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Critical thinking in the digital era

Research by Dr Alison Pickard on how people search for and use digital information has resulted in a suite of practical tools that help librarians, teachers and young people in the UK, Europe and US to use the Internet more effectively as a learning resource.

“The internet is a wonderful repository of human knowledge, but it is also a vast and daunting sea of information.  Being able to navigate it and making critical judgements on the quality of information you come across and whether to trust it are essential skills in the digital environment,” explains Dr Pickard.

Her research on the learning experience of young people has shown that finding inappropriate information, in terms of the level of expertise required to understand it, or failing to apply critical criteria to information sources generated by search engines, can actually undermine learning.  These experiences can chip away at the learner’s confidence in their own abilities and self-efficacy.

Pickard’s research over the past two decades into user behaviour on the internet and, in particular, a project looking at trust in digital information, led her and her colleague, Dr Andrew Shenton, to develop  a project working with teachers and pupils aged 13 to 16. They have created a framework that improves the evaluation and critical thinking skills of young learners when interacting with complex information on the web. The framework provides the pupil with a set of prompts such as: ‘Can I trust this source?’ ‘Have I heard of this person? Is this personal opinion or fact?’

It then takes it a step further and prompts the user to apply their own personal set of meta-evaluation to their search that is specific to their objectives. This aspect helps to develop the individual’s abilities to independently evaluate the value and relevance of the information that they have found.

When tested on sixth form pupils, the framework significantly increased their confidence in using digital resources and increased awareness of the self-evaluation process. One pupil said they had found the method: “just as useful in my history coursework … I feel like I am more in control now.”

There has been national and international interest in using the evaluation framework for secondary education. It has been published in the professional journal Creative Teaching and Learning and is also available from the British Computer Society’s Digital Literacy for Life programme.  The UK Literacy Association is producing a mini-book on the evaluation framework, suggesting practical approaches to its use in the classroom.

Pickard is currently working with four national Ukrainian universities to incorporate elements of this tool kit into a new ‘soft skills’ teaching framework for the Ukraine. This work is currently being extended to the broader population, exploring the digital literacy skills of adults to adapt these tools to fit differing digital landscapes.

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