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I. USERS

This chapter seeks to look at the web in a practical way from an end user’s point of view.  It examines the advantages and disadvantages of the web, looks briefly at the general profile of an “average” web user and then goes on to examine key factors that a user should use to evaluate if a website is “fit for purpose”.  It then dips into theory again looking at cognitive skills of users and concludes with a practical tool, a checklist for evaluating websites.

 

 

I.1. Advantages of the new medium

From a user’s perspective, the Internet can be a powerful instrument for obtaining information. It is democratic and equal in the sense that everyone with access to the Internet, and some basic skills, can put information out on the web.  This means that an Internet user has access to a far greater range of material than would have been possible through older media, allowing more options and possibilities to be explored and more comparisons to be made.

 

Because access is so easy and is not constrained by location or time, the Internet allows the delivery of information and services to people who would have difficulty accessing such information and services by other means. Someone working long hours, who would like to seek information or advice from a guidance service, may not be able to access services delivered face-to-face at a guidance centre.  Services available through the Internet, being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week would offer such a person access to help that they may not otherwise get. For example

Careers Scotland has a website policy which aims to allow its clients living in remote communities to have access to the same resources as a client living close to a careers centre in a large city. 

 

 

I.2. Disadvantages of the new medium

Because the Internet is a cheap and easily accessible medium that is largely uncontrolled, anyone can create a website.  It is also very anonymous, allowing the creation of websites that give no indication of who has created them.  Very professional looking websites can be created with very limited resources.  There are few controls on the content or standards of websites.  With traditional printed formats for information the costs involved in the production and distribution of such material meant that publishers would take care to produce accurate, up to date and quality information in order to justify the cost to the user.  Purchasers of such material would look for guarantees of quality, by buying from recognised publishers and authors.  The fact that it is possible to create websites with minimal resources has contributed to the massive growth in the number of websites.  However it also raises important questions about standards, accuracy and intent.  The investment required in the production of traditional materials acted as a guarantee of quality: the Internet offers no such guarantees. 

 

 

Searching the Internet using the term “careers guidance on the internet” produced as its first result an organisation with the impressive word “Institute” in its title. The website offered tests and careers information which had to be paid for.  There was no information on the “Institute” itself, where it was based or what its expertise was, nor was there much information on the tests themselves.  From the pricing information it was possible to discern that the “Institute” was an American organisation, but that was about all.  Now, it may be that the “Institute” is a well known and much respected organisation among the guidance community in the USA, on the other hand it is possible that it is not a professional organisation at all, but rather a money-making venture created by someone with little or no professional background in vocational guidance.  In this latter case, for someone looking for help on the Internet, the professional looking website may have convinced them that this was a valuable service whereas the help they received for their money may well have been of dubious value.

 

I.3. User profile

The range of people searching the World Wide Web for various reasons comprises individuals that differ in many ways, starting with their interest and why are they there and defined in terms of their education and culture. Still, despite their overwhelming diversity, researchers have identified similar patterns of behaviour that can make for a general user profile. Thus, a study conducted in 1997 (Holsanova & De Leon, 1997) reveals that, in relation to the worldwide web, people:

lack ready made strategies;
prefer alternatives that are visible;
choose the path of less resistance;
exhibit social forms of behaviour;
engage in parallel activities;
object to misleadingly presented information;
have trouble orienting;
are  late in using appropriate strategies;
are sensitive to matters of time, and
are emotionally involved in the activity.

 

While noting that this profile needs the attention of both developers and guidance practitioners who are using the web in their work with clients, we will now on focus on the other side of the equation, that is, the user perspective. What does a user need to know? What are the key issues?

 

 

I.4. Reviewing and handling information

1.4.1. Reviewing websites – some general rules

As discussed above the Internet is a vast and complex arena where you could find information about practically everything.  The quality of information varies, however, though from excellent to abysmal.  An Internet user, particularly a user trying to obtain important advice or information, must be aware of this variation.  As such users are in effect alone on the web, they therefore need to develop skills with which to judge websites.

The following are some established criteria for source analysis that could be used.

