Magazine article Technology & Learning

Teaching Kids to Be Web Literate

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Teaching Kids to Be Web Literate

Article excerpt

Just because it's on the Net doesn't make it true. In his upcoming book, education guru Alan November explores the importance of showing kids how to evaluate what they find on the Web.

The impact of the Internet on our students is already powerful and growing every day. For many kids, including my own, it's the medium of choice, replacing television or print in hard copy form. We are faced with a host of consequences of this persuasiveness. Chief among them is the illusion that anything found on the World Wide Web must be true. The Internet is a free and open global forum where anyone can express any version of the truth. It can potentially be the most dangerous information environment. At the same time the Internet opens new worlds of access to art and music and research, it can be distracting and very seductive.

The real experience of a student named Zack is a prime example of the way in which young minds can be manipulated if they are not schooled in the necessary skills of validation and evaluation of information they find on the Internet.

The Story of Zack: The Danger of ignorance

A fourteen-year-old named Zack was asked by his retired neighbor what he was learning in school. Zack answered, I'm working on a history paper about how the Holocaust never happened." The neighbor was incredulous. "Zack, where did you hear that the Holocaust didn't happen?.... I found it on the Internet in my high school library. Concentration camps were really clinics to help the Jews fight typhus carried by lice...."

Later that day, the neighbor called the school superintendent and demanded that Internet access be removed from the school.

How could a high school sophomore be fooled into thinking that death camps were really medical clinics? Zack was fooled because the Web site upon which he relied for his information was that of a professor at Northwestern University, Arthur Butz. Butz does not deny the existence of the camps. Instead, he explains the existence of the camps as an attempt by the German government to fight typhus carried by lice. He does not deny the shaving and the showers, the canisters of the gas Zyklon, and the crematoria and the death. He calmly and simply explains these details as necessary for the eradication of the pervasive lice. It is a persuasive document and it has the domain name of, Northwestern University,

Look at Professor Butz's posting from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old untrained to think critically about information. He is researching the Holocaust and by searching for the name of one of the chemicals used in the gas chambers, Zyklon, he finds a Northwestern professor's Web page. His teacher had told him to find a unique topic, and this certainly fits the bill. He has never heard these ideas before. The page is simple and clear. It's written in a calm, logical tone.

From Zack's perspective, it's a valid source from a tenured professor at a top university. It has a publication date in the 1990s. It's on the Internet. It must be "true."

Although Zack learned the technical skills necessary to access the Internet using a search engine at school, he was not taught the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate the information he accessed. His lack of knowledge of how to think critically about information made him a victim. Teaching students to use the Internet is much more complex than using a search engine to "surf" the Web. Teaching students how to make meaning from the information they access rather than simply teaching them how to access should be a top priority.

One essential step in validation involves learning about a site's author. We all know that it's easy to fool people. Many people, especially kids, will believe someone if he sounds authoritative. When I've talked to adults about Butz's Web site, they never fail to point out, "Butz is a professor, sure, but he's an engineering professor, so he really does not have credibility as a historian. …

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