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May 30, 2003

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Critical thinking: Kids' best research (and online-safety) tool

"'Of Course It's True; I Saw It on the Internet!': Critical Thinking in the Internet Era" is a very readable, 11-page study that every parent and teacher should read.

We don't usually make blanket statements like that, but we haven't seen - in the media or in academia - a more cogent illustration of how much we need to help online kids develop their critical thinking skills. To us the report also indicates that this part of their education needs to 1) start early and 2) happen at home as well as at school - if only because school reports start getting assigned in elementary school and some of the work happens at home.

The authors of this study, Leah Graham and P. Takis Metaxas of Wellesley College's computer science department, designed the project to answer three questions: "How strongly do students rely on the Internet for information?", "What claims are students more likely to believe?" and "Who is most susceptible to misleading claims?" (The research methods themselves made for interesting reading - unusual in our experience!) Students of various class years were emailed questions as part of a basic computer course and asked to report their answer and search strategies (interestingly, the authors found that age and academic experience had no noticeable impact on critical thinking).

The students were instructed to use any resource they wished. Fewer than 2% used non-Internet sources! "This finding emphasizes the importance of teaching good Internet research skills," the authors write, adding that "this survey also revealed the extraordinary confidence students have in search engines." They point to another study's finding in 2000 that "no single search engine captures more than 16% of the entire Internet." We emailed Professor Metaxas to ask him if he thinks that's still true in these days of Google supremacy (in terms of Web coverage as well as popularity), and he said he thinks the 16% figure holds and may actually be high now because of the Web's growth since 2000.

But most interesting to us were the examples used. The students were told to "list three major innovations developed by Microsoft over the past 10 years" ("'Major innovation' was left vague, as Microsoft's innovative history is a widely debated issue," the authors write. "There are many opinions on the topic, and we expected students overall to discuss at least several.") Sixty-three percent of the students said Microsoft "was responsible for many major innovations based on information from only one source. Almost all of these students immediately went to the Microsoft Web site" and cited its "Museum Timeline"; only 12% checked several sources. This lack of skepticism about the claims of a corporate Web site, much less Microsoft, buried as it recently was in antitrust litigation, surprised the authors.

Other questions tested students' ability to distinguish between fact and government propaganda or political lobby groups' messages. For example, students were asked about a claim by an anti-smoking site. " says that tobacco is responsible for 30% of all deaths in the 35-69 age group. Would you cite this information in a research paper?" (the authors explain that the site lists as fact this statistic, which is a projection made in 1992 on how many deaths tobacco will probably cause in the 1990s). Almost half (48%) of the students surveyed said they would confidently cite the figure in a research paper. "Students must understand that all information on the Internet is there for a reason, and it is vital to determine the purpose of the information when evaluating its accuracy," the authors write.

"Perhaps the underlying problem is a lack of understanding of the Internet as an unmonitored well of information," the authors say in their conclusion. Obviously it's not like a school or public library, where content is expertly organized into reference, fiction and nonfiction sections, to and through which professional librarians lead children by the hand.

Our own fifth-grader's experiences have sent up warning signals. Teachers assign research papers. Occasionally a teacher will require a mix of sources - print and online. Sometimes s/he'll ask for a bibliography and only rarely discuss how to cite Web pages. Most important, nothing has been said about a need to evaluate the sources - or how to do that. This is no indictment of teachers; it simply reflects the rise of a new research medium that tends to be a lot more attractive and familiar to students than to parents and teachers (and some teachers are undoubtedly working hard on this problem as we speak).

Here, in a nutshell, is how the schoolwork equation suddenly changed on us: "In the past," Graham and Metaxas say, "the greatest problem facing researchers was finding information; now, with the advent of the Internet, the greatest problem is evaluating the vast wealth of information available. Students in this survey placed greater emphasis on the process of finding an answer than on analyzing the actual information."

Developing critical thinking online is a team effort, ideally - administrators can help establish policies about intelligent use of the Net as a research tool (about evaluating and citing sources, not just plagiarism); and parents, teachers, and librarians can do the hands-on work of helping kids practice their info-evaluation skills wherever Web-based research is done.

There's an online-safety component to this too, of course. Using critical-thinking skills in online chat, instant-messaging, and email, as well as on the Web, is the best safeguard children can have - and they have a great way of helping their peers see the advantages of distinguishing between fact and fiction, whether the sender is selling "prescription" drugs, get-rich-quick scams, hate, pornography, or some skewed version of "friendship."

There's just no getting around the fact that the most effective Net filter that could ever be developed is the one that lies between a child's ears!

We'd like to hear your views on and experiences with helping kids develop discriminating thinking online. Published with your permission, they can be very helpful to fellow readers. Please email us!

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Related links

  • On search engines. Speaking of these, a recent study out of Penn State University found that no single search strategy works for all search engines, and it's best to stick to one search engine and get to know its quirks. According to the BBC, the study also found that "only 10% of people refine the results served up to them using words such as 'or,' 'must appear' or try to ensure their search terms are treated as a single phrase. Refining a search with such words can make a big difference to the numbers of pages returned." Wired News looks at the next- generation search engine ("Fast, smart, personalized to suit every user's needs. And pretty"), reporting from the 12th International World Wide Web Conference in Budapest. The New York Times reports that "Google now conducts 55% of all searches on the World Wide Web." Of course that doesn't mean it actually covers that much of the Web.

  • On developing kid-wisdom. For one teacher's timeless ideas on how to work with kids on critical thinking and the Net, see an interview we did with Marel Rogers in a very early version of this newsletter (especially the last paragraph before "More teacher stories"). [Sorry to say some of the links in this October '97 issue no longer work.] Teachers, send us your tips!

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    Web News Briefs

    1. 'Growing up wired'

      They're "among the Internet's first natives, at home in the wired world to a degree their parents may never wholly understand," as the San Jose Mercury News puts it. The paper's referring to Silicon Valley's high school graduates this year, the vast majority of whom "will remember an adolescence lived to an astonishing degree on the Internet." These were among the conclusions of a survey of Silicon Valley 10-to-17-year-olds the Mercury News conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study bears out and adds context to what we heard from 16-year-old Silicon Valley resident Will in our four-part series this month. Here are some of the survey's fascinating findings:

      • "Skills that just a few years ago were considered the exclusive province of hard-core technophiles, such as building a Web site, have become common and unremarkable for this generation.
      • "Instant-messaging and chat rooms are staples of teen communