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Teaching Guide: Strategies for Teaching Internet Research

This guide attempts to be as comprehensive as possible, yet due to the ever-changing, ever-growing, broad scope of the Internet, such a goal is necessarily not achievable.

Note: This guide is still under construction. Rough edges remain, but the information is nearly complete.

Introduction

Research. It can be hard enough doing it, but now you've got to teach your students how to do it. And although you feel fairly comfortable with library resources, including journals, books, and interlibrary loan, you know that most of your students are going to want to do their research online. So there's no way around it--you've got to teach them to use the Internet for research.

If you feel less than confident about your ability to do so, take comfort in one certainty--you will be learning with your students. Some of them may have never stepped foot in the library, some of them may have never been online, others are information highway cruisers. Yet one thing is almost guaranteed--none of them are going to be skilled at finding and using quality sources. No matter how Web-literate they are, no matter how familiar they claim to be with search engines, most of them will still have trouble finding valid information that is relevant to their topics.

What is the Internet?

Although it is difficult now to take a class, read a newspaper, or watch the evening news without hearing about the Internet, most of us can probably remember when the Internet as we know it did not exist. In fact, most of us can probably recall when email was an foreign concept, and if we think back hard enough, we can most likely recall our first experience "surfing" the net. Those among us who were technologically on the cutting edge probably also remember the early days of the Internet, when information was gathered using gophers and telnet; these pioneers most certainly appreciate the growth and advancement of Internet technology in the last ten years.

The Internet is a network of national and international computers that allows access to an interconnected Web of information. The original prototype of this Web, ARPANET, was developed in the late 60s by the Department of Defense. It was intended for use by the government and military as a way to maintain nationwide communication in the event of a national disaster such as nuclear war. In the 80s, the National Science Foundation developed the NSFnet, which was the precursor to our present-day Internet. The NSFnet provided high speed connections between computers across the country. Information was transmitted primarily through the use of text-based gophers, as well as newsgroups, mailing lists, and electronic mail. (Lam, Palmquist). By today's standards, it was clunky and user-unfriendly, thus its use was mainly limited to government and university researchers and scientists.

In the early 90s, however, the Internet began to take on broader public appeal when the World Wide Web was developed. The WWW links documents together through the use of hypertext and is accessed through easy-to-use browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer. Its graphically-oriented nature makes it easy to navigate and user-friendly, thus making cyberspace convenient and accessible to the general public and hundreds of new users. Anyone who has access to a server or Internet provider and knows how to use HTML (hypertext markup language) can post to the Web. As a result, millions of people now use the Internet to keep in touch with friends, purchase automobiles, trade stocks, advertise products, and conduct online classes, to name only a few uses. Although the older means of accessing the Internet still exist, the WWW's ease of use and access has made them virtually obsolete, and public-access gopher sites are gradually being phased out.

To say the Internet is growing quickly is an understatement. In 1993, there were estimated to be four million users (Lam), and by 1995, the number was up to 27 million and was predicted to grow to 200 million by the year 2000 (Harris). By 1997, that prediction was up to 500 million users by the year 2000 (Cooper and Cooper).

Along with that growth, particularly in the field of education, have come changing attitudes about the value of the Web. During its early years, the WWW was touted to hold the potential to improve education and create a worldwide community of learners (Davis, Graves, Lam, McGlinn, Monahan). More recently, however, that enthusiasm has subsided, and educators have tended to step back and view the Web with more caution (Knowlton, Lyman, Nigohosian, Oppenheimer).

Promises and Pitfalls of Internet Research

The accessible and user-friendly nature of the Web has many advantages, especially for students doing research. On the other hand, students approaching this vast amount of information unprepared can come away from their experience frustrated:

Information can be found quickly and conveniently, from a variety of sources

Time and geographic constraints have virtually disappeared; a student can browse the stacks of the Australian National University's library while sitting in her dorm room at 2 a.m. Students have access to previously unavailable information, including up-to-date information on current events; a student writing an essay about the latest space shuttle launch can access the NASA Web site instead of having to rely solely on news accounts. The Internet offers options and a wider range of information to students at schools where the library's holdings are limited. In addition, information found on the Internet can provide students with a variety of points of view, and can extend learning beyond the confines of the classroom walls

Successful and rewarding uses of the Internet in the schools are well-documented

Educational journals, magazines, and newspapers are filled with stories of teachers using the Web used to create connections outside the schools, publish student work, and help students gather information. In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, Todd Oppenheimer describes a group of junior high students who were able to email businessmen in Japan and China in order to gather information for an assignment (61). Chris Davis, a middle school teacher in Ohio, reports in the English Journal that his students successfully conducted research for I-Search papers on usenet newsgroups. Richard Seltzer, writing in Internet World, recounts how a class of sixth graders wrote, coded and published their essays on the Web. Seltzer observed that this kind of activity can provide important motivation and recognition, since "anyone anywhere in the world with access to the Web could see [these students'] creations" (84).

