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Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world
Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world

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3 Asking the right questions

Image showing the Kilauea volcano at night. A close up that shows lava spurting from the crater.
Figure 3 Kilauea Volcano at Mauna Ulu

In December 2015, a new article posted on Facebook claimed that ‘a single eruption from a volcano puts more than 10,000 times the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of mankind has produced’. On the face of it, this is a plausible statement. However, it is actually false. The estimated annual amount of CO2 generated by human activity is 135 times higher than the annual amount released by volcanoes (Evon and Kasprak, 2015). This is just one example of 'fake news', which has been an increasingly significant term in recent years (Carson, 2019).

Have you ever been convinced by information that later turned out to be untrue? Maybe you even passed it on to someone else, believing it came from a reliable source? Some stories and videos on the internet are clearly untrue but in other cases, it may not be so clear-cut and you are unsure whether to believe what you see or hear. In some cases this may not matter. However, if government policy decisions or guidance to citizens were to be based on faulty information, there could be serious consequences. But how can you know what is reliable or not?

It helps to know what questions to ask of what you read or see or hear online. There are various frameworks that provide you with a good starting point. Here are two that The Open University has come up with, CAN and PROMPT. The abbreviations are designed to help you remember the criteria when you need them.

CAN – can I trust this information?

C – Credibility: How much do you know about the person or organisation providing the information? What sort of authority do they have for any statements or opinions they put forward? How do they back up opinions or facts? What sort of language do they use? Language that is either emotionally charged or vague can be a danger sign.

A – Agenda: Can you detect any bias or agenda? Who has put the information there? Do the authors state clearly the viewpoint they are taking? Can you detect any vested interests, for example, a particular political viewpoint or a product that is being promoted? You may need to dig deep to uncover these: this could include scrutinising the ‘About’ information on the website, and doing some research to find out more about the organisation or people who put the information there.

N – Need: What is your need or requirement in this particular situation? Think about what you are planning to do with the information. How important is it that the source is trustworthy?

This framework is useful for the sort of quick evaluation you might do in everyday life. It reminds you that the extent to which you scrutinise an information source may depend on what you plan to do with it. Sometimes, you just want a quick idea of what a topic is about, or a sense of what others thought about something you are interested in (e.g. a holiday home or new gadget). In this case, a high academic pedigree is not necessary. Wikipedia is one source that many people use to get a quick overview. Social media is also a source of news and information. Use CAN to do a quick reality-check, for example, when someone shares a sensational sounding story on Facebook. Ask CAN I trust this?

PROMPT – evaluating information

P – Presentation: Is this information clear and well-communicated? Is it succinct? Can I find what I need here? If it’s a website, is it easy to use and navigate?

R – Relevance: Does this information match my needs right now? What is it mostly about?

O – Objectivity: Are opinions expressed? Are there sponsors? What are you being ‘sold’ here (a particular product, or corporate view)? What are the vested interests or hidden agendas?

M – Method: If statistical data is presented, what is this based on? How was the data gathered? Was the sample used really representative? Were the methods appropriate, rigorous, etc.?

P – Provenance: Is it clear who produced this information? Where does it come from? Whose opinions are these? Are they a recognised expert in their field? Do you trust this information?

T – Timeliness: Is this current? When was it written and produced? Has the climate or situation changed since this information was made available? Is it still up to date enough?

The PROMPT framework offers a structured method for evaluating any information you find online. It is more detailed than CAN, and is especially useful when studying, for example, if you are looking for trustworthy sources to support arguments in an assignment. You can use it to evaluate both academic articles and freely available information on the internet. It can also be very helpful in a work environment, for example, if you need to find material for a project or report. Rigorous evaluation is particularly crucial when business decisions are being made on the basis of information you provide. You may not need to go through the whole checklist each time you evaluate something, but it provides a useful reminder of what to look for. With practice over time, you will find that asking these kinds of questions becomes second nature.

You can download the CAN and PROMPT checklist [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   to refer to later.

In the next activity you will think about how far you already ask critical questions of the online sources you come across in your ‘information landscape’.

Activity 6 Evaluating resources

Identify some situations where you have needed to find information on the internet.

How did you decide what to trust?

Note down the sort of process you go through and the questions you ask. How far do they reflect the CAN or PROMPT criteria?

Record in your Digital plan any points you want to remember for the future.

Both these frameworks can be used and adapted for all kinds of information. You can also use them when deciding who to trust online. While your ‘gut reaction’ should not be ignored, it is good to go beyond initial first impressions of how a person comes across online. It is worthwhile doing a search to find out more about their background, who they are linked with (for example, particular professional or political groups) and what they do and say online. As mentioned in Week 3, many employers do an online search when considering whether to interview or appoint someone.