Students Using Websites

One of the most common laments I hear from high school teachers and college and university faculty as I travel around the country is how uncritically our students use historical resources they find on the Internet. We all know examples of students going to their favorite search engine, typing in some likely search terms, and then clicking on the first few likely websites that appear in the list on their screen. From those few sites they pick one that looks reasonable and use it to write their paper, only to find that the website they were using had significant problems, whether it be that the site provides bogus or misleading information, it has an obscured agenda, or is simply a site put up by Ms. Johnson’s third grade class.

Several years ago I set about trying to put a stop to this problem. I know it’s not something that can ever be truly “fixed”, but at least one can try. The answer I came up with is the Webography Project, a database teaching tool that provides students with some basic advice about how to assess the content of the websites they visit and gives them the chance to enter reviews of websites into the project’s database. To date, 54 teachers (high school and college) have signed up to use the project and their students have already entered more than 735 reviews of websites into the database.

I’ve been gratified to see that the project has started to get some notice in other venues, including Academic Commons and Next/Text.

As nice as it is to have one’s work noticed, more interesting is the potential of this database for some interesting research that falls under the heading of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Anyone interested in how students make sense of what they find on historical websites need only search through the 500 plus public entries in this database and read what the students have written and the scores they’ve assigned to the sites. So, for instance, a key word search using the term “sourcebook” returns 35 different reviews of the various versions of Paul Halsall’s sourcebook project. Reading these reviews, one finds how differently students understand what they find on the same website.

I’d like to see more such resources developed–projects that make it possible for students to engage in serious intellectual work while also making the results of that work available for researchers to study.