Unlimited access that also makes the Web problematic

The ability of virtually anyone to post anything to the Web means that the Web contains information on just about any topic, and unfortunately, much of this information is unreliable, inappropriate, or simply uninteresting. In addition to educational resources, scientific data, and job postings, there are also personal vanity homepages, advertisements, and the exhortations of those who just want to be heard, as well as pornography and guides to criminal activity. This mass of information is problematic to the student researcher who is attempting to find useful, reliable information.

The difficulty of finding worthwhile information

The problem of the vast amounts of largely irrelevant, inappropriate, and even dangerous, information available on the Internet, is well established. Oppenheimer claims that "the free nature of Internet information--means that students are confronted with chaos, and real dangers" (61), such racist, bigoted, paranoid, or dishonest material. Linda Anstendig and Jeanine Meyers from Pace University found that their students found more sources and recent information but "more garbage" (7). Robert H. Nigohosian of Salt Lake Community College reports that his students also found "junk information" (2); he calls the Internet an "unstructured information resource" (2) since there is no librarian, organization, or comprehensive index. Davis, the Ohio teacher, reports that his students often felt bewildered and overwhelmed by the information they found.

Search engines don't always find all of the relevant sites

Bad information is not the only problem. Students may not be able to find any information at all, depending on the topic and how they are indexed within a search engine. More than one student has complained that they could not find one single site related to their topic/topics that often have to do with such worn-out issues as affirmative action or political correctness. Jamie McKenzie, Director of Technology and Media for Bellingham, WA public schools, complains that her students "had to visit dozens of sites and pass through many levels of menus before finding solid content relevant to the curriculum question at hand" (31). When students do find relevant sites, the information may turn out to be superficial, biased, or ill-informed; in addition, information can quickly become out-of-date and obsolete, and useful sites can change or disappear from one day to the next. A student who was researching NASA's launch of the Cassini rocket found that all of her sources disappeared the day after the launch, although her paper wasn't due for another two weeks! Finally, the research students conduct on the Internet may be careless and thoughtless. In an article in The New York Times, Hofstra University journalism professor Steven Knowlton argues that the Internet makes "students think research is far easier than it really is" (18) since they are often able to easily come across several dozen relevant sources; as a result, their papers can end up full of data but superficial. Todd Oppenheimer interviewed several scholars who expressed concern that computers encourage thoughtless study practices; a geological-researcher at Mobil Oil feels that "people who use computers a lot slowly grow rusty in their ability to think" (54).

Putting Internet Research into Perspective

Research projects can be divided into four basic stages: defining the research question, finding information, evaluating information, and using information. The Internet is really only useful for the second stage--finding information--and even this can be a formidable task. Furthermore, the Internet actually makes the third step more difficult.

Stage 1

Many students have become used to using articles from academic journals that have been through several phases of peer review; the work of evaluating the information has basically been done, and all that is left is to determine if the information is useful for the topic. The challenge of Internet research, then, becomes knowing how to search the Internet in order to find the valuable information hiding there, and knowing how to determine if information is valid, credible, and reliable; students need to become their own reviewers and assess the information they find carefully.

Stage 2

Internet research can be seen as an opportunity to help our students develop better critical thinking abilities. In an article in the journal Learning and Leading with Technology, Judi Harris claims that the abundance of irrelevant information on the Internet offers a chance to "recognize the importance of developing and using higher order information-processing skills" (59). She reminds us that information is not the same thing as knowledge, yet many people assume that if we give students information, they are learning. Instead, she claims, learners use information to construct knowledge, and we need to teach them how to do that. Internet research provides both the need and the opportunity, since students need to "learn not only how to access information, but, more importantly, also how to manage, analyze, critique, cross-reference, and transform it into usable knowledge" (58). And many others agree that teaching Internet research can foster critical thinking skills. Anstendig and Meyers claim that "the critical habits of mind generated [from Web research] will transfer from the new world of the Web to the students' regular tasks of reading print and pursuing library research" (8). McKenzie argues it can help students "to make their own meanings in an often confusing, rapidly changing world" (32), and Davis observed that the diverse viewpoints his students encountered on the newsgroups forced them to consider their own and others' biases and beliefs. M.D. Roblyer, from Florida A&M University, believes that students "learn information-handling and analysis skills that will help them learn better in all their courses" (4). And Gary R. Cobine from Indiana University-East argues that "as researchers, [students] become analysts, not consumers, of information. They analyze information relevant to their studies and pursuits. . .Thus they discover not just information, but knowledge" (1).

