Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Perils of Using the Internet for Research, and the Solution

In Scotland, a parent-teacher organization is blaming the Internet and specifically Wikipedia for the falling test scores of Scottish children.

Let's set aside the discussion of test scores; that's a huge issue in itself, and one I don't want to go into right now. It's the rise of the Internet and the way kids have figured out how to use it to their perceived advantage that interests me.

When I was in college, one of the so-called advantages of the Greek (fraternity/sorority) system was that its members had access to the completed tests and essays of past members. Thus they could memorize test answers instead of learning what was presented in class, and re-type the essays of others inside of writing their own. This saved those students all sorts of work; we who were not "Greek" felt it was an unfair advantage. But the bottom line was that these students didn't learn anything because they didn't have to read the assigned books, nor did they learn via the process of assembling information and giving it back to their professors in the form of essays.

I imagine that frat house filing cabinets are collecting dust now that kids have the Internet. There are sites where they can go to find prewritten, high-graded essays that they can pass off as their own, thanks to the cut-and-paste function.

And for the times when they actually have to do their own research and writing, there are sites like Wikipedia. Savvy teachers probably check Wikipedia's take on the assigned topic before they correct the essays so that they can tell who's been playing cut-and-paste there. But this doesn't solve the problem, which is that kids are wasting their time and not learning anything, at least not much that's accurate.

One solution to this would be to require kids to write their essays while in the school library or classroom, using the books and materials available there, with no Internet access. With a tool like the Neo (which I own and highly recommend), students could type their essays and never get near a computer.

For homeschoolers, this is much simpler. We can supervise our kids more easily than a teacher can keep tabs on thirty kids. By requiring our kids to use printed matter only for research, they will learn the material and develop writing skills in the process, because we've removed the temptation of the Internet.

But printed matter can be dated, and we've become accustomed to the immediacy of the Internet. Isn't there some way to take advantage of that immediacy?

The good news is that there is. By requiring our kids to use primary sources and reputable secondary sources, we can avoid the problems that are going on where kids are allowed to use Wikipedia and other sites that have proven to be inaccurate.

On the Internet, primary sources are sites where the information is first generated. For example, for the activities of our president, kids can visit Further government info can be found at For government statistics on employment and information on the labor market, go to

Secondary sources are trusted entities that access primary sources. A large city newspaper like The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune is considered a secondary source. Newspapers are not as trusted as they once were; recent cases of lying reporters have tarnished their image, and budget cuts have forced them to reduce the number of editors who check on the sources used by reporters. Still, quoting a large newspaper should be considered fairly accurate, and certainly much better than Wikipedia.

This is not to say that Wikipedia is not useful. I've allowed my teen daughter to use it as a jumping-off point, as it gives her a quick briefing on a topic. But she is then required to back up what she finds with research from trustworthy sources.


Renae said...

I agree wholeheartedly! My son likes to use the internet to find quick answers to every question, so I appreciate the reminder.

And as a side note, just because I'm excited, my husband brought home two emates (tiny computers) that we can use for writing.

Peace to you,
Life Nurturing Education

Melissa Markham said...

I agree that you need to pay attention to where the information on the web is coming from. Go to those primary sources. When I researched my Komodo, Hummingbird and Bison books, I did a mixture of research on the web and from books.

The great thing about the Internet it is very easy to turn to when your child asks 'who invented the first piano'. And the downside about books is the library is 30 minutes away for me (think my gas guzzling vehicle, that's 8 dollars!) and depending on what you are researching, you don't always get the best information. A book about Pandas in the 80s will tell you they are almost extinct, whereas there are about 1800 of them in the wild now. That sort of thing. Great post!

Barbara Frank said...

Renae, I've not heard of emates, but if they're anything like Neos, I'm sure they're wonderful!

Melissa, you make some really good points about libraries and books. The Internet is wonderful for up-to-the minute info, as many books become outdated quickly, depending on their topics.

Diamond to Be said...

Barbara, here is a great source for primary resources:
"Enjoy an interactive learning experience as you see thousands of hand-selected and relevant links to pictures, artifacts, manuscripts, documents and other primary sources, IN CONTEXT, within each story."
Registration is free.

Barbara Frank said...

Sally, it looks like a really good site. I'll have to check it out...thanks!