Just Use the Web?!?  Observations on Students’ (Un)Critical Readings of Internet Sources

Kristina A. Boylan
Assistant Professor of History, SUNYIT, Utica, NY

Presentation given at the Conference on Latin American History Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee Panel:  Making the Most of Media in Teaching Latin American History,
 Session 24 at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 3 Jan. 2009, 7:00-8:30pm

Just Use the Web?!?  Observations on Students’ (Un)Critical Readings of Internet Sources

As part of this panel, I offered some initial conclusions drawn from a “Website Review” assignment that I have used and modified over six years of teaching.

I began teaching as an adjunct in 2001, just as the Internet became widely available to students.   In that very first class, I noticed that quite a few essays contained citations from quite a range of sources available on the Internet, from online editions of scholarly journals to younger net-authors’ school projects posted to private webpages, sometimes with very little distinction of the difference between such sources.  The next year, when teaching full time, this problem emerged again in an even more acute way.  Hoping to make things easier for my Latin American Civilizations (a one-semester survey) students, in lieu of a midterm exam the students could choose one of two take-home essay topics, both of which contained search terms distinct in colonial historiography and thus should have made it easy for students to find quality articles in available databases (at our technological institute, our print holdings on Latin America have been limited, but electronic holdings have expanded):  discussing the nature and impact of “The Columbian Exchange” or assessing whether the “Black Legend/Leyenda Negra” was more or less fair or unfair.  

Not too surprisingly, I encountered some problems with plagiarism in this poorly-designed assignment.  Of more concern, though, was that just about every essay’s Works Cited List demonstrated, as P. M. Forni recently noted, a problem of “equivalence”; with many students accessing information via keyboard and screen, he finds, “every single thing is equidistant from every other thing on the Internet.”1  In other words, and to use Thomas Friedman’s favorite word, the Internet makes information “flat.”  Without some guidance, and particularly when hurried, stressed, or not inspired by the assignment (if not all of the above), many students, like the ones in that class, fail to discriminate between the quality of information available online.  Much to our frustration, our students cite sources according to the order in which they appear on search engine result pages, or according to the ease of their retrieval (e.g. from a publicly-available website is easier than downloading a longer article from a database; having to go to the library to get a book and read the hard copy offline—or even search a longer piece on GoogleBooks—is entirely too onerous!). 

There is great information available online, I told those students; they could and should cite the primary source documents made available online that are accompanied by careful translations and scholarly commentary, such as the University of Pennsylvania Library’s exhibit on Las Casas and the Black Legend and the Royal Library of Copenhagen’s presentation of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva coronica,2 not to mention vetted materials in online collections like the Women and Social Movements in the United States database, articles in journal collections like J-STOR, and so on.  With information available like this, there was no need to use overly basic encyclopedias (whether with corporate authors, like the Encyclopedia Britannica or Encarta, or with the new ‘web commons’ as author, like the ever-popular Wikipedia), let alone cut-and-paste classics from authors of all ages posted to private websites.  For all my cautions, though, and much to my chagrin, the final examination take-home essays from that class did not differ extensively in their range of citations.

Meanwhile, that same semester, I decided to get clever in the substitution of essays for additional examinations in my World Civilizations class.  In retrospect, I believe I already was reacting to my experience as an adjunct—for I assigned the students a book review, a review of a historical film, and a review of a website.  The first two were hardly original ideas:  book review assignments are beyond common, and I derived my own list of requirements for testing a “based on a true story” film with historical evidence from assignments I had completed, and found rather instructive, as an undergraduate.3  At that time, I had not come across any similar assignments focusing on a website with the same degree of scrutiny.  In my assigned essay, I asked the students to identify not only the URL, but the site author (whether individual or corporate) and its sponsoring organization and/or host, and its precise and traceable title; not only to summarize or critique its coverage of a historical topic, but to explicitly compare details found in other sources (particularly books and peer-reviewed articles); to try to identify whether one side or multiple sides of an argument were presented; to note whether it presented itself as the ‘be-all-and-end-all’ on the subject or if it encouraged further learning, and in particular to note whether or not proper historical documentation was used on the website; and, to the extent of their training (we have both Computer Science and Communication and Information Design majors at my campus), to comment on the website’s design, function, and ease of use.  In conclusion, the students were to judge whether they would recommend the website as a credible source for another student who had to research the topic.  Again, my goal was in no way to dissuade my students from using the Internet; rather, my hope was that the next time they used a search engine to find information, they would be ready to examine the results more critically, and would select higher-quality sources to support their arguments.

