When Kids Use the Internet for Research

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 instead 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 college students have access to the Internet. There are sites where they can go to find pre-written, 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.

Teachers will tell you that this also occurs in middle and high schools. One solution 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.

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 only printed matter for research, they’ll 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 occur when kids are allowed to use Wikipedia and other sites that have sometimes 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 www.whitehouse.gov. Further government info can be found at www.usa.gov. For government statistics on employment and information on the labor market, go to www.bls.gov.

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, where anyone can post information or change what’s there.

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

For younger children and preteens, there’s a wonderful website that teaches children to be careful about believing information they find on the Internet. It’s called “All About Explorers,” and it’s more than what it first appears to be.

The site was cleverly designed by a group of teachers. It includes pages about several famous explorers, including Christopher Columbus. Here’s an excerpt from the page about him:

Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Note that this is the third paragraph of the essay. The first two paragraphs did not include such obviously erroneous information. You’ll be able to tell very quickly if your child read the entire page or not by his reaction (or lack of one) to that third paragraph. Meanwhile, the child who merely lifted the essay from the site for pasting into their own essay is in for a surprise!

Also note that there’s a link at the bottom of the page which will lead your child to accurate information about the explorer in question (the teachers have already checked that information), plus printable activity pages and other features to aid in learning.

The All About Explorers site also includes a page with lesson plans for teaching kids about Internet research. This site is a great tool for busy homeschooling parents, and it will help children understand why they shouldn’t believe something just because they read it on a website. Once they understand that, their future research will be more accurate, and they’ll not only learn more, but be well-prepared for the writing involved if they go to college.