Trust in learning: where do we turn to when we need reliable information?

The first place i turn to for information is usually my mobile phone: i’ve adopted the habits of an impulsive Googler with great enthusiasm. Once the results come up, i often go to Wikipedia for an overview, turning to professional sites for deeper information. Or sometimes i’ll turn to a book. Although probably not as often as i think i do: as i was dusting off my bookshelves at the weekend i realised that there was a good reason for all the dust.

In a world that places ever greater value on knowledge and our ability to access it and process it, what value do we place on trust? Which sources of information do we trust the most and which ones do we actually use the most? I’m aware that i turn to Wikipedia frequently, but equally that i don’t trust it for anything important: i retain my academic snobbery at it’s lack of effective moderation and validity. But i still use it, because good enough is often all i need and i rely on my native cynicism and scepticism to spot the glaring errors.

I reached out to the Learning Forum to investigate these issues of trust further, asking where we turn to when we need reliable information and which sources we trust the most. The results were interesting, and not entirely as i’d predicted. People were given five choices: a genuine human being, Wikipedia, an eBook, an online forum or a real paper book.

In the study, 28% of people asked said that the source of information that they trusted the most was a fellow human being. “I vote for a genuine human being” said Chavi, but with a caveat “…but that depends on the kind of knowledge we are talking about. For fact[s] I might trust a text book or Wikipedia, but if i was learning something that i would need to apply… i would trust a genuine human being.

Sydney agreed, “I selected a person as my first reaction, partly because i am usually better able to get the context for new information from a person, through examples and stories. That isn’t nearly as easy to get from words on a page“.

There is no surprise here: we are used to learning from other people, from teachers, from parent and from experts. I guess the key thing that happens is that our level of caution builds as we grow older, from unquestioning early childhood to our cynical adult selves. People gain their authority and expertise from different sources: from their position, from their education or knowledge, or from their ability to communicate information in a timely and effective manner.

So ‘people‘ are a popular source of knowledge and one that is quite well trusted, although Chavi did raise the interesting point that just because we trust people best, that doesn’t mean that speaking to a fellow person is the most effective way to learn: “you ask who i trust more, that is different that what source i would learn best from“. Nick backed this up, saying Nick “My vote goes to the human – a great start point on which to challenge, find out where their knowledge came from, consider their level of expertise, etc…“. In other words, be discerning.

So what about Wikipedia? The bane of academics and saviour of students the world over! Well, 22% of us said that we would turn to the Wiki as a trusted source of information. Laura cautions, “I’m a bit hesitant about Wikipedia, because although I do use it from time to time, the sources are not always reliable and there is no sure way to verify their validity.

Maery followed this with an interesting thought, “I went with Wikipedia just because that’s generally where I find the most information. Whether it is accurate information is in question but at least it gives me enough to get started in my quest. Based on what I discover there, I can usually do a better follow up search.” This type of pragmatic approach resonates with me. I like to think that i’m discerning enough to apply ‘just enough‘ trust to Wikipedia, although that’s something that could be questioned. I do frequently allow the ease and speed of access to overcome any reservations i may have about accuracy. Mike raises the idea that some of us are more “Wiki-savvy“, which is a good point. The more experienced we are with online sources of information, the more likely we are to be cautious!

Claire, an experienced IT user and hence someone who is very ‘wiki-savvy‘ thought that the choices were tough, but “…to choose one of the options it would be Wikipedia, I would Google it and be drawn to Wikipedia to start me off” although she does caution that “it really does depend on what I am researching.” This theme of ‘it depends‘ was common, indicating that we flex not only our search style, but the level of trust we put behind it, dependent upon context. I can certainly empathise with this: if i’m looking for information about i band, Wikipedia is fine, but if i want to know about the the Civil War, i may turn to a more authoritative history text.