 

I.4.2. Longevity

Careers information is volatile; it can quickly go out of date.  A first and easy criterion of quality is if a website gives update information, that is, if the user can see when the site was last reviewed and updated by the site’s producers.  A lack of such information does not necessarily indicate that a site is not regularly checked, however it is an easily provided and basic piece of information and so its absence should warn the users to treat the site with caution until they have established its quality by other means.

 

I.4.3. Sources

A website is dependent on other sources of information.  These may be primary research, i.e. the website producers research the information contained in the site directly, by interviewing people in a certain occupation for example.  These sources may be secondary, i.e. found by taking information from other sources on the web or elsewhere.  A website should explain what sources it draws on.  If a website does this then it allows the user to judge how accurate that website may be, by tracing some of these sources.  It also allows the user to verify accuracy by comparing some of the data contained in that site with data from another source that the site is not dependent on.  If the independent source agrees with the data in the target site then this gives an indication of accuracy and quality.

 

One difficulty in comparing information from different sources is that they sometimes don’t use the same definitions or worse, don’t declare the definitions they use. If the user cannot understand what the information is based upon then the value of the site will be diminished.  Therefore it is important that the definitions and precepts that the site is based on are explicit.  Another question to think about is the web site’s capacity to sustain the information. Availability of resources determines (in some cases) the capacity to use the site over a longer period of time.

 

I.4.4. Authenticity

One main point in assessing a website is to establish whether the organisation/person behind an Internet product is reliable.  As a minimum the website should give information about the organisation or individual behind it. An address or other contact details should be given, so that the user can verify that the organisation is genuine.  If guidance is offered then there should be information on how that guidance is offered along with some concrete indication of the type of personnel, their experience and their qualifications should be shown.

 

 

I.4.5. Bias

It is important to remember that each website is produced with a specific purpose or agenda to fulfil and this will influence the nature of its content.  It should also be remembered that websites are designed and edited by people who themselves are subject to bias.  A website user needs therefore, to be aware of the underlying purpose of a website before using it.  For example, a website produced by a government department such as a Ministry of Employment, whilst being basically honest, may present labour market information that has a bias towards skill shortage areas.  This may unconsciously push a user towards these occupational areas rather than an area more suited to their personality or skills.

 

In other cases a website may have a stronger and deliberate bias.  For example a website created by a university will aim at convincing potential students that it is the best university for them.  It may highlight the positive aspects of its courses, teaching methods, resources and location while minimising or ignoring completely potential drawbacks that a student might find (for example the university might be located in a town or city that has a high cost of living).

 

In the case of the university above we have an example of strong bias that is at least open.  It should be reasonably obvious that such a website will naturally have a positive bias about the institution it is promoting.  In the case of some Internet services this may not be so. It is perfectly feasible to imagine a website that offers “careers guidance”, but in fact is basically trying to get people to sign up for expensive training.  In such a scenario a user might complete some online “test” which then recommends that the user would be good at a particular job if they took a training course that the website recommended for them.

 

Bias then, affects what information and services a website offers.  It is difficult to avoid bias in building a website.  However the fact that bias is present should not deter a user from using a particular site, but it is important that a user understands what bias is present and can therefore judge the content in that light.

 

I.4.6. World-view or socio-cultural variations

Any website, as it is open to everyone, cannot be neutral.  This is because the Internet reaches across all cultural, religious and class boundaries.  It is therefore impossible to produce a single site that is neutral to all these groups.  It is difficult, if not impossible to satisfy everyone but once again the website should favour transparency and  openly declare the background and implications of their Internet product.

 

I.4.7. Credibility

When using a website for the first time a user should ask if it feels credible.  Does it present well reasoned arguments, does it justify its content, is it well balanced and recognise that there may be alternative views?  A website that expresses very specific opinions as facts, for example that states without doubt that a certain occupation will be a major recruiter in 10 years time, should be treated with some caution. (Leth & Thurén, 2000).  It also is important that websites draw distinctions between trends and opinion, however well founded, and facts.

