Vol 6|No 4|January|1997
by Douglas W. Green
The Internet vs. traditional library sources as research tools for high school students: How does the Internet compare to traditional research tools in terms of quality of information, quality of finished product, veracity, and as motivation for further research for high school students?
Traditional information research tools and sources found in library media centers have been recently supplemented by the information available on the Internet. In some cases, students at almost all instructional levels from elementary schools to universities are doing all of the information access portion of their research projects and papers on the Internet. This raises a number of questions that are clearly in need of attention from educational researchers. The Internet in general, and the World Wide Web in specific, offer easy access to almost unlimited information. A growing number of students have access to this incredible resource from their homes while others use it in school libraries and classrooms. While Internet access offers a number of advantages, it also offers a number of serious concerns to educators who wish to allow their students to explore its possibilities.
Single source for information:
A great deal of information is available from all over the world via a personal computer. This allows students to do all of their information gathering from a single location. In most cases, students from elementary school to doctoral level programs can get all they need from a single desktop which in reality accesses computer archives all over the world. Instant copies to your hard disk: When you find information on the Internet that addresses your topic of interest, you can copy it to your own system and access it later. With printed material, the trip from the printed page to the word processed document requires mediation in the form of a typist or an optical character reader. This can accelerate the pace at which researchers collect and organize material for their projects. Multimedia:
Unlike traditional books and journals, the Internet is capable of providing information in the form of time-based media elements such as sound and video. While such elements require more bandwidth than non time-based elements such as text and pictures, we already can access streaming audio via the Internet, and it won't be long before video can arrive in the same manner. It is safe to say the bandwidth will increase which will make sound and video commonplace on the Internet. This is in addition to the many things that computers can do with non time-based media that cannot be done with material represented on a printed page making the Internet a very different kind of information resource that should appeal to students with a wide variety of learning styles and abilities.
The world as a single library:
The fraction of the world's total knowledge base represented on the Internet is increasing each day. In some cases, research papers appear via electronic publications before they appear in print. Some electronic journals don't even bother with a printed version. Most experts expect the amount of information available on the Internet to continue to grow geometrically. As this happens, we will have a single distributed resource that contains enough information for all but a few research purposes.
Less drudgery/higher motivation:
The features described here serve to take much of the drudgery out of research work. This allows students to spend more time focusing on the topic of interest and less time running about and copying information for later use. Scholars of all abilities and motivational levels can produce better work in the time available.
From the minute a piece of printed material rolls of the press or copier, it starts to slowly decompose. Newspapers are the first to crumble into dust while some books can last for centuries. Once a piece of media is stored in digital format, however, it can last unchanged for an indefinite period of time. While the media that digital information is stored on may degrade like paper, the process of making a copy to fresh media does not result in any change or degradation to the information. Ideally, the entire contents of our libraries will some day be entirely digitized. That does not necessarily mean an end to printed materials, however, as fresh copies can be printed on demand.
Access to the Internet is less democratic that access to the public library. As students increase their use of the Internet for school work, students with access to the Internet at home and parents who can facilitate their work, will have a distinct advantage. While many libraries are adding Internet access, the ones that have often feature lines behind each work station. While parents have always given students unequal advantages based on time, finances, and education, Internet access in specific and computer access in general can give students additional leverage over traditional parent provided advantages. In addition to Internet access, some value-added Internet resources come with an additional fee. While trial subscriptions to electronic libraries may be free, sooner or later you will have to pay additional monthly fees for the privilege of accessing predigested information sites. To the extent that unequal access serves to promote a two-tiered society, the information highway poses a problem that public schools and libraries need to address.
Quality of information:
Most material that finds its way to a library's shelves has passed through one or more information quality filters. Most journals publish articles that are referred by several experts and books are seldom published unless they meet the publisher's quality criteria. Beyond these filters are the quality filters of the institution itself as each information resource has to meet the selection criteria of the library before it can be purchased. On the Internet, we find a much broader range of information quality. Web sites can be set up by anyone who has an interest in doing so. Many students have their own web sites that contain information they find interesting or amusing. Many of the most sophisticated sites are devoted to advertising and selling just about any product you can imagine. From what I have seen, the majority of the material on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet would not be accepted by school or public libraries for inclusion in their holdings. The major concerns relate to the issues of truth and bias. While both of these attributes are relative and material short on truth and heavy on bias can be found in libraries, the filters in place guard against this. When you allow the pressures of advertising to sell products and have no checks on what is published, the risk is great that students will encounter material that distorts the truth for the self-serving purposes of the author.
As students search for information on the Internet, they are confronted with the task of sorting and selecting the material they will use. A typical Web search on a topic of interest to a student often returns hundreds of hits. While the better search engines rank the hits to help find the sites most suited to your needs, a student will probably have to wade through a number of sites that are useless as they either fail to address the topic or present material at a level that is not appropriate to the developmental level of the student doing the search. There are also the quality concerns mentioned in the previous paragraph that must be weighed as each site is studied for possible use. While this process poses a serious concern for educators who plan to send their students off to the Internet for information, it also offers an opportunity to make students better connoisseurs of information. As students search the Internet they must beware of the truth and bias issues that would be much less of a concern if they were limited to traditional library resources. The main Internet server at Rice University offers some basic advice for researchers using the Internet. (http://www.rice.edu/Fondren/Netguides/strategies.html)
1. Look at the URL to determine what type of organization produced the site.
.com is a commercial site.