Zachary demonstrated why caution is sensible, “Ever since my girlfriend won a bet by changing a Wikipedia article, I’ve been more wary of online knowledge. :)

The online Forum scored a mere 6%, which may reflect the makeup of the sample group: some industries are very wedded to using forums for problem solving, such as IT, whilst in others it’s very little used. Do we trust what we see there? Jay voted for an online forum, “simply based upon the speed of this information age. That presumes we’re not talking about relatively ‘static’ information such as irrefutable facts. Online forums are subject to peer review (to some degree, a few of the other options are as well, but aren’t as volatile) and the ‘crowd-sourcing’ effect of having the ‘best’ answer… often bubbles to the top through ranking (e.g., number of “Likes”), etc.)“. Several good points here, and i like how he views what bubbles to the top as a kind of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest‘ approach to trust. If enough people trust it, maybe it’s worth considering (although he clearly identifies that ‘crown sourcing‘ itself may not be that valid for determining the truth, even if it is democratic!).

Neill liked Forums because he could just dive in and search out an expert at speed, particularly for IT support issues. Again, i can feel some empathy with this: IT problems are things that i frequently turn to online forums to resolve. I guess i feel less of a need to ‘trust’ the people there, because (unless i download something from them) i feel little risk of bad advice. This isn’t the case in all areas though: Maery “in general, the forums I see out there are a bunch of un-experts throwing their two cents in and you have to weed through a lot of useless comments. Especially iffy are forums on medical questions.” In other words, use with caution!

This leaves ‘textbooks‘ and ‘eBooks‘, which scored 33% and 11% respectively.

Robin is typical of today’s flexible learners: “Wiki is good just for some general information on people, E-books tend to be just for those long train journeys and only fiction.
Genuine human beings are great as long as you trust them as experts in the field your enquiring about.
” So ‘horses for courses‘, choose who you trust dependent upon context “I think we have access to so much information nowadays, we try and see which sources fit best for the type of information we require. It’s like putting on your shoes, you choose the correct pair for the relevant weather or occasion.

On the matter of textbooks, Robin saw value, but thought that “it can be outdated rather quickly.” Laura agreed with this, “in books the information becomes outdated unlike in an online version for example where the information can be updated as needed.” Mike also threw some caution around textbooks “My initial thought was to go with ‘text book,’ but recent events have made me question that, as light has been shed on the subjectivity of those. The saying ‘the winner gets to write history’ casts quite a bit of doubt on what has traditionally been printed in text books

Jennifer gave a good insight into why we may still trust books so much: “I would say an eBook or actual text book as in most cases it is based on research and theory from multiple sources. We study from text books and so this is probably why we trust them the most.

How much we trust different sources of information is a key issue in today’s world, where knowledge is easy to find in quantity, but maybe less so in quality. Our results indicate that we trust a wide number of sources, but often dependent upon context.

Darragh “Depends on the situation for me, decisions are to do with the type and depth of knowledge required, the speed its required, how thoroughly the source needs to be documented. Also some things are not necessarily written down because they are situational, for these a person is often best.

My initial assumption was that books would score highest, and indeed, they do, with a total of 44% (combined physical and ‘e’), but I also have to question my own habits. I’m aware that, whilst i would have voted for an actual book, the reality is that i rarely actually go back to source texts these days. Sure, i gain reassurance and emotional satisfaction from having shelves full of books, but I couldn’t quantify how often i actually open them in anger. I guess, like everyone, i am adapting to meet the demands of an online world, but i hope i don’t loose the rigour in the process. It’s still ultimately in introspective process to determine trust, and it’s one of the most important skills we can cultivate in learning.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agile, Authority, Book, e-Books, Forum, Information, Knowledge, Research, Trust and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Trust in learning: where do we turn to when we need reliable information?

  1. michael says:

    When the application of the data can have a significant impact I believe the source needs to be as trustworthy as possible. My wife’s work requires approved research articles and texts, nothing less. For learning, I tend to follow your approach, Google first, look for common themes. That is often enough for many of my learning inquiries. When preparing a business case however, I turn to the professional learning sites to learn about best practices, current research, and key considerations. Examples of these are Corporate Leadership Council that my company subscribes to, and then the learning sites, ASTD, SHRM, CLO, Training Magazine, etc.

    So much of what I find out there are the multiple iterations or takes of a core concept. Most leadership development programs are built on core elements and models (e.g. Situational Leadership, Influence, Conflict, etc.). What I find most interesting however, and my greatest use of Google, are for the latest examples of how learning is being built and deployed. The best sources I have found are sites like this, where users who are on the fringe, and outside of the status quo, are presenting their ideas.

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