified the Texas independence and the human extinction movement as real. They mistakenly labeled the Hawaiian and West Florida independence sites as hoaxes. They also believed the Fredericton site and the Feorran site were real.
After the results were shared, I again went over criteria for web evaluation and how the points could be used in looking at the sites. The students agreed that they were helpful when looking at these sites and that even the real sites would not be good sources for unbiased information. For example, the Texas independence site would be good for getting information on Texas separatists but it would not be a good source for Texas history due to political bias.
The students had a lot of fun and I think some real critical thinking skills were further developed. I would encourage others to try this or some variation on the exercise. The Open Directory Project has a good Hoax category for finding fake sites. Any fringe political group (or micronation online) is good for finding a real cause the students will doubt as real. Good luck.