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School Assignments and the Web

web_surf_wipeout.gif Simple Assignments? Not Anymore
The assignment was pretty straightforward. Thirteen-year-old Jessica and her class were told to put together a research project on Egyptian mummies using four different sources. Jessica painstakingly studied a Discovery channel documentary, and looked through reference books at her school library. Two sources down. Then she turned to the Web.

Jessica had a blast net surfing for anything she could find on mummies. There were pictures and maps and whole Websites devoted to her topic. Jessica spent the weekend 'crawling' through cyberspace -- and history. She asked her dad for his suggestions and he 'drove' her to a couple of mummy sites he'd 'dug up'. Quality time and quality research. As far as Jessica and her father were concerned, a morning of Web surfing was a much more effective way to 'check out' books than a drive to their small local library.

The seventh grader handed in her report, thinking she'd aced it. Then came a Web surfer's worst nightmare. Wipe out!!

"My teacher said going to the library was more important than going online," Jessica recalls, " because if you go the library there are books, and online there are just Websites. I was angry, because I didn't understand what the difference was. Did she really want me to look for a book, or did she want me to get a reference? She didn't think that going online was enough."

Mummy's the Word
Jessica was upset, but her mom, Cindy, was furious. "I just wanted to shake the teacher and say, hey, this is the 21st century! It's very hard to modernize your thinking when you've been doing this for a very long time." Cindy should know - she's a preschool teacher who once taught in her daughter's school.

And we're not talking about teachers who just don't get it here, either. Cindy says that Jessica's teacher is "excellent" and that this incident totally surprised her family. The problem is that even some of the best educators have a 'mummified' attitude about how kids learn today, and a bias against the Web.

The irony is that Jessica says she spends more time studying on the Web than she would ever spend at the library. She says she likes the freedom of popping on the Net early Sunday morning, before the library is even open. "Plus," she says, "the books are never out."

"The teacher has to be clear on what she wants," Cindy says, "and the parents need to know exactly. Is this a library project? If it's a research project and you can use the computer, what are the criteria? What does she consider four different sources if you're using the Internet? The teacher may lump them all together."

Cindy says that she hopes her questions have started Jessica's teacher thinking about the Web differently, because other parents are bound to ask the same questions in the future.

Telling the Good from the Bad
Of course, there's also the question of whether the information your child is gathering on the Net is true or not. But perhaps we shouldn't sell our kids short in this area.

At 13, Jessica is sophisticated enough to look at her research choices this way: "The Internet gives you a variety of what different people think, and different references, and it's just easier…It's what people say, it's their opinions, and their thoughts." For a recent report on Sir Isaac Newton, though, Jessica went to the library. "I wanted a book on him, because it's a biography report, and I knew the library would have a lot on him, and it wouldn't be biased. Online, when people write it, it's either they like him or they don't. So you want references that just tell his story, and not someone's opinion."

When all is said and done, giving our kids choices, flexibility, and access to a wide variety of information – and helping them to use the material wisely – is about the best any educator can do.

Questions to Ask Before Using the Internet
The Boston Public Library has put together a list of eight questions your child should ask before using Internet information in a school report.

  • Who put the information on the Internet?
  • When was it put there? Is there a date on the page?
  • Is the information meant to be serious, or is it a joke? How can you tell?
  • How do you know where this information comes from?
  • Is the information biased? Does it only give one opinion?
  • For whom is the information meant?
  • What type of information is it? Is it a home page or an email message?
  • How should you list information from the Internet on your bibliography?

Remember, it's always a good idea to check many different sources for your school reports, including books, encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and documentaries.

Five Questions to Ask Your Teacher Before Researching on the Web

  1. Do you consider the Internet a good source of research material?
  2. If the assignment is for more than one source, would you consider two different Websites from the Internet, or does the Web count as one, regardless of what's on it?
  3. How do you want me to footnote my Internet sources?
  4. Does information from home pages, email, and newsgroups count as legitimate sources?
  5. Is it important to you that I go to the library to gather information, including using the computer at the library, or can I do some/all of the work at home?
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