Online Sources in Papers: Why Allow them?

Is there any good reason to allow our students to use online sources in their papers?  I’m not talking about the online depositories for news articles, or using databases to find books, journals, and articles online, but the kinds of sites that come up in a google search on a given topic–the blogs, random pages of questionable value, and of course, wikipedia and other online encyclopedias.  I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to simply ban internet searches and randomly found websites in papers, and I’m failing.
The problem is that our students generally have pretty poor information literacy skills.  They don’t know how to find sources or how to evaluate them for quality, and even after teaching them these things, they often find it hard to break the habit of simply doing a google search when they need information.  And there are many sites out there that are far worse than wikipedia–http://www.martinlutherking.org/ is one of the most insidious.

Banning the use of google as a search-engine or general internet sites would force students to learn and use the proper mediums for finding information.  This can be done by creating a subject page via the college library that lists appropriate sources (such as polling websites, archives, government web pages, etc) and links to databases, or by creating an individual one and handing it out to students.  In my experience, they are often very grateful to have a list of sites to work with.  You can take this further and ban all internet sites, forcing students to use physical copies of books and journals, if you like.  The goal is the same: jar students out of the habit of using Google as a shortcut for real research.

None of my classes have projects this semester that involve research papers, so I won’t have a chance to try this out in the fall.  I will in the spring though, for my environmental and energy security class.  I’m not sure of the best way to conduct the ‘ban’ though: fail any papers with non-approved sources?  fail, but give students the chance to earn full credit if they rewrite it using appropriate sources? Or just give a large penalty, like a full letter grade reduction?

Regardless, i think it is appropriate to give students an assignment early on that helps them understand why some sources are more legitimate than others, and to help them build their information literacy skills.  This must occur prior to the assignment where poor sources are banned, else the penalty will seem rather arbitrary and not an assessment of a skill learned earlier.

4 thoughts on “Online Sources in Papers: Why Allow them?

  1. I always feel that “bans” are a rather coercive way of dealing with bad practice. Might be more useful to give them the assignment that encourages the development of the information literacy skills and then make it clear that you expect them to use sources critically. The fail v deduction debate depends on the level of the student – if it’s the first time, perhaps a letter grade deduction is appropriate.

  2. Its true its a coercive method–but it does get the point across that certain habits are unacceptable, or at least off the table until you can demonstrate better ones. I’ve spent some time teaching information literacy in the past, and requiring certain types of sources in assignments…and yet find students completely ignoring those lessons and continuing their prior practices. Banning the use of google searches in the class would raise the stakes such that it might actually shake them from bad habits and give them added incentive to learn other methods of finding and using sources.

    I like the idea of having separate penalties for first and additional offenses. Definitely something to try, thanks.

  3. Having faced the same problems in several of my courses, I know require students to use Web of Science to locate scholarly sources. This is of course very helpful but it does not of course teach them the skills to learn to evaluate the quality of a source. It also is of no value for research based papers that require finding useful data in one way or another. Still, what is helpful is that it allows you to first teach them how to in fact select sources that are relevant for their research question and let them figure out which of them is and which of them is not, without having to also at the same time address the problematic quality of their sources.

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