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How to Evaluate The Credibility of China EFL Websites

Posted 2014-1-8

conduct a Google search on "teaching English in China" and what you will find is around 60 million results consisting mostly of sites that are trying to sell you something. These sites are created or sponsored by Chinese and Western recruiters, TEFL certification schools, EFL job forums, "nonprofit" cultural exchange programs, and many others who stand to gain considerably by convincing you to teach English in China.

In the vast majority of cases, the sources and the people behind the information are entirely unnamed; in others, it is simply hoped or assumed that a history of having personally lived, taught, and traveled in China is sufficient for establishing credibility and gaining your trust. A few of the more unscrupulous recruiters out there will even try to lure you into their lair by falsely using such words as "official" or "government approved" to describe their services and products.

Of course, the fact that someone is trying to sell you something or that a legitimate organization or educational institution stands to gain tangibly from your patronage doesn't necessarily mean that the information provided is unreliable or invalid. Aside from this free comprehensive Guide, other sources of honest, straightforward, and well-documented information about teaching English in China can also be found on websites belonging to private and university-sponsored TEFL/TESOL certification programs (particularly those that are based in Western countries) because they have no specific vested interest in whether their students eventually teach in China or not.

In addition, while having personal experience with living and teaching in China is not nearly a sufficient condition for claiming expertise (no more than riding the subway to and from work everyday for 20 years qualifies one as an expert on that city's transit system), experience is certainly a necessary condition and exposure to numerous opinions might be useful (even anonymous ones in which the source cannot be considered), especially in regard to highly subjective issues such as whether 5000 yuan is adequate for maintaining a comfortable life or which brand name DVD player one should buy in China.

The real problem with these China EFL websites and resources—barring accredited Western universities and well-established TEFL certification programs—in regard to obtaining critically important and essential information, is that there is no reliable way for the uninitiated to accurately evaluate their veracity, at least not until after they've had the opportunity to experience living and teaching in China for themselves. Of course, by then, learning that you were deliberately misled or lied to by omission doesn't help you.

Prospective foreign teachers who take the time to do their homework are going to be deluged by a virtual ocean of websites in fierce competition with each other for your business. You can count on being subjected to diametrically opposed opinions about the various pros and cons of teaching English in China. The only way you will prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed or terribly confused is by first evaluating and considering the source of the information.

Virginia Montecino, a faculty member at George Mason University in Virginia, teaches courses in digital information and cyberculture and has created a list of extremely important guidelines for determining the credibility of any online source of information titled "Criteria to Evaluate the Credibility of WWW Resources." In light of the myriad of China EFL-related forums, blogs, and websites that await the uninitiated, we've decided to devote some time to specifically applying and discussing her criteria in regard to the types of questions you should be asking yourself when reading various sources of information about teaching English in China.

Criteria for Evaluating the Credibility of China EFL Websites and Resources
1.Specifically, what type of website are you visiting and can the identity of the website's authors be clearly ascertained? If so, have they established qualifications and credentials that necessarily qualify them as experts on the subjects they are writing about?

The realm of China EFL-related Internet resources seems to span across five broad categories, listed here in descending order of prevalence: 1) Personal blogs (includes blogs written by individual authors and sole recruiters, both onymously and not); 2) Forums; 3) Company or organizational blogs and websites that represent private schools, EFL teaching certification programs, private educational groups, professional practices, as well as recruitment agencies (includes these "all-in-one 'nonprofit cultural-exchange'" programs); 4) Accredited universities and colleges that offer academic degrees or training programs in teaching English as a second language and, finally; 5) Government agencies, both Western and Chinese.

It is often quite difficult to quickly discern which type of website you are visiting and that ambiguity is usually deliberate. Many personal blogs try to disguise themselves as professional organizations by using very impressive-sounding institutional names, e.g., The China Foreign Teachers Association or The Shenyang Institute for Cultural Affairs Exchange (these are just fictitious, representative examples).

Reading personal blogs written by China EFL teachers can be useful for learning about the types of experiences other teachers are having but these do not necessarily inform you about what you might expect. For example, you may thoroughly enjoy the food at a hotel that was recently criticized by a friend of yours or you may have a terrible time on a cruise that was raved about by a regular member of a travel forum.

It appears that just about everyone who has lived, taught, and traveled in China for any period of time considers him or herself to be an expert on the subject, especially members of anonymous China EFL forums who rely on their cumulative post counts to imply credibility, as if this number serves as some sort of credential or qualification. Obviously, no rational prospective foreign teacher is going to make life-altering decisions based on what some anonymous poster with the username "DancingMonkey7233" (for example) has written on a public forum simply because it was written with conviction and he or she has submitted 9,837 posts over a five-year period.

