The World Wide Web as a Research Tool

               Last week I had the privilege of talking to three wonderful junior classes (two from Ms. Malbon and one from Ms. Sullivan) about using the web to do research for their school work. I wanted to remind them that using the Internet for research is not as easy as it seems, and that they need to remain critical thinkers when evaluating their sources.

              When I was in high school, the problem was that it was difficult to find reliable, useful resources for research. Anyone old enough to remember card catalogs, the print version of the reader’s guide to periodical literature, microfilm, microfiche, and twenty five cent copies (yes, copies cost more back then!) is right to complain that today’s students have it much easier when it comes to doing research.

              The problem for today’s students is that information is so easy to access and comes in such a stunning variety of packages that blur the line between “information” and “entertainment”. Take for example CNN.com, a site that I bookmark as a “reliable” source of information on a page of this blog. Of course, CNN is also a cable station that bills itself as a news outlet, but has many programs that are not news, but debate/show, and many hosts who are not doing journalism, but entertainment. Is a survey done on Twitter by Rick Sanchez a reliable source of information if it shows up on CNN.com? (Probably not in my class, but we can talk about that some other time).

              The point is that the web is loaded with all kinds of data and information available for students to use, but much of it is not appropriate for academic research. Typically, students begin their online search the same way that millions of others begin; at Google. They type in their keywords and hit search to find a good list of relevant sites that inevitably includes a Wikipedia entry somewhere in the top three hits. Most students have already been told by teachers of Wikipedia’s pitfalls, but it should not be completely discounted as a valuable research resource.

              I teach that we should use Wikipedia the same way we use any other encyclopedia in high school, as a starting point for our search. I discourage citing any Wikipedia entry as a primary source for the bibliography (a rule I have violated on this blog) because of the site’s open source nature, which leaves it vulnerable to misinformation, deliberate and otherwise. I also recommend that students refer to the bottom of the entry where the footnotes, external links and bibliography are listed for the article. A well researched article will include valuable primary source information, some of which may even be linked and freely available online.

              While using Wikipedia this way will improve your online search, once you get to a linked reference or article, you still have to evaluate the source, find the author and publishing date, and any other MLA information you will need to properly cite the article. This will also be true of any other hits that Google finds for your keywords. Rather than being mired by all of this work, students should learn to use subscription databases available to them through their public libraries and/or schools. One advantage that these services provide is that they include the bibliographic information (MLA and APA formats) for each of the resources, including audio and video sources.

              Having a Massachusetts public library card gives you access to some great digital databases one of which is Big Chalk’s E-Library. I introduced the students to E-Library and explained why searching on their database is different and better than surfing the web for info. (I’ll tell the readers more next time). Still, I saw some students back on Google after I was done talking, so I knew I hadn’t totally convinced everyone of my point. Besides, old habits are hard to break.

              I did remind students of one other interesting search engine named Clusty. Despite its funny name, Clusty is a powerful little tool that provides users with “feedback” not found on most search engines. Type a keyword into Clusty and you will get a list of relevant sites, similar to Google’s, even including the Wikipedia hit. The added value is that Clusty also narrows and expands your topic by suggesting related keywords and searches. Clusty seems to ask, “What is it about your topic you want to know? The history, origins, current controversy, important people related to it?”, and then finds relevant hits to those searches. Valuable information when you’re surfing the open ocean of the world wide web.

              Next post I’ll outline why subscription databases like E-Library are still better than just relying on the open Internet. For now though, I leave you with a short list of good places to find (mostly) reliable information.

  • ALA’s great Web sites for Kids: The American Library Association should know what sites are reliable and which aren’t. The recommendations on the ALAs site are all links to other resources hosted by independent organizations, some private and some public. A nice little extra that the ALA list provides is their rating for age appropriateness of the sites.
  • The Internet Public Library (IPL) : The IPL has been collecting reliable resources from the Internet since 1995; an eon in world wide web years. This non-profit organization is hosted by Drexel University and links users to a host of well researched, written and edited resources.
  • Spark Notes: The Cliff Notes of the Digital Age and everyone’s little secret. Pretending that students don’t use it is naïve and ignoring the information it provides is irresponsible for us as educators. Knowing that it’s out there is the first step to combating how easy it is to just read these notes instead of the books. I don’t judge it as either good or bad, it just is.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found something useful.

 Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.

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About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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