Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No 1|September|2002
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The Internet-only
Research Approach:
Does the Web
Really Have All
There Is to Say?

by Ken Vesey
(about author)

© 2002, Ken Vesey
all rights reserved.

After a restful summer, our faculty gathered before school officially began for a full day of technology training. We assembled in the school auditorium and the two invited speakers, a husband-and-wife team, experts in the field, began the day by pelting us with jargon -- “bit,” “byte,” “terabyte,” “RAM,” “ROM,” “CD-ROM.” The list went on and on. After forty-five minutes of this, the techno-timid were ready to run for the exit. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning.

The next vocab item was WebQuest. A WebQuest, we found out, is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web, [an activity] designed to use learners' time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners' thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation." (Bernie Dodge. The WebQuest Page. San Diego State University http://webquest.sdsu.edu/ overview.htm)

WebQuests are but one example in an apparently growing trend in educational technology (practiced by cutting-edge practitioners, our trainers implied). Similar approaches may be called “project links,” Internet pathfinders, online research modules, or webliographies. The common thread in all these is an attempt to cobble together links on a given topic and guide students through research drawing upon the supposedly unlimited resources of the free Web (which, according to our invited experts, rival the resources of the Library of Congress or the British Library).

This methodology, we were told, permits educators to single out and showcase specific Internet resources on a curriculum-oriented web page and allow students to extract nuances of germane information without the inefficiency and confusion of traditional library research. What an advantage, the presenters further suggested, to cut out the drudgery of library-based research and cut to the bone of the matter, getting to the essence of the issue without all the chaotic process of sifting through the myriad of resources available in the old-fashioned school library media center.

Memories of my peaceful summer were obliterated and my heart began to thump in an angry tempo.

Cold War

Take the Cold War as an example, one of the presenters suggested. She then proceeded to show a sample Internet pathfinder on the Cold War on an oversized screen at the front of the auditorium in which students were prompted to investigate major personalities, themes, and events from the Cold War. She showed how the students are directed to the free Web resources made available on the pages of such sites as CNN.com and PBS.org, other web pages that were written by and for university students, and various other Internet sources from a wide variety of authors and origins.

I looked around the auditorium and could see that the glamour of the Web with its inviting hypertext and colorful click-able links was making converts of my colleagues, and that this proposed approach to researching a topic like the Cold War had a definite appeal.

Of course, there were some aspects of this approach that weren’t discussed. For example, using this digital pathfinder and restricting oneself to the free information available on the Web, the Internet researcher probably would not be exposed to contemporary news accounts of the era reported in Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report, decades of which are maintained as bound back issues on the second floor of the library. Other topical information could be accessed in the library using extensive back files of the New York Times on microform, which are indexed and available for perusal using the reader/printer.

Furthermore, by exclusively relying on the Internet to research the Cold War, the student would not have access to what the school library has to offer: certain primary documents; a video with footage of Khrushchev and Nixon’s Kitchen Debate (complete with onscreen translations and scholarly asides), or extensive biographical material and related educationally approved web links on Cold War personalities available from an online biography database subscription. And finally, what about the dozens—no, scores of historical monographs and biographies in the nonfiction section with their extensive indexes (analog search engines) just waiting to be manually surfed and keyword-searched for relevant information?

“A Dickens of a Quest”

A Dickens of a Quest is another web-based research unit (http://www.perrysburg.k12.oh.us/hs/webquest/quest.html) that has been used as an example of best practice for grades 9–12. In this case the student information seeker is instructed to use the Internet to investigate Dickens’s England. The author of this resource has compiled a list of recommended Web links with which the student is to “carefully analyze the conditions of the day.” Several of the sites listed are decorated with various and sundry Web awards, which along with the colorful, blinking, and nearly omnipresent commercial advertisements (Click here to buy books! Improve Your Credit! Get a wireless video camera! Find your mate!), might seem at first inspection to lend them authority.