Simply having lived, taught, and traveled in China does not qualify one as an expert on these topics, no more than I am an expert on hypertension as a medical illness solely as a result of having lived with it for 30 years. I can certainly tell you what medications currently work for me but that certainly would not necessarily inform you about what will work for you and, furthermore, I am not a licensed physician or nurse.

Years ago, a Western recruiter submitted an article from his website in the form of a post on a popular China EFL teachers' forum. It was primarily a patronizing admonishment written as a list of rules that prospective foreign teachers needed to follow in order to be considered serious about teaching in China, written no doubt to impress the local officials of his city, but it was couched and misnamed as a treatise on "culture shock in China." This recruiter's credentials consisted primarily of military experience as a non-commissioned officer in the United States, a bachelor's degree in some unrelated field (which he earned either towards the end of his military career or shortly afterwards) and 13 years of experience as a resident in the same city in mainland China. Even to this day, he apparently still considers himself to be an expert on cultural adjustment in China even though there is absolutely nothing in his educational or work background that legitimately qualifies him as such. However, his self-proclaimed expertise on psychosocial and cultural adjustment, as well as on all matters related to living and teaching in China, is very typical of Western foreign teachers in China, especially those who have been around for awhile.

Anonymous personal blogs and websites, as well as onymous ones written by those whose qualifications and credentials are limited primarily to having lived and worked in China, should be regarded with the same credibility you would give a personal movie review written by a member of a DVD and film review forum. Information offered by Chinese-owned EFL certification programs, private schools, and recruiters should all be treated dubiously and with extreme caution as, obviously, these entities stand to gain something tangible from your patronage. You should be especially cautious of sites that claim to be "government approved" or "official." There is no such thing as an official or government approved recruitment agency in China, although there are business and foreign teacher recruiting licenses that are issued by the government—but acquiring those licenses is certainly not the same thing as being government approved or official. These statements are deliberately intended to be misleading.

A excellent way to locate valid and reliable sources of information is by consulting authoritative Internet directory listings that are professionally reviewed by trained and experienced editors and cannot be purchased or obtained simply by exchanging links. Two such highly-respected sources of Internet directory listings are the Open Directory Project and the Riley Guide. Only those websites that are considered to offer valid and reliable sources of information can be listed in these directories.
2.Assuming the authors are named, do they list their contact information (phone number, mailing address) and the organization or institution with which they are affiliated?

As you begin your research into living and teaching in China, you will quickly notice that virtually all recruitment agencies in China do not list any contact information other than a public e-mail address, e.g., gmail.com, hotmail.com, yahoo.com, etc. and these often change frequently as do their "agency" names. Related, when the authors of personal blogs are named, rarely do they identify their institutional affiliations or provide any contact information aside from their domain name e-mail address, e.g., shenzhenbill@chinateachersnetwork.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . This omission does call into question the validity and reliability of the information being provided.
3.Aside from his or her personal blog, does the author have any peer-reviewed publications to his or her credit either in journals, on the Internet, or in hard copy?

The absence of such additional published works does not necessarily mean the personal information provided is not credible but these additional citations do indicate that other qualified educators have deemed this author's information as meaningful and valuable.
4.Is the provided information backed-up with authoritative, external citations? Is the information well-documented or are you reading nothing more than an opinion or a story about a personal experience? If the information being offered qualifies as an opinion, does that author qualify as a subject area expert based on his or her credentials (in addition to personal experience)?

Bona fide experts—usually academicians, researchers, and licensed professionals—know fully well that authoritative information must be referenced with citations from collaborating external sources, such as other journal articles, textbooks, and news reports based on empirical research. Anecdotes based on hearsay and personal experience do not qualify as references or documentation.
5.Does the author clearly state upfront whatever biases he or she may hold about the subject being discussed? Are there any apparent conflicts of interest and, if so, are they made explicit?

Everyone has certain preferences and established beliefs that can be regarded as biases: It is an integral part of being human. Biases are not necessarily a bad thing nor do they invalidate the information being offered—just as long as they are made explicit from the very beginning, usually in the form of a mission or philosophical statement. Detailed discussions of the authors' underlying assumptions and beliefs, together with their credentials, provide you with the ability to better consider the source and determine the reliability and validity of the website's content.

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