I have found some references to assignments similar to mine since then, but none share the exact, specific requirements that I have developed over the past six years and which I think are a useful corrective to uncritical calls to teach with or use online sources in Latin American history (and other areas), particularly since, as Kathleen Tobin rightly noted, “in some students’ minds, nothing can compare with the internet.”4  In that first World Civilizations class, I found—to my great satisfaction—that for some, requiring the students to use books and peer-reviewed articles on the same subjects as their chosen websites, and drawing their attention to certain aspects of the website’s authorship and design, jarred their easy acceptance of any old website as a useful source.  After that semester, I devised a guide to the assignment and grading rubric to make clearer the details that students are to explore (it also makes my grading easier), but the assignment has remained the same. 

The Website Review Paper:  Assignment Guide
Your paper should cover these points, using specific details and citations from your sources to support your arguments.  You may include this information in the order that makes the most sense to you and suits your style.  You can write a very successful paper,  however, by answering these questions in succession.

  • Who is/are the author(s) of the site is (are) and what is the purpose of publishing this information on the Web?  Who sponsors the website?  Is that important?
  • Give a brief description of the subject presented by the website—what historical issue(s) is portrayed here?  Will you focus on one or several of these issues, and how?


  • Compare and contrast the website to other information you have found regarding the historical issue(s).  Does the website contain accurate information?  Is its presentation of the issue simplistic, or does it contain relevant details and analysis of events, persons, and outcomes?
  • Does the site present one or more than one sides of an argument or debate, between participants, academics, or both?  How can you tell?
  • Was an attempt at a balanced presentation made?  Or does the website have a clear point of view or bias?  If there is a bias, does the author substantiate and document the arguments made to demonstrate that this bias is justified?  If not, should the website be considered reliable or useful?
  • Does the site clearly indicate the sources of its information (e.g. its use of primary sources, other scholars’ works; are they properly cited, etc.)?
  • Does the site encourage further learning (e.g. with links, bibliographic citations, or recommended readings), or does it present itself as the “be-all and end-all” on a subject, playing down or ignoring the need to ask further questions?
  • Does it use multiple media (pictures, sound, text) to present information, or does one type dominate?  Is this a good or bad choice for the subject matter presented?


  • What do you think of this website?  Are the historical issue(s) you have researched represented well?  Would you want to use it as a source to substantiate your own research?  Should people interested in the subject use it, or look elsewhere to learn more?

Website Review Grading Rubric:


1.  Website is clearly identified by accurate URL, and reflects available information regarding page title and author(s). 

[10 pts]

2.  Attempt to understand and analyze provenance of website (motives of author(s), sponsoring organization, hosting server, advertisers, etc.) 

[10 pts]

3. Evidence of research conducted–quality and extent of outside sources used

          [10 pts]

4. Analysis of contents of website, comparing data and interpretations with other sources

[10 pts]

5.  Comparing a/o contrasting of facts and interpretations found in various sources

[10 pts]

6.  Discussion of the evidence of documentation provided and/or invitations to "further learning"

[10 pts]

7.  Discussion of design of website (media choices, clarity) and its implications

          [10 pts]

8.  Clarity of conclusion on accuracy and "usefulness" of website for learning about this issue in world history

[10 pts]

9.  Documentation–clear use of Chicago Manual of Style in-text documentation and bibliography

[10 pts]

10.  Style–Care taken in structuring writing, grammar, punctuation, spelling

[10 pts]


[100 pts]

I have used this assignment in eleven classes, most recently (Fall 2008) in a Latin American Civilizations survey class.  Someday I may calculate the average scores in each area, and analyze to a greater extent students’ strengths and weaknesses in carrying out different parts of the assignment.5  For our purposes at this panel, though, I will make some general observations about students’ results with the assignment.

