Online Research Worries Many Educators

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Go to Google, search and scroll results, click and copy. When students do research online these days, many educators worry, those are often about the only steps they take. If they can avoid a trip to the library at all, many students gladly will.

Young people may know that just because information is plentiful online doesn't mean it's reliable, yet their perceptions of what's trustworthy frequently differ from their elders' — sparking a larger debate about what constitutes truth in the Internet age.

Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman tried to force students to leave their computers by requiring at least one book for a September class project.

She wasn't prepared for the response: "Someone raised their hand and asked, "Excuse me, where would I get a book?'"

While the answer might just have been a smart aleck's bid for laughs, Bruckman and other educators grapple daily with the challenge of ensuring their students have good skills for discerning the truth. Professors and librarians say many come to college without any such skills, and quite a few leave without having acquired them.

Alex Halavais, professor of informatics at the University at Buffalo, said students are so accustomed to instant information that "the idea of spending an hour or two to find that good source is foreign to them."

In a study on research habits, Wellesley College researchers Panagiotis Metaxas and Leah Graham found that fewer than 2 percent of students in one Wellesley computer science class bothered to use non-Internet sources to answer all six test questions.

And many students failed to check out multiple sources. For instance, 63 percent of students asked to list Microsoft Corp.'s top innovations only visited the company's Web site in search of the answer.

It's a paradox to some that so many young Americans can be so accepting of online information whose origin is unclear.

"Skepticism ... is part of their lives, yet they tend to believe things fairly readily because it appears on the Internet," said Roger Casey, who studies youths and pop culture at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

One concern is commercial influence online; some search engines run ads and accept payments to include sites in their indexes, with varying degree of disclosure.

"If I'm going to go to the library, chances are somebody hasn't paid a librarian 100 bucks to point me to a particular book," said Beau Brendler, director of the Consumer Reports WebWatch.

Another potential minefield is the growing phenomenon of collaborative information assembly. The credentials of the people writing grass-roots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear. Nevertheless, some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper.

In many ways, the greater diversity of information is healthy.

Paul Duguid, co-author of "The Social Life of Information," points out that no longer, in most of the United States, can school textbooks get away with one-sided views.

Even South Texas College of Law professor Tracy McGaugh finds her curriculum challenged as students can quickly discover how other professors teach the same material.

But as students come to trust resources that may be correct only part of the time, the extent of the downside is not yet fully known.

Some believe the challenge of determining whom and what to believe amid the information flood is bound to influence the political views, medical decisions, financial investments and other key aspects of this budding generation's life.

Accuracy can be crucial when lives and property are at stake — and older generations certainly don't have any particular claim to it.

In 2000, a prescribed burn calculated using incorrect information online spread to a wildfire that left more than 400 families homeless in Los Alamos, N.M.

Adults who should know better get duped, too.

Georgia Tech professor Colin Potts said he recently received by e-mail a photograph said to be a 1954 projection of what a home computer would look like in 2004. Instead of the small boxes we know of today, the image shows a giant contraption that resembles an airplane cockpit with a large steering wheel.

"I thought this was hilarious and filed it away in a scrapbook for my lecture next semester on the perils of technology forecasting," Potts said. "I also forwarded it to several people. Unfortunately, as another colleague informed me by e-mail a few minutes later, it's a hoax."

Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, said many older Internet users, familiar with the editorial review that books and newspapers go through, may assume incorrectly that Web sites also undergo such reviews.

Youths, many of whom have created Web sites themselves, tend to know better.

In the end, it's just a matter of adjusting to how information gets around now that the Internet has revolutionized communication.

Every new medium has its challenges, said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., yet society adapts.

Referring to the 1903 Western "The Great Train Robbery," Saffo said audience members "actually ducked when the train came out on the screen. Today you won't even raise an eyebrow."


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