One featured web site for “A Dickens of a Quest” comes from the Victorian Web (, an online version of a project at Brown University that serves as a resource for courses in Victorian literature at this Ivy League school. I’m sure that certain advanced students in grades 9-12 are ready to read texts that have been prepared with ivy-leaguers in mind, but I doubt that the information will be easily accessible to everyone in grades 9–12.

Another link led to a site called “Dickens’ London” (http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/dickens_london.html). It was a professional looking site and even boasted that it had been Web-cited by such venerable institutions as the BBC (and, perhaps somewhat ironically, Cliffs Notes).

Following my own advice to students, I sought to check out the credentials of the person responsible for posting this information online. The name of the responsible individual was listed, but not his credentials or professional association. I did some further investigation and discovered that the webmaster of the Dickens’ London site is a U.S. government employee, assembling his web site on Dickens seemingly as a hobby outside of his nine-to-five.

While his expertise in Dickensia may be encyclopedic, I think I’d rather have my students first consult some of the print resources we have on Dickens in the library, sources written by such notable scholars as Peter Ackroyd and printed by such reputable publishing houses as Oxford University Press.

The amateur historian above may well have more scholarly credentials than the author of the recommended web link to the causes of the French Revolution, which ties into events portrayed in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities at http://members.aol.com/agentmess/

Again, I scrutinized the page to discover its source and credibility. The page containing the full text of the recommended link to the causes of the French Revolution has the byline “by Rodney Hilton.” This byline has an embedded e-mail link to the following e-mail address: saber-man@mindless.com.


This byline has an embedded e-mail link to the following e-mail address: saber-man@mindless.com.

There are no other clues to the identity of this Web-historian. I discovered that there is an actual medieval historian with the name of Rodney Hilton (1916 - ), but he doesn’t appear to have written on the French Revolution, and I find it hard to believe that his web address would end in the domain name @mindless.com—it’s not very academic and sort of out of character for someone who will soon celebrate his centenary year.

I’ve sent e-mail to the “mindless” address and asked the author for his background and credentials in the history of France. As researchers, we can easily find this information for print authors, but for Web authorship, this seemed to be the only viable course. I’m still waiting for a reply to my e-mail, but since the page was posted several years ago, I may be waiting a long time. In the meantime, the mindless.com domain name seems to have expired as well.

The information from this page on the causes of the French revolution seems quite solid, but what disturbs me is we don’t know its source or the credentials of the author, whether it’s original scholarship or perhaps even plagiarized from another source. The ironic thing is that there are many links from prominent search engines to this page, which seem to have lent it some authority.

If one goes back to the root page on the French Revolution to which the Causes page is linked (http://members.aol.com/agentmess/frenchrev/index.html), the following printed statement explains the creation of the resource: “The Web seems quite lacking in French Revolution information, a reason to make this page.” (This observation ignores the fact that libraries, unlike the Web, have and have always had abundant resources on the French Revolution). This curious statement is followed by a smiley, an emoticon, which immediately raised flags of amateur authorship.

I dug deeper and found the author’s name. A further link led to his personal homepage, which contained a line providing more clues as to the reliability of the author’s depth of knowledge in French revolutionary history: “G’Day, and welcome to this place. It is, as you can tell, an amateur web page.” The author of the French Revolution information from the Dickens WebQuest describes the genesis of his French Revolution web site in the following way:

For some strange reason, my friend and I chose to work on the French Revolution for a very large project known as History Day. This was in 1995-1996. For at least a month, this project was our sole obsession… It also proved the point of how stands were taken in the French Revolution. … Feel free to use [my information] in any non-profit, non-plagurizing [sic] way.

I applaud this young web designer and his friend for attacking this project with enthusiasm and gusto back in 1995-1996, however “strange” their initial attraction to the subject was. I was happy to note that he even has an annotated bibliography posted on the web site that indicates books that he used in his research. I’m also glad he proved his thesis that “stands were taken in the French Revolution,” although I don’t think that this was necessarily a controversial position in French Revolution research. (There is a link from his homepage (http://members.aol.com/agentmess/index.html) to “My Friend and I’s [sic] Script/Essay on the French Revolution” if you would like to read more).