Stage 3

Enabling students to transform information into knowledge requires sound instruction and guidance from a teacher. Hunt Lyman, a teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Virginia, argues that sending students to the Web to find information without teacher guidance is like telling someone to go to the library and find a book (60). Anstendig and Meyers also caution that students should not "just be let loose" on the Internet (8). Annette Lamb, Nancy Smith, and Larry Johnson, from the University of Southern Indiana, found that the most productive learning environments were ones in which teachers "acted as a facilitator, paying careful attention to students and guiding them through critical stages of their projects" in order to "to teach search strategies, critical evaluation, decision making, problem solving, and communication skills" (7).

Stage 4

Used carefully, the Internet holds much possibility for fruitful research and valuable learning. Although many still scorn the Internet as a place to conduct serious academic research, that attitude is changing. Mike Palmquist of Colorado State University claims that although there was good reason to be skeptical of information found on the Web in its early days, there are now greater amounts of quality information out there. He cites the availability of print media such as The New York Times and Newsweek, information from state and government agencies, academic journals, libraries, and museums. The key, however, is knowing how to find that quality information. This requires a solid understanding of how to search the Web and how to evaluate sites; if we have a basic grasp of these things, we can in turn help our students not get tangled in the Web's many twists and turns.

Tips & Suggestions For Students

Teaching Ideas & Suggestions

Site Evaluation Guiding Questions

It becomes easier to evaluate a site if you know what to look for. Good sites usually share several standard qualities, and asking the right questions often helps you see things you didn't notice at first. The following questions are intended to help you determine the validity and reliability of a site, and to help you think more critically about where the information is coming from and why it is on the Internet.

Who is the author of the page?

Back Back to Site Evaluation Guiding Questions

The identity of the author of the page should be provided clearly on the Web page. Determine if the author is well-known, or considered an expert in the field, and if he or she is someone who is cited in other sources. The author may not be an individual, but may be a business, industry, or sales organization, for example.

Who is the sponsor of the page?

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Web pages appear on sites that are hosted by servers--these servers are usually managed by organizations such as businesses, universities, or commercial access providers such as AOL. Sites sponsored by universities or the government tend to be the most reliable (check the URL), but there is no guarantee. The identity of the sponsoring organization, Web page designer, or server administrator should be apparent on the site. Determine if the sponsoring organization is recognized in its field, or if its subject area is relevant to your topic.

Is there any contact or credential/biographical information?

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Is there any contact or credential/biographical information? The individual or organization who created the page, as well as their qualifications, should be apparent. If this information is ambiguous or difficult to find, be wary. A credible source will be happy to reveal who she or he is, and will often tell you how to find them in order to verify their information.

Is there any obvious bias?

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Try to judge whether the sponsor or author of the page has any vested interest in the information they are presenting. For instance, an article on health risks associated with smoking that is linked to the RJ Reynolds homepage would be immediately suspect. If the author takes a controversial or unique position, they should acknowledge their position as such. They should also refer to opposing or additional viewpoints on their subject.

Is the page copyrighted?

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Look for a copyright symbol and determine who holds the copyright. This will give you a clue to the identity of the sponsoring organization, if this information is not clearly provided.

What is the purpose of the site?

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Try to determine the reason the site has been created. It may have been posted as a public service, or it may be a homepage for a news organization. It could also be a forum for venting complaints or airing wacky ideas. Who is the site intended for?

Who is the site intended for?

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Some sites are written for a general audience, while others are written for a very specific audience--such as a technical or academic one. This will affect whether or not the information is appropriate for your purpose, and can also help you evaluate the validity of the information.

Are there any references to other sources?

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Consider whether or not the author cites other reputable experts in the field or other studies that have been done, and if there is a bibliography or citations. Check if the author indicates how he or she gathered information, or whether the results of research have been replicated in other studies. A source that does not reference other importance works or scholars may contain biased or erroneous information, and may represent one person's point of view.