I wish I could report that I have universally heightened my students’ consciousness of the range of quality of information available on the web, that they delight in offline as well as online sources, and in separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.  Some students do produce strong critiques of Internet sources; the most fun comes when they identify cases of plagiarism from other sources that appear on their focal websites, and when they unpack an undocumented claim or canard for what it is, rather than a valid statement (or, even worse, an item to be cut-and-pasted into their own writing).  However, certain facets of websites remain problem areas for students, which encourages me both to continue using the assignment and to encourage others to consider an assignment like this one.  In the most recent batch of papers I received, I found that many students still are puzzled that their professor would object to their using a website like www.unexplainedstuff.com or www.crystallinks.com to discuss the Mayan pyramids, especially since the former has a bibliography (of four books published between 1963 and 1970, no in-text citations) at the end, and the basic facts on both correspond to those found in print sources.6  Others will use www.unexplainedstuff.com to “verify” what they read on www.crystallinks.com (no sources listed) and vice versa, failing to see that the logic of the Internet is sometimes very, very circular! 

Both with search engines and on the pages themselves, readers can search for keywords and scroll, click, and otherwise select the information they need (or think they need), obviating the need to read “more than they have to”; aside from nostalgic exhortations for students to enjoy real browsing (like we once did, through the library stacks, cue the violins!), this method of information retrieval often results in a lack of depth of understanding of a historical topic.  To use an example from a World Civilizations class:  a student asked if he could review a negationist website about Mussolini.  Great, I said—but to put the author’s laudatory statements, dressed up with footnotes and an extensive bibliography (of self-published works), you must read at least one biography of Il Duce.  The student objected that he didn’t have much time and couldn’t read whole books, but dutifully looked on J-STOR for peer-reviewed articles.  Finding one that pointed out that Mussolini’s “Battle of the Lira” achieved its desired short-term effect of shoring up Italy’s currency (the scope of the article was 1925-1927), the student concluded that the negationist website was right and that Mussolini had been a capable ruler of Italy, given his economic leadership!7  As I wrote in the comments on his paper, he could not properly contextualize this detail without comparing it to information on Italy’s economy (and Mussolini’s rule in general) in the 1930s or 1940s, to say the least.

In a similar vein, students do not always understand what we mean by “bias” or what to do with a source that has a “bias.”  Perhaps because they are being reared on Wikipedia, students unconsciously echo Leopold von Ranke (or Dragnet) in insisting that “good” history is just the facts, and that biased sources should be rejected (though detecting the bias in online encyclopedias is a skill that still needs honing!).  This results in conclusions that one should not use a section of the United Nations report on El Salvador’s civil war because of its “bias”—never mind that it  was exhaustively researched and carefully written, if both sides do not get “equal time,” something must be awry.8  Students may need more explanation and demonstration of when historical consensus is reached so that, say, they will consider a source reliable for an essay even if Oscar Romero’s assassins are not given equal time and consideration.

One facet of the Internet that I mention when giving the assignment, curiously, is often left by the wayside.  The advantage of the Internet over print media, we’re told, is its fluidity and the democratization of authorship.  In just about every class, I have offered extra credit to students if, as part of their ascertaining authorship, they contact the authors and elicit specific answers to questions regarding the website’s content, point of view, and design (raising their grade by half a letter, e.g. B- to B, if a printout of the e-mail exchange is included with the paper).  Oddly, very few students bother to do this, even though it would merely entail clicking on the “Contact Us” section or navigating to the root of the URL to find it.

