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Asking the Hard Questions

One goal of education is to teach students to find answers to challenging questions. The World Wide Web, which is likely the world’s largest digital library, has changed how this is done in some surprising ways. For example, many people are certain that if something is not on the Web, it d'es not exist. If you want to get your ideas and information to them, you must publish your content on the Web. They must publish everything on the Web that they wish to share with their colleagues.

Libraries can no longer attract students or often faculty with just paper books and journals. An online journal that cannot be searched and retrieved via the Web may get as many calls as the Maytag repairman. Coffee shops, cafes, computer labs, and wireless access are almost required to get people to actually visit a library.

Publishing a book or getting an article accepted in a long and arduous task where the accuracy and suitability of the work is often judged by peers and publishers. Something published on the Web is usually reviewed by no one and needs to meet no standards. The Web site, for example, proclaims that “Thousands of individuals are abducted by extraterrestrial beings each year,” and asks “Who do the aliens choose, and why haven’t they chosen you?” Information on the Web isn’t necessarily true. Even spell checking is likely to be skipped on Web sites. Searching the Web for incorrectly spelled words usually results in thousands of hits. The word misspelled, for example, appears misspelled as “mispelled” more than 35,000 times. Buyers on eBay search for misspelled items knowing that they will attract fewer bidders and therefore sell for a lower price.

An economics professor at a western University complained that the Web had caused him to lose control of his undergraduate courses. This was not just a case of students exchanging instant messages or playing Internet games during class instead of being captivated by supply and demand curves. In the halcyon pre-Web days, he said, he was the undisputed expert in his field. He chose the textbooks and other information sources. Papers turned in referenced physical sources with which he was almost always familiar. Now, when GNP, for example, is first mentioned in class, students quickly do a Google search on it. They then bombard him with results from the 590,000 or so hits they get, including which urges you to fight back against unfettered free trade and the GNP FAQ where GNP of course is an acronym for Gender Neutral Pronoun. Students’ papers now reference URLs almost exclusively, which he is not sure are good sources or even exist. And he’s not certain how to check them anyway. If a URL d'esn’t exist, a student is sure to say that it did when she tried it.

When asked to compare articles on the Web that are biased with those that are impartial on a subject such as prayer in schools, many users of the Internet are likely to Google prayer in schools biased and then Google prayer in schools impartial. Using a search engine requires more than knowing its syntax, though many Google users don’t even know that.

How d'es the Google search she done me wrong in quotes differ from the same search without quotes? How is the search car facts different from car ~facts? What d'es the search medieval site:edu do? If these give you a problem, learning more about how to use a search engine would improve your effectiveness in using the Web.

Should we prohibit students from using the Web in courses? Of course not, but students need to follow accepted scholarly rules when using the Internet. The APA Style Guide now includes rules for electronic media.

While a professor may not recognize every URL a student references, a savvy professor is not impressed by dozens of even great sources. What’s important is how clearly the student integrates the concepts from the course with external material to make a compelling and supportable case for the thesis of a paper. Numerous URLs or an extensive bibliography should not make a bad paper seem stellar. A professor who feels she has lost control of her class needs a higher comfort level with Internet technology. Once she understands how to use Google or Yahoo! and how to deal with URLs, her students will seem far less intimidating.

There are many wonderful things about the Web. It is an open, inexpensive, extensible, public resource that has very wide acceptance. It is very easy to ask the Web questions; just Google a word or two and you get millions of hits. However it is very hard to ask the Web hard questions, not because of any failure of search engines, but because of the Web’s structure—some would say lack of structure. Whether the Web is asked easy or hard questions, the results are often very difficult to interpret. In building future digital collections one challenge is to ensure that they are structured to make asking hard questions easy and interpreting the results straight forward. How one d'es that is itself a very hard question.

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