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After a member of the Digestive Team mentioned to me that he was considering the internet as a resource for much of the Veterinary Nutrition information rather than extensive notes, I began to reflect on just how reliable it would be as a source of information. Should we, as teachers, expect students to use the web to answer questions posed by us? How do they or we insure that a website is reliable?
Novak1 contends that: "There have been enormous advances in our understanding of human learning in the past three decades. There have also been important advances in our understanding of the nature of knowledge and new knowledge creation. These advances, when combined with the explosive development of the internet and other technologies, permit advances in educational practices at least as important as the invention of the printing press in 1460." While his phraseology may be equivocal, most would agree that internet technology is too great a resource not to be effectively utilized in our current teaching programs. In fact, we already use the internet extensively for everything from replacing histology slides to reporting grades. The question posed here is: To what extent can the internet be used as an information resource in teaching?
It doesn’t seem too big a stretch to speculate that, in the future, professionals – including veterinarians - will rely more and more on the internet as a resource for new or infrequently used information. This will probably be in the context of other resources such as discussions, books and journals. Nonetheless, it seems incumbent upon us to encourage them to learn to use it properly during their professional training. This brings us back to the original question: How do we determine the reliability of a particular website? In graduate training, we have always demanded that students critically evaluate journal articles. Just because it is in print does not mean that it is credible. This determination requires critical thinking on the part of our students. "To develop critical thinking in students, course work must encourage discussion, questioning, evaluation, and reflection."2 This is even more important when using the internet as an information source.
Now, if students are expected to critically evaluate websites as a source of information, what kinds of criteria can they use? A lot of this employs common sense issues. There is no single magic indicator of reliability. Harris3 recommends using what he refers to as the CARS (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support) Checklist to access the quality of a website. For example, an organization will intuitively have more credibility than an individual, although this is not always the case. Websites that end in .edu, .gov and .org generally have more credibility than sites that end in .com. The latter may be credible, but need to be evaluated with regard to any hidden agenda or conflicts of interest.
Accuracy is somewhat dependent on when it was written as well as the audience for whom it was intended. If the discipline is changing rapidly, it is important that the source be current. If the site is aimed at children or even the lay public in some cases, it may be too oversimplified to be technically accurate.
Reasonableness means that a website should be objective, moderate and consistent. As Harris3 points out that, "most truths are ordinary". What is presented should be consistent with current thinking and should not contradict itself.
Support in the form of credible sources which are cited strengthens the apparent reliability of the website. Is it fact or opinion? This is especially important for any kind of numbers or values for, without reference to their source, they are meaningless. Ideally, you should be able to triangulate the information. That is, you should be able to find at least three sources that agree. Even so, one may be unreliable and the other two could be citing it. Again, students should be encouraged to be critical in their evaluation.
Interestingly, in a British study4, five medical doctors were asked to evaluate various health related websites. Unfortunately, the results of this study suggest that there is "--- a fair degree of disagreement between the medical experts ---". This emphasizes the difficulties inherent in determining the reliability of a website and why students need to evaluate web information critically.
Within the Digestive System, we will continue to explore its usefulness and limitations as a resource. The concern, of course, is misinformation. Perhaps we should frame it in the beginning of the course with some sort of disclaimer – "Improper use of the internet may be hazardous to your grade!" Some guidelines at this point in the course might help students learn how to critically evaluate websites. The students are expected to take responsibility for their resources. In reality, we all share this responsibility to some extent anyway. Even before the internet, did we not have apparent and real disagreements between instructors or texts? As with most new opportunities, it is a balance between risk and reward. The reward is that we will have given the students another way to be life-long learners. The web, when properly used, should be a wonderful addition to their arsenal of information resources.