Paper presented at the IAMCR Conference
“Communication and Citizenship”, Braga 2010
Reliability vs. Authority
Difficulties Within Practices of Credibility Assessment of Information by
Highschool Students and Teachers in Austria
Axel Maireder & Manuel Nagl
Department of Communication, University of Vienna
The Internet, social media in particular, has become an integral part of the everyday life of youth.
According to a recent study (GfK 2009) nearly a hundred percent of the 13 to 17 year old Austrians
use social media applications like Facebook. A lot of studies researching the use of those means of
communication have been carried out in the last years (Gross 2004; J. Schmidt u. a. 2009; Ito u. a.
2008; Wagner u. a. 2009). ‚Digital natives’ (Prensky 2001) hang out, mess around and geek out (Ito
u. a. 2008) in the web, which provides communication spaces that fulfil functions of information,
relationship and identity management (J. Schmidt 2009).
Another communication space central to the life of teenagers is school, the place the society ensures
that children get prepared for the challenges and requirements of life within this society (Fend
2006). This increasingly includes competences on the use of information and communication
technologies, which are and will be central to social communication now and in the future. One of
those is the competency to reasonably assess the credibility of information, which has become a key
literacy in the knowledge society. Research on the credibility assessment of information by students
has been carried out by a number of scholars (Franke & Sundin 2009; Rieh & Hilligoss 2007;
Wathen & Burkell 2002; Lorenzen 2001; Nicholas et. al. 2008), revealing worrisome knowledge and
competence gaps. However, those studies have primarily focused on the actual assessment of
information within particular settings, leaving aside the contexts in which these assessments are
made. Our study tries to close that gap.
Our project systematically asked for the terms, forms and consequences of Internet use in schools
and for school‐related tasks as well as the impact of the school on Internet practices of teens,
especially the development of competences for information research and information processing.
The initial assumption of our cultural theory based project (Schmidt 2005, Bauer 2006), was that
the openness and universality of the Internet as well as its network structure are contradicting the
the hierarchical, authoritarian model of school education, its performance‐orientation and its
sequential learning culture. The aim of the project was to identify the communicative and cognitive
practices that are formed by students and teachers in the context of the Internet and school and to
evaluate those practices as challenges within the information society.
For the collection of our data we carried out narrative group interviews (Bohnsack 2004) with
students and teachers in thirteen different classes from ten different high schools in six (out of nine)
Austrian provinces. The students were aged 13 to 16. Aiming for high heterogeneity, we selected
schools / classes that preferably differed in demographics, location and type of education: Schools in
rural, suburban and urban areas, with high, medium and low percentage of immigrants and classes
of two age groups (13/14 and 15/16 years old) emphasising on either technical, commercial or
general education. In each class we asked the students to gather in groups of five people, aiming for
groups of individuals with low frictions. We chose the two groups that gathered fastest in each class,
assuming that those are the groups in which the individuals know each other best. We also tried to
keep an eye on the allocation of boys and girls in the groups. As most of the groups were
homogeneous in terms of gender anyway, we had one boy and one girl group in most of the cases.
Altogether, 117 students took part in 26 group interviews. Additionally, we asked teachers in each
school to participate in group discussions separate from the students’ ones. We conducted ten group
interviews with 47 teachers altogether.
The group interviews conducted were openly structured, aiming for lively discussions between the
participants rather than responses to specific questions. Respectively, the moderation was low‐key,
questions mostly unspecific. The discussions lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and were recorded
on tape. The qualitative analysis of the data was undertaken according to the strategies provided by
Grounded Theory (Strauss u. a. 1996; Glaser u. a. 2005; Krotz 2005): open coding, recoding,
development of hypothesis, testing and adapting hypothesis in a circular process.
The analysis of our data showed phenomena within three categories: The use of the internet as a
tool for and an object of educational instruction, as a medium for communication between students
about school and as a tool for the accomplishment of school tasks. For this paper, only the third
category will be further addressed.
Austrian students use the Internet intensively for work on school tasks like homework, the drafting
of essays or the preparation of class presentations. The usage of the Internet for those tasks is
mostly neither guided by teachers nor subject to any guidelines issued by teachers or school
authorities. The use of the Internet is rather implicitly taken for granted by both students and
teachers, mostly without addressing the respective practices. Most of the time, the Internet is the
only information source used by the students. Books, magazines, journals are widely ignored by the
students, even if the teachers encourage them to make use of printed media. Even if the actual task
is to read a book and to write a summary or to interpret it, students prefer to find related secondary
and tertiary literature on the Internet and use them as basis for their work rather than to actually
read the book itself.
Research for information for school tasks starts almost always at one of two websites. One is Google,
which is researched using mostly one simple keyword without combinations with additional words.