By now it should be rather obvious that students would be better served by having their primary information on the causes of the French Revolution supplied by a somewhat more reliable source than an amateur page on the causes of the French Revolution, even though it might not have the fun hyperlinks that this page has. The most useful portion of his web site may well be his bibliography. Students obviously need to do the same type of research that this amateur Web historian has done, starting with a wide variety of resources, but not solely rely on his interpretation of the facts, as the Dickens Internet unit seems to want them to do.

At no point in the Dickens WebQuest is it suggested that the researcher might want to look beyond the resources of the web. It is assumed that research will begin and end with the launch of the Internet browser, and that the student can carefully analyze the important historic context of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities through the lens of the World Wide Web. Even this cursory look at the recommended Web resources indicates that the student would be severely shortchanged by this approach.

Gatsby and All That Jazz

Another professional looking Internet pathfinder investigates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in the context of the Jazz Age (http://www.netsync.net/users/ dorourke/
gg_webquest/ jazztopic.htm
). Sure, there are some nice links, but why pretend that the Internet has all there is to say about the Jazz Age?

Because it has been a favorite American Studies research topic in our school for years, our school library can handily offer students dozens of jazz related books (including books on artists and writers of the jazz age), biographies of jazz greats, audio recordings of classic jazz performers, and even Ken Burns’s recent public television documentary The Jazz Age. If we were to follow the Internet-only approach to research, they’d never have opportunity to work with these varied resources.

The Lord of the Flies

Another Web research example that expands on the theme of good and evil in literature, with specific reference to The Lord of the Flies (http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/fil/pages/webgoodevira.html), warns students “Because these are real Webpages we’re tapping into, not things made just for schools, the reading level might challenge you.” The question I have to ask is this—why are we tapping into challenging “real” web pages before tapping into the “real” age-appropriate resources of the school library?

As a librarian, I want to make sure that kids are getting the best information, be it digital or analog. With Internet-only research I’m afraid they will often be getting a very limited view. The books and supplemental materials (including many digital resources) to which we provide access in the library were chosen with the best interests of our students in mind. They were selected based on recommendation or review, assume an appropriate knowledge base, and are targeted at the correct reading level for our students. Even with careful selection, can the same be said of most resources on the Web?

I am not a Luddite. I fully embrace technology and can’t imagine a school library without it. Still, I think it is our responsibility as educators to model sound research behavior, and not cheat students of the opportunity of finding the best information by only leading them to a portion of the resources available.

My worry about Internet-only approaches to research that don’t include references to traditional document-based resources and media (and there are some, admittedly, that do make attempts to steer students to books or other media) is that they make the arrogant assumption that if it’s not on the web, it’s not worth pursuing. Yes, I realize that the web is immensely entertaining and that pointing and clicking might appear to provide more immediate satisfaction than turning a page or checking a cross reference, but are we letting the Web have the final word?

Does the Web really have all there is to say? Do we want to teach our kids that if there isn’t a click-able link to information, it’s not worth investigating?

Why not LibraryQuest?

Along with some other librarians and information professionals, I’ve been advocating an approach to research for some time that I hope will lead students to the best information wherever it is and whatever format it is in.

My project pages, which are accessible from the library homepage (http://www.lovett.org/libraryweb/projects.htm), model a comprehensive research process for the students and often lead them to analog resources, as well as encourage them to use relevant online tools to tease out the best information on their subject. I even include some click-able links!

Other web-based research models encourage users to consult information from non-digital sources, even recommending a trip to the library. Jamie McKenzie, for example, recommends “multiple reliable sources” (digital, human, print) in his online research modules. These enlightened approaches do not exclude use of the web, but supplement it and provide a context for it, using the web as an information portal to quality analog and digital resources.

I think the time spent on the research portion of class assignments is time well spent. It fosters a life skill that is becoming increasingly vital to the success of our students in this information age.

Since our initial day of technology training at the beginning of the year, I’m using a new name for library research. I’m starting to promote the term LibraryQuest. To me it sounds so much better.

Ken Vesey is Director of Library Services at The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia, and can be reached at kvesey@lovett.org.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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