But - I found it on the Internet!

With so much homework done online, kids need better skills to sort good information from bad

Caroline Clemens, a sixth-grader at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Md., may be young as researchers go, but she is already a savvy broker of Internet-based information. Like thousands of her peers, Caroline uses the Internet for many of her classes, preferring to "Ask Jeeves" than to seek out her school librarian for answers.

Children of the Internet generation know that the voyage of Christopher Columbus or the life cycle of a butterfly are but a few clicks away. To them, card catalogs and bound encyclopedias are simply relics of the ancient past.

It's a change that's occurred with all the rapidity of a high-speed Internet connection - and one that's profoundly changing the landscape of most educators' worlds.

"I call it a paradigm shift," says Marty Hankins, director of technology at Garrison Forest School. "[The Internet] puts incredible resources at the fingertips of teachers, but it also means that teachers are becoming facilitators, and that is hard. It's a changing dynamic in that teachers don't have all the information."

For students, the new tool means developing critical-thinking skills to evaluate endless reams of data, while resisting the distraction of Web ads and the temptation to plagiarize content from the Web.

But in many ways, the true pressure is on teachers. They must be up to speed in a medium that is often more familiar to their students. And they're having to rethink everything from comfort with reliable resources provided by well-respected publishers to developing a sharper eye for plagiarism.

Yet with the focus in recent years on acquiring hardware and software, teachers have been largely left to figure out on their own how to use the Web effectively in class - even as more and more of their students turn to it first for schoolwork.

The number of children ages 1 to 12 going online will grow from 8.6 million in 1998 to 24.3 million in 2003, according a study by Jupiter Communications, a New York-based consulting firm. Jupiter data also show that 75 percent of kids online use the Internet to do homework.

And why not? In one sense, finding information on the Web has never been easier, even though the experience can be a bit like trying to get a sip of water from an uncorked fire hydrant. Type the words "Civil War" into the Alta Vista search engine, for example, and 580,838 pages are retrieved.

But while the thought of easily tapping such resources is enticing, the lack of guidance can present a young scholar with a confounding array of positions and voices to absorb while trying to understand an issue.

That presents educators with a new responsibility - one that must be taught to ever-younger classes. "You have to teach how to identify source bias, and balance that with other sources - teach how information fits in a larger construct," says Jacqueline Hess of the Academy for Educational Development in Washington.

To do this, teachers must help kids develop a discerning eye for everything they see, hear, and read on the Internet. "Training a kid to have a critical eye is very, very important," says Catherine Davis, a veteran teacher and managing editor for Yahooligans.com, an Internet directory for young adults (and one that includes advertising, though it is clearly marked). "It is important for kids to understand what is content or advertising."

But if Samuel Ebersole's research is accurate, much work remains to be done in that area. Professor Ebersole, chairman of the mass-communications department at the University of Southern Colorado, collected more than 130,000 Web addresses used by Colorado middle- and high-school students who claimed to be using the Internet for research. With the help of two media experts, he reviewed a random sample of 500 of these sites to determine their reliability for academic research. The result: an astonishingly low 27 percent of the sites were considered reliable sources of information.

Ebersole blames the appeal of commercial Web sites for much of the problem. "Commercial sites are user friendly and attractive," he says, adding that many children lack the tools to determine what is legitimate information. "Students find them more easily and [they are] more comfortable to navigate - I don't think they are intentionally goofing off."

That means educators must place a greater premium on media literacy.

"The art of logical reasoning - once a staple in educational training - will have to be taught again," writes Ms. Hess in Educom Review, a technology and education journal, "for students will need to be better versed in the logical relationship of ideas and information."

At Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vt., Claudine Keenan is showing new teachers how to address this issue. But her emphasis is not on the delivery of content. Rather, the focus is the thought process of the researcher.

"Our first strategy is how to help students and teachers to be critical readers of any source," says Ms. Keenan. "The skill is not just appropriate to the Internet medium - though the danger is it is much simpler on the Internet - it is valuable in all mediums."

A critical researcher evaluates information on a variety of levels (see guide, pages 16 and 17), deciding what the inherent biases of the content are, who the authors are, what their authority may be, and how the information is validated.

These evaluation skills have equal merit on the Internet and in the library. Tempting as it may be to rely entirely on the Web, it is clear that old-fashioned libraries will continue to be a critical source of information. "The role I see technology playing is that of another tool and a window to the rest of the world," Ms. Davis says. But, she adds, it is "not a substitute for books."

Books, of course, have an advantage over the Internet. For one thing, young scholars don't typically have to worry about finding, say, an Abercrombie fashion advertisement amid the pages of a book on the space shuttle.

But they simplify other issues as well. Turn to the copyright page, and most sourcing questions are quickly resolved. This kind of information evaluation isn't always easy on the Internet. That's why Keenan teaches her students backwards navigation - deleting layers of pages from the Web address until the subject's original source becomes apparent.

"We already hit [the subject] with a search engine, deep within a site," says Keenan, describing what often happens when a student finds information. "We are in a tunnel and we drill up from the cave, break free from the surface, look around with a broader perspective, and get an aerial view."

But even as teachers address authenticating sources, they're dealing with another issue: plagiarism. A click and drag here, a paste and drop there, and suddenly a seventh-grader has pulled together a paper that was more an engineering feat than an intellectual endeavor.

The problem is not limited to students. According to Hess, teachers need to examine their own practices. "Educators are notorious scofflaws," Hess says. "Their attitude is, 'We're not using this to make money, we use it to teach people.' In the old days, teachers xeroxed [books] and publishers looked the other way. We need to get educators to understand they can't bring that same disregard to the digital world."

Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York, acknowledges that the new medium is demanding "huge changes" - and difficult ones. "This is an intellectual can of worms," she notes, "but a fabulous opportunity if we prepare teachers to do it." And, she warns, "If we don't do anything, this will be a failed revolution of education."

Ultimately, of course, the effectiveness of the high-tech change boils down to a familiar constant: teachers. Educators, after all, can shape a student's ability to truly benefit from using the Web. "No matter how wonderful a Web site is," says Davis, "it won't replace a really good teacher."

*E-mail colhouna@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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