Does the page offer primary or secondary information?

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Some pages present facts and results of research, while other pages use outside sources to make their own arguments. Try to go directly to the primary source, as with all research. But be wary--not all Web page authors identify their information as secondary information, so check for bibliographies. In addition, some Web sites serve as discussion groups, where only opinions circulate--don't rely on these pages for facts.

Can the information be verified in other sources?

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If you think the information you find is good, but you're not sure, check it against a different source you find in the library. If the site has a bibliography, try to find some of the works in the library or in a database.

Is the information relevant and up-to-date?

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Some pages are still accessible, but contain information that is old and out-of-date. Just because it is out there doesn't mean it is still valid--many pages are not maintained regularly and contain obsolete information.

How is the page organized?

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If a site has links that make it easy to find your way around, you know that someone has put time and thought into it. In addition, check if it has links to other reputable or questionable sites.

Does the information match your purpose?

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Verify whether or not the information is relevant and appropriate for the audience you are writing to and the topic you are writing about. Is the information free or is there a charge? If there is a charge, why?

Site Evaluation Sites

Many of these sites offer additional questions and rubrics for source evaluation:

Search Engine Exercise

In order to demonstrate the differences between search engines, use an LCD projector or have students at individual terminals do a search for a key word. Using an LCD projector or having all students do this at once helps to emphasize the difference that better searching can make.

  1. Do a key word search using "seals" on Yahoo!
  2. Ask them to observe and make note of the kinds of sites that were found (most of them have to do with seals and gaskets or Easter seals).
  3. Then, do a search for "seals" on AltaVista.
  4. Again, ask them to observe and make note of the kinds of sites that were found.
  5. Finally, introduce them to the "narrow search" function on AltaVista.
  6. Narrow the results for the "seals" search, and then observe and make note of the kinds of sites that were found.(The sites get progressively better.)
  7. Then, do a search for "harbor seals."
  8. You could also demonstrate different search techniques such as wildcard symbols.
  9. Ask students to search their own topics, using different engines and different key words, in order to find which ones work best.
This could be done using any key word or any search engine. Note how using a more specific key word produces much better results on the first search.

Site Evaluation Exercise

In order to demonstrate how difficult it can be to evaluate sites considering the lack of context on the Internet, read aloud to your students two articles on the same issue; read one article from a credible newspaper such as The New York Times, and another from a less credible tabloid such as the National Enquirer or Weekly World News. Keep the sources anonymous--don't let your students know where the articles come from. After you read them aloud, have the students discuss which article they found more credible. Then, indicate the sources of the articles, and emphasize that knowing the source is important to evaluating the quality of the information, but that reading articles on the Internet is as anonymous as having them read aloud out of context. (thanks to Jon Leydens)

Direct your students to a Web site that you've already analyzed, preferably one that is questionable for some reason (unreliable author, outdated source, etc.). Have a class discussion about how the reliability and credibility of this source might be determined. Would this be a good resource to use for the upcoming research assignment? Why or why not? After having a class discussion, students could do some research and apply the same criteria to the new sources they find. Ask your students to write a rationale defending why they chose to use the sources they did. Ask students to check out and evaluate their peer's sources, and then discuss whether or not their evaluations are similar or not. To help students find sources, have students research a partner's topic to see if they come up with different results. Once students pick (reliable) sources, talk about how these sources can be used within a research essay. If it is an obviously biased source, how could the student introduce the source while indicating the bias? Discuss the types of sources the students have picked (fact, opinion, editorial) and how these different types should be used, how different types of sources could influence their writing, and how different types of sources could influence their own credibility. Have students complete a treasure hunt before researching their own topic, in order to help them get familiar with maneuvering on the Web. Have them write down the Web addresses as they come across each of the following: three sites that have Fort Collins in the title; the CSU library page; several sites relating to the class topic, a specific unit, or an individual topic; the homepage of a major US newspaper like The Washington Post; a map of Colorado or a street map of Fort Collins, etc. You could have them do this in groups or individually. Then, ask them to evaluate the sources they found on their treasure hunt. Students could walk through several different writing tutorials that are listed under several Writing Center homepages, or surf through some of the links provided on this page about using the Internet. Have students who are more familiar with the Internet help students who are less familiar. Remember, though, that even those students who have been surfing the Web for years may not know how to search productively. If your class is researching the same of similar topics, create a site that provides links to quality sites that you have already evaluated.

Tips to Prevent students from Abusing Internet Research

Hold students accountable for the research they do: