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Teaching Online Research
by Sandy Scragg

Researching on the web is convenient. You no longer have to leave home and visit the library to consult an authority. Researching on the web saves time. You no longer have to spend time requesting information, waiting in line, and paging through huge books and card catalogs to find information. What you need to know is yours within a few well-planned clicks. The Internet has an amazing collection of primary source documents, interviews, historical photos, documentaries...material never so readily available to the general public before.

That said, there are also difficulties with researching on the web. It can be confusing--you have access to so many different resources, where to look first? Additionally, the information you find online may or may not be true, and often times, it's difficult to tell what's accurate and what is not accurate. Anyone can post anything they want to post, and it's easy to make a web page look authentic. Finding a reliable source to quote can be difficult. Lastly, web pages, unlike printed materials, are never "finished" as in traditional forms of publication--what's posted one day can quickly change the next.

Guiding students through online research has its own set of potential headaches. How best to teach students how to navigate the information superhighway? Avoiding the Internet is not an option; students will be required to know how to research material online in upper grades and college, and the tide is only turning toward the Internet, not back to microfilm and library shelves. Teaching students some navigating tips and helping them become critically aware of the material they find online is a crucial skill in today's world.

Help students understand some criteria for evaluating web sites. You can visit our page on evaluating web sites, or keep a few key points in mind:

* If a web site does not list the author's name and a way to contact them, it's a good idea to steer clear of quoting the page. Being anonymous does not give an impression of reliability.
* Try to find out the purpose of the site. Can you tell who sponsors the site? Why is this information there in the first place? Can you detect any bias in the information presented? Look for strong words or opinion vs. fact.
* Does the web site look professional or homemade? This isn't foolproof, as it's easy to make a web page look "pro," but having a site with beginner-level design & overly flashy graphics will help you rule out any cranks typing away from their home terminal.
* Always check the root URL (the main web site, what ends in .com; .net; .edu; .org, etc.) to see who sponsors the site and what their connections may be.
* If the web page has a link to an "about me" or "about us" page, read it. Some sites aren't intended to mislead and will be frank about their purpose.

Learn some key searching tips. Google can be great if you know how to use it.
Without a doubt, Google is the most powerful and comprehensive search engine in existence today. However, not knowing how to effectively search for the material you're looking for can end in frustration and hours of lost time. I recommend visiting Google's searching help page--why not hear directly from Google on how best to use their site?

Use filtering and kid-friendly search engines for younger children. Most search engines allow you to set security features for younger students. Check the "preferences" or "advanced" features on the search engine of your choice. Also, remember to set the filter for image searches as well as word or phrase searches. Using kid-friendly searches not only sifts through material that may be inappropriate, they also return web sites that are at an appropriate reading level for your students.

Some of the best kid-friendly search engines are:
Kids Click: http://kidsclick.org
Yahooligans: http://yahooligans.com
Kids Search Engines--a list: http://rcls.org/ksearch.htm
Awesome Library: http://awesomelibrary.org

Teach students the proper way to cite a web resource. Showing students the traditional MLA style is fine for print resources, but how do you properly cite information found on a web page? Visit the Citation Machine to see the correct format, or use its fill-in-the-blanks template and allow the "machine" to prepare the correct format for you!

Still require some print resources be used for a well-rounded research project. Though the Internet is powerful, books still exist and may give very different information and impressions on a topic. It's also not a bad idea to make sure students know how to access information in both the online and print worlds.

Start researching from academic or research-based sites.
* When in doubt, locate well-known news organizations like CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and other periodicals. If you know them as a reliable source in print, they're a reliable source online as well.
* Start searching from a more precise starting point, like a library, or another source that targets research sites (like a library, school, or government site).
* Locate a museum or historical organization appropriate to the topic you are researching, and see if they have online resources, documents, etc. that can be helpful to you.

Some recommended starting points are:
Internet Public Library: http://ipl.org
Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.com
Noodle Tools: http://noodletools.com (good for younger students)
Library of Congress: http://loc.gov
Internet Archive: http://archive.org
Yahoo Research--hotlinks to resources: http://dir.yahoo.com/Reference
New York Public Library: http://nypl.org