Google’s results are scanned very quickly according to the list provided and Links that are assumed
to be relevant are clicked. In this process the students assess Google’s ranking as a very meaningful
indicator of the respective Websites’ relevance and quality. Thus, they hardly ever scan more than
the first page of results and they go back to Google every time after they have scanned a website it
had linked to. If the results of the first query are somewhat reasonable, only one is undertaken. The
choice of Google as the initial as well as central reference point in information research practices is
not surprising. Our findings support other studies in that point (Rieh & Hilligoss 2008; Lorenzen
2001; for Austria Mager 2009).
The second website students use as their starting and reference point for research is Wikipedia. It’s
importance for students’ information gathering practices can hardly be underestimated. The more
so as the results showing up in Google queries often list articles from Wikipedia at a high position.
To both Websites, Google and Wikipedia, students assign very high levels of credibility. They are
credible both on a conceptional and an operative level. The former refers to the assessment of
truthfulness based on certain concepts, the latter “to the extent to which users think that the
information is useful, good, current, and accurate.“ (ibid, 146)
On a conceptional level, the students put trust into a quite vague concept of ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’
(Surowiecki 2005), assessing information more credible the more people were involved in
producing and evaluating it or the more sources state the same particular information. The former
refers to Wikipedia’s concept of the collaboration of a multitude of authors and the respective
check‐and‐recheck mechanisms, the latter to Google under the students’ (wrong) assumption that it
ranks a page higher the more people consult it.
These assumptions starkly conflict with the teachers’ assessments of these applications. They are
very sceptical towards Google and in particular Wikipedia. From their perspective, Wikipedia’s
quality is doubtful because the content can be edited by everyone and there is no control on who is
writing. Google is assessed likewise. As it’s ranking is rather based on quantitative than qualitative
criteria, sources get more credit the more other pages link to it, ignoring the quality of the
information provided. While the youth values the openness of information systems as well as the
quantitative measurements they are based on as a guarantee for the quality of information, the
adults are sceptical for the same considerations.
This corresponds to the change from an authorative credibility to a credibility by reliability, which
was described by Lankes (2007). The credibility of information, traditionally assessed due to the
rather stable authority of a certain source is increasingly a question of credibility conversations, a
consideration on the basis of a multitude of sources.
Correspondingly, the students interviewed in our study report that they relate information from
different sources (from the Google results) to assess the quality of a certain information on a regular
bases. The problem is, that the students often do not sufficiently understand the concepts and
backgrounds of the sources and information systems they get their information from, resulting in
misinterpretations. The critical attitude towards Google and Wikipedia of the teachers can neither
be understood nor agreed upon out of two reasons: First, the teachers critique conflicts with their
practices. Despite their critique, they use both Google and Wikipedia on a regular basis for both
private and school purposes. The students notice that sharp contrast between theory and practice.
Second, students and teachers talk at cross purposes because of their different interpretations of the
same basic assumptions.
On the operative level ‐ the usefulness of information ‐ the points of view of students and teachers
accord: Sources that proved their value, information that proved relevant, reasonable, coherent,
applicable for the task it was researched for are considered credible. Accordingly, both Google and
Wikipedia are sources or information systems respectively, teachers and students trust on an
operative level, resulting in an extensive use.
Unfortunately, and that turns out to be a major problem, teachers often do not evaluate the quality
of information when grading student’s assignments. They may evaluate the quality of the
presentation or the language used, but rarely the content ‐ the actual data and facts presented
within a paper or oral presentation. There are two major reasons for that: One is the workload
associated with fact checking and the other is their uncertainness related to information not
explicitly part of the curriculum.
However, as grading is the major feedback students need to get aware of what is good and what is
bad within their work, they are not getting aware of inaccurate or even wrong information within
their papers or – putting it the other way around ‐ accordingly, little by little, ‘learn’ that the quality
of information is less relevant than the form it is presented in. Concurrently, they turn only sparse
attention to the accuracy of the information they process, putting little effort into information
research. Respectively they adjust their focus to the features of the work the teachers evaluate,
putting a lot of effort into the right composition, style and design of their papers and oral
The practices the students mostly show when working on papers based on information from the
Internet range are simple copy‐and‐paste of website content into their drafts and some minor
adjusting of language style and design. They rarely read the information they process intensively
and writing text mostly based on their own reasoning is a very seldom practice. Again, however, the
choice for a certain procedure is linked to the assumption of how the work will be evaluated by the
teacher, based on prior experiences.
The results of our project provide new and detailed insights into the changing nature of credibility
assessment from an authorative credibility to credibility by reliability. Even if the results can not be
generalized as the culture of schooling is different in other countries, the results from Austria can
make researchers and practitioners aware that certain problems in making today’s youth digitally
literate may also lie in problematic processes of interaction among teachers and students.
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Mag. Axel Maireder
Department of Communication, University of Vienna
Schopenhauerstr.32, 1180 Vienna, Austria
axel.maireder (at) univie.ac.at