When youngsters sit down to work on school projects and papers this fall, they might well head for the Internet instead of the library for information and assistance.
Thousands of Web sites offer useful ideas, images and advice to the young scholar. The trick is finding a few that present accurate and up-to-date information in understandable language and an appealing format -- and avoiding sites with inappropriate content.
Fortunately, the Web has spawned a slew of sites that try to solve that problem. Most consist of link lists and search tools that point pupils to other sites with high-quality and age-appropriate educational material. Some sites even promise personal answers to questions.
In the spirit of the Internet, homework help sites typically offer their services for free, relying on banner ads, corporate subsidies or grants from universities or government agencies to cover costs.
Used wisely, these sites can be a boon to kids, parents and teachers, but they also raise troubling issues of ethics and equity.
Child-oriented Web directories like KidsClick and Homework Central are great starting points for background information about topics. They try to bring order to the chaos of the Web by evaluating thousands of sites, organizing them and linking to the best.
Most are also broken down, at least roughly, by grade level: The first step in using Homework Central, for example, is to click on icons labeled "1st to 6th Grades," "Middle & High School" or "College and Beyond." KidsClick has a single, unified directory, but all sites returned by the search engine include a reading-level rating as well as a short summary.
Some of these sites are simply junior versions of destinations popular among adults: Yahooligans is a branch of Yahoo, while Ask Jeeves for Kids is based on the popular Ask Jeeves site, which lets users pose questions.
Others were created by librarians and educators, often with support from major academic institutions. KidsClick is housed at a facility run by the University of California at Berkeley, with support from Sun Microsystems. But it was started by librarians at the Ramapo Catskill Library System in New York state. Another directory, the Internet Public Library, was born in a graduate seminar at the University of Michigan.
At the other extreme, B.J. Pinchbeck's Homework Helper site was created in 1996 by a 9-year-old -- with help from his father.
More innovative, and in some ways problematic, are sites that respond directly to pupil inquiries. The largest and oldest is a section of America Online, available to subscribers, called Ask-A-Teacher. More than a half-million children use the service, posting an average of 10,000 questions per day, according to AOL. Replies come from 1,300 volunteer teachers and specialists, of whom 40 percent have doctorates and 80 percent at least a master's degree.
Another pioneer in the personal-response category is Ask Dr. Math, launched in 1994 by a professor and several students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Today, it's supported by the National Science Foundation and receives 5,000 to 6,000 questions per month, said Stacey Bearden, its 22-year-old project coordinator.
About 250 volunteers from all over the world provide responses by e-mail; questions and answers are then compiled into a searchable database.
Academics in other disciplines and government agencies have set up similar sites. There are so many that two Web sites -- Pitsco's Ask An Expert and the Virtual Reference Desk's Ask A+ Locator -- are devoted to listing them.
The people responsible for these sites insist that their goal is not to give youngsters answers, but to help them analyze problems and find material so they can complete assignments themselves.
The reality, however, is sometimes more complicated. While direct answers rarely if ever appear in responses from Ask Dr. Math, the same can't be said of another math-assistance site, Webmath.
At Webmath, it's not human volunteers, but a software engine that responds to queries students post. The site provides forms for entering problems ranging from simple arithmetic to advanced algebra, geometry and even calculus. Once the student has filled in the form, Webmath computers solve the problem, offering step-by-step explanations but ultimately delivering the answer.
Whether it's a number, an algebraic expression or a graph, the student can easily copy and paste it electronically, or copy it the old-fashioned way onto paper.
Not all students understand or accept that they should do the work themselves.
In AOL's sixth-grade math message board, a user recently posted the query: "whats 1225+8527." A volunteer teacher replied by suggesting lining up the numbers properly and remembering to carry. But then someone replied with a message reading simply "9,752."
Some educators note that the Web, while making more information available than ever before, presents students with distractions. Homework sites that carry ads say they filter them carefully for age-appropriateness.
Because of these issues, advocates of homework help sites urge parents and teachers to keep a close eye on youngsters using them. Cathy Spaulding, a mother of three from British Columbia who administers About.com's Homework Help pages, said she believes that parents, even of high school students, should always be nearby when children go online.
Linda Lovelace, expanded learning coordinator for the San Francisco Unified School District, expressed another concern: that homework help sites give yet another advantage to students whose families can afford home computers and Internet access, indirectly penalizing poorer children.
"That's very much a concern to us," she said.
Evidence exists that school and community outreach programs, with public-access computers in libraries, may be reaching that audience. About.com's Spaulding said that 60 percent of her visitors browse from home, but 25 percent are in public libraries and 15 percent are in school.
At Ask Dr. Math, project manager Bearden put a different twist on the equity issue: "Don't forget," she said, "some kids have access to the Net but not to good teachers. In that case we're actually an equalizer."
Here are the Web addresses for the homework sites mentioned in this article, plus some educational sites we've discovered on our own.
Ask Dr. Math
Ask Jeeves for Kids
Grolier's American Presidents
Internet Public Library
Mad Scientists' Network
Minneapolis Star Tribune Homework Help
OneLook Dictionaries (specialized)
Pitsco's Ask an Expert
Pub Date: 09/20/99