 

 

I.5. The cognitive skills of the user

I.5.1. We have now briefly looked at various factors to take into consideration when examining a website.  Linked to the skills necessary for reviewing websites is the individual’s ability to deal with the information found on those websites.  In school we exercise our cognitive skills in order to be more efficient in performing a task; selecting, organising, synthesising and presenting information.  We receive quite a lot of support from our teachers in our early years. As our cognitive behaviours evolve we are expected to become more self-reliant.

 

As an adult working with Internet the strain on our cognitive abilities increases. We get rewarded if we sharpen our organising capability in order to manage the information flood on the web. We need to transform raw data into meaningful information so that we can learn from it and present it to others. In order to manage this process many researchers believe that so called metacognitive competencies are needed. It is not enough to perform a task; you should also understand how it was done. To think of one’s learning and performing style can strengthen the person’s strategic skills and improve future performances.

 

A metacognitive learner is able to distinguish “what is” from “what can be”. To be able to distance you from yourself makes it possible to be aware of your learning style, sensations, images and beliefs.  If you engage in self-analysis there are grounds for change in your behavioural patterns.

Indicators of a metacognitive learner can include these beliefs or characteristics:

Knowing is a dialogical process;
There is a dialogue within oneself;
Portray attitude as a continuous learner;
Working towards self-agency and authorship;
You are able to connect with others.

 

To develop this high quality thinking and behaviour there are among other suggestions, some strategies that Blakey & Spence (1990) propose:

Identifying “what you know” and “what you don’t know”;
Talking about thinking;
Keeping a thinking journal;
Planning and Self-regulation;
Debriefing the thinking process;
Self-evaluation.

 

A user interested in career planning should try to find websites that are supportive in diverse areas. Different users have various needs. If a user is in an early stage in the career planning process then it would be of interest to look for sites that support the development of the skills mentioned above in the process of becoming an independent learner.

 

 

I.6. Checklist

The following checklist is not claimed to be the total solution to reviewing a website, however it should provide a good starting point.  Certainly any website that does not pass at least a majority of the following criteria should be viewed with suspicion until its quality can be verified by other means.


 

Criteria

Questions

Notes

1

Links

Is the site linked to, or recommended by, other sites of known quality?

Are such links made as a recommendation of quality (rather than as advertising that the referring site makes money from)?

2

Ownership

Is the ownership of the site clearly stated?

 

Can a user easily find out who created the site and what kind of organisation they are?

Indicators of quality here include:

 

A contact page or details giving the name, address, and telephone numbers for the organisation owning the site.

 

An “About Us” page explaining who and what the organisation behind the site is.

3

Updates

Does the site show when it was last edited/verified? 

 

Is the content recent and if not is there a valid reason for it not having been changed?

Even if the first page of the site has been updated it cannot be taken for granted that all of its pages have been verified.

4

Purpose

Is the purpose of the site clearly stated?

 

Is the site upfront about any charges that may be made for its services?

A site that leads the user through a series of questions or tests and then tries to get them to pay for a service rather than stating that some or all of its service are charged for should be treated with some suspicion.

5

Commerciality

Is the site commercial?

 

Being commercial in itself is not a negative indicator, however the user needs to be sure that the prime purpose is to offer an appropriate and quality service not just to extract money from all and sundry.

6

Balance

Does the site allow that there are other sources of information and help?

 

Does the site link to other sites (of quality) that are independent of it?

Links to other apparently separate websites that are owned by the same organisation/person that owns the site under review are not necessarily a negative indicator.  It may be that the organisation offers differing services through different websites for reasons of clarity.  However websites that do not offer any links to other organisations should be treated with caution.

7

Target Users

Does the site explain who the site is for and why?  Further, does it direct visitors who do not match its target audience to alternatives better suited to their needs (i.e. “If you require information about ******** then you should go to this website”)

A site that does not indicate who it is aimed at may well be unclear itself as to whom it is trying to reach and why.


 

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Last update:  15:59 18/06 2004

Foreword
Abstract
I. Users
II. Delivery
III. Design / Developing
IV. Theory
V. Ethics
References
Annex 1
Annex 2
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GRUNTVIG - European Cooperation Projects in Adult Education
This project has been carried out with the support of the European Union in the framework of the Socrates program
The content of this project does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union, nor does it involve any responsibility on the part of the European Union