Pupils' reliance on Web grows


When Sam Vanderpol, a 15-year-old sophomore at Newton North High School in the Boston suburb of Newton, has trouble with his homework, he often turns to the Web for answers. "I tried to use the Web for math once because I had forgotten a formula," he said. "But I couldn't find the right sites." After an hour and a half, he gave up.

Even though the Web doesn't always deliver, Sam still prefers doing research with his Hewlett-Packard PC to looking up information at the library. "I'd much rather be online," he said. The library, he added, is "a tenser atmosphere."

For students such as Sam who are growing up with the Web, the idea of roaming library stacks is as quaint as the thought of writing with a quill pen. Even though libraries are organized and easily navigated, many students prefer diving into the chaotic Web to find information.

One problem with this strategy is that many students are not well versed in advanced searching techniques so a simple search for, say, information about the planet Saturn can yield tens of thousands of hits. Yet students persevere with this approach, saying that they are simply more comfortable sifting through hyperlinks than they are flipping through a card catalog. And they admit that using the Web requires less exertion.

But while the keyword approach makes perfect sense to some teen-agers, it troubles many educators, who fear that point-and-click research can lead to lazy habits and ineffective searches. When the Internet emerged, educators had to teach their students how to determine the authenticity of a site. Now they have to teach students how to refine their searches - and when to look offline for certain kinds of information.

"Students have an idea when they come into the library that everything they need is on the Internet," said Mary Arnold, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and a librarian at the Cuyahoga County Public Library near Cleveland. "That may be true, but they often don't know how to find it."

John Geraci, a Harris Interactive vice president who oversees online polls that look at how young people use the Internet, said that students with access to a home computer prefer to use that computer for research and schoolwork, instead of using computers at a library. That tends to isolate them from the professionals who could help them learn how to narrow their searches. "They are not in the same environment that they used to be in to do research because there are no librarians or teachers around," Geraci said.

For example, when Sara Sutherland, a 14-year-old freshman at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, needs to find information on the Internet, the first thing she does is type in keywords, even if it's not the most efficient approach. "I click on the first link and try to find the information," she said. "If I don't find it, I just keep going. It's 'guess and chuck.' "

Older students do not seem to fare much better. Ellen Meltzer, head of the teaching library at the University of California at Berkeley, said that students wanted information quickly but were dealing with a large library system that could be complicated to navigate.

"Students don't know about controlled vocabulary or Boolean logic," Meltzer said. "They want to punch in three keywords and be done. We need to teach them what to do when they get 1,000 hits. Which hits should they look at? How should they use a site after they find it? We try to teach kids how to be critical thinkers."

A team of researchers led by Professor Eliot Soloway at the University of Michigan's School of Education recently studied the way students approach Web searches. "Kids think there is one answer, and they look for the Web site with that answer," said Soloway, who does both computer science and education research. "We try to explain that they have to get information from multiple Web sites. We tell them to ask open, deep, interesting questions. For example, 'How many moons does Jupiter have?' is not an interesting question. But 'What makes a volcano stop erupting?' is."

The Michigan project has developed tools to help students with their searches. "We found that students would use a big search engine like Infoseek or Yahoo, and then get an overwhelming number of responses," said Barry Fishman, an assistant professor of educational technology at Michigan. "They would react by either saying, 'OK, I found a lot of answers - I'll take the first couple,' or they would be so overwhelmed with too many hits and wouldn't know how to refine the search." About 60 professors, librarians and graduate and undergraduate students worked on the project.

One tool developed at Michigan is Artemis (named for the Greek goddess of the hunt), which is being used in a half-dozen school districts around the country. Artemis, which is designed for science- related searches, has a built-in dictionary and thesaurus because researchers noticed that students often misspelled their search terms and did not know synonyms for their search terms.

Some students say the scale of the Internet is much less intimidating than the size of a library.

"In the library, there are all these books on topics that won't help you at all," Sam Vanderpol said. "You have to skim them. But on the Internet you get a brief description, and you know what you're going to get."

That is exactly what makes some educators worry that students will use the Internet as a quick fix. "What kids need is to learn how to concentrate, how to practice, how to exert effort toward a goal," said Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University and author of the new book "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms" (Simon & Schuster).

"Learning a musical instrument is far likelier to produce those habits and behaviors than surfing the 'Net. The Internet encourages browsing, jumping around, surfing, sampling - much like clicking the dial for TV but with millions of unfiltered choices. It does not and cannot teach concentration, effort or stick-to-itiveness."

But browsing is not always bad, said Robert McClintock, co-director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University Teachers College.

"Students now engage in free- form browsing," he said. "Part of the fascination of surfing the Web is that the same kind of serendipitous discovery that can be found in the library builds up there." McClintock added that one of the benefits of the Web was that it saved students so much time. "You don't have to spend a half-hour on a bus to get to the library and then find out the book isn't there," he said. McClintock also noted that the instant gratification of the Web helped students sustain interest in their projects.

Of course, no one is calling for the removal of the Internet from the classroom. Even if information is sometimes hard to find, many teachers say, the Internet increases a student's enthusiasm for research.

"If we take a kid and show them 10 volumes of books they might want to look at for a research project, their eyes glaze over," said Bobbie McDonnell, the Internet librarian at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Yet with the Web, she has seen students go beyond research - some even form e-mail relationships with experts whose research they are using.

Bill Rogers, who has been a middle school history teacher at the Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., for 26 years, said that learning alongside his students could be gratifying and bewildering. "The Internet has turned teaching upside down," he said. "I've got students a third my age who know way more than I do about the Internet."

But books still have their place. When Jared Goldberg, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Montclair, N.J., began working on a research paper about the Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, his Web searches yielded dozens of links.

Some led him to detailed, fact-heavy information from several naval museums. Others were the personal home pages of naval enthusiasts.

But Jared found conflicting information on some Web sites. To organize and double-check the online information he collected, Jared took a trip to the library and consulted books. "I think I could have written the report with just the Web," he said. "But I'm not sure how good it would have been."

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