.edu is an academic site.
.gov is a government site.
.org is usually a non-profit organization.
.net is a networked service provider.
.mil is a military site.
2. Look at the URL to determine who produced the site (or who posted it, at least). ~name is usually someone's name, or part of their name. You can try to look them up by partial name and institution in Who Where?.
3. Consider the following questions.
Is an author listed?
What are the credentials of the author?
Is there a bias or a commercial interest?
Who is the intended audience of the page?
How current is the information?
Are references, citations, or links to other resources included?
Copyrights and plagiarism:
With the copy and paste power of a modern computer, it is easy to copy large portions of electronic information into your work. Without proper training regarding copyright law and proper concern for the intellectual property of others, it would be simple for students to illegally copy material and claim the thoughts of others as their own. While these concerns are not new, they do pose a greater threat as students browse the Internet for information.
Getting lost in hyperspace/walking down the wrong street:
Getting lost or distracted is easy to do during any research project. I can remember browsing through library stacks looking for books on a research topic only to find something unrelated but more interesting. As I wander about the Internet, however, I find that the temptations to wander off from my chosen topic are much greater. I also find that there is a great deal of adult material that does not meet the standard of decency held by educational institutions. While students engaged in Internet searches might spend more time on their task, one must wonder how much time they spend on unrelated subjects. One must also be concerned about the nature of some of the unrelated material that they encounter.
Time based media on a flat piece of paper?/What will your teacher accept:
When I was a junior in high school (1963), I did a project for my English teacher on Irish Folk Music. At the time, I owned a real-to-real tape recorder so I decided to submit my project on tape. The tape consisted of short selections of music interspersed with my narration. I was lucky that my teacher would accept my work in a nontraditional format. Some teachers today are equally flexible regarding what they will accept. I have seen student projects submitted via videotape and on computer disk. In addition to coping with alternate media submissions, teachers also need to wrestle with the fairness issue. Is it fair to allow students with access to high-tech resources to submit their work electronically? This is an extension of the problem teachers face when some students have access to word processing programs and high quality printers while others only have access to paper and pen.
Web technology leapfrogs itself and a dizzying pace:
The nature of the Web seems to change daily. Each week I find new features and capabilities as I search the Web in an effort to better understand the nature of the information available. This poses a concern for any research. Can it be accomplished in such a manner that the results have sufficient shelf life to justify the efforts. This will require an analysis of current trends and projections relating to the Web, its uses, and capabilities.
Unlike a book or a published journal, information on the Internet is subject to change. This can have both positive and negative consequences for the researcher. On the positive side, you might return to a Web site and find additional or updated information on your topic which will allow you to modify your work. This will allow authors to keep their research work current without having to begin the research process all over again. This document, for example, has been updated since its original publication. Once a book or journal is published, its information is frozen in time. This may not be a problem for printed documents that describe historic conditions and events. It certainly is a problem for documents that aim to describe current conditions or the state of an art. On the negative side, you might find that a Web site you have used and cited in your research no longer exists or has moved to another location. Internet information is stored on computer systems owned by businesses, schools, non-profit organizations, individuals, and governmental agencies. In order to be part of the Internet, each component system much be maintained which requires human and financial resources. It is not unusual for projects to lose funding or key individuals as time goes by. In some cases, people responsible for maintaining a Web site lose interest in the effort after the novelty wears off. The analogous situation in the world of print media is known as the weeding process. This is a process that libraries go through to make room on their shelves for new titles. While some titles that are weeded contain outdated and inaccurate information, there are surely some gems of historic value that are tossed because they failed to meet some arbitrary weeding criteria. In the case of Web sites that move from one system to another, it is possible to leave a pointer on the original system that lets people know where the site has moved to. This is the polite way to move a site and anyone who cares about their information is likely to attend to this detail. If the original site, however, no longer exits, then it is not possible to leave a pointer. Even when pointers are left, they may not be kept on the original system for an extended period of time.
In order to study the issues raised here, I would need the cooperation of a number of educators. These would be people who have experience with student research projects and information sources. Once a large enough sample is obtained, I would suggest that students in a given class or cohort be divided randomly into two groups. One group would use traditional library resources to complete a research project while the other group would confine their search to resources available on the Internet. For the sake of fairness, the groups could switch on a second project so all students could experience both traditional and Internet research work. Prior to giving assignments, I propose that comprehensive rubrics be constructed that would be used to evaluate student projects. This would be used to compare the quality of the traditional projects to the Internet projects. This comparison could be done between groups and within groups to see if the quality of the work done by individuals varied between the two assignments. Since one would expect student work to improve from the first assignment to the second, the degree of improvement would be an important issue. The goal would be to determine if the Internet serves to promote improved research work on the part of students. Ideally, I could run this project at a number of different levels such as elementary, middle school, high school, college, and post graduate. For the purpose of this study, however, I propose to confine my study to students at a single high school in a neighboring district.
Doug Green - email@example.com
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Binghamton, NY 13905
© 1997, Doug Green, All Rights Reserved.