This may be a result of papers being written at the last minute (one cannot guarantee an instant response, even from an e-mail).  It may also be related to that “flat” aspect of the Internet; not only is one source as good as another, but one source becomes as inert as another.  Sending a letter to an author via a publisher may or may not elicit a response; why should a website be different?  I suspect that the lack of “interactivity”—despite many bubbly pronouncements about the Internet to the contrary—also may be related to another pattern.  Many of my students demonstrate at least some good sleuthing, but then, following a valid cataloguing of the websites’ flaws, their papers often conclude with exceedingly polite remarks:  “Though there are no footnotes or Works Cited list, the facts check on this website, so it would be a good source to use on the topic.”  My institution was formerly an “upper-division” college, where students could continue their educations following completion of associate’s degrees from the region’s community colleges, and still draws heavily on this population.  Quite a few of our students are among the first in their families to attend college, and many are retraining to adjust to difficult economic circumstances.  I continue to wonder if social class and perceptions of status have worked against these students taking advantage of the Internet’s increased opportunities to contact, and perhaps challenge, authors—once introduced to the expanded potential of the medium, does the Internet become intimidating for the students?  Even though they could contact the authors, would they rather not destabilize the easy authority of the website as source by doing so?

Because of these challenges, I will continue to use this assignment and to analyze students’ performance of its various tasks.  It remains my hope that with assignments like these, we can encourage students to be active rather than passive consumers of online information, and to be confident authors of analyses of their own.

If you have tried or will try an assignment like this, I would love to know about it!  Please feel free to contact the author at kristina.boylan@sunyit.edu .

1. P.M. Forni, “The Civil Classroom in the Age of the Net,” Thought & Action, vol. 24 (Fall 2008), 17-18.  For similar anxiety about the lack of critical reading online, also see Motoko Rich, “Literacy Debate:  Online RU Really Reading?,” New York Times, 27 July 2008.

2. At that time (in Fall 2002), I used as an example to make my point the “Viewers and the Viewed:  Black Legend” exhibit made available by the University of Pennsylvania Library (“Cultural Readings:  Colonization and Print in the Americas,” at http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/kislak/viewers/black.html [accessed 28 Jan. 2009]).  More recently, we are privileged to have access to the entire letter from Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, translations, and commentary, thanks to the Kongelige Bibliothek and Rolena Adorno (“The Guaman Poma Website, at http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/frontpage.htm [accessed 28 Jan. 2009]).  Also see the Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, at http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/was2/was2.index.map.aspx [accessed 28 Jan. 2009]

3. In this case, the credit goes to Dr. Timothy Silver for assigning these papers in the Honors U.S. History Survey at Appalachian State University in 1992-1993—thanks, Dr. Silver!

4. Kathleen Tobin, “To Think On Paper: Using Writing Assignments in the World History Survey,” The History Teacher, vol. 34, no. 4 (August 2001), paragraph 21 (which begins her description of the “Website Review” assignment she devised), at http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/34.4/tobin.html (accessed 28 Jan. 2009).  I did not subscribe to The History Teacher when I began teaching, and only gained institutional access to JSTOR in 2003, but I was glad to see that I had thought along similar lines to such an experienced and thoughtful academic and educator.

5. When I began giving the assignment, overall average grades on the paper were in the B- range (between 80-83 on my scale); recently I have found that the average grade has dropped to a C (74-76); whether this is due to a decline in students’ ability to read critically or to other factors would also be interesting to determine.

6. Advameg Inc., “Places of Mystery and Power:  Mayan Temples,” Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained, at http://www.unexplainedstuff.com/Places-of-Mystery-and-Power/Mayan-Temples.html [accessed 28 Jan. 2009] and Ellie Crystal, “Mayan Civilization,” Crystallinks, at http://www.unexplainedstuff.com/Places-of-Mystery-and-Power/Mayan-Temples.html [accessed 28 Jan. 2009].

7. The article in question, which does not seek to redeem Mussolini’s legacy as a leader, was Roland Sarti, “Mussolini and the Italian Industrial Leadership in the Battle of the Lira, 192501927,” Past and Present, No. 47 (May, 1970), pp. 97-112 [www.jstor.org].

8. Commission on the Truth in El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, UN Security Council, S/25500, 1993, 5-8, posted online by the United States Institute for Peace at http://www.usip.org/library/tc/doc/reports/el_salvador/tc_es_03151993_toc.html [accessed 28 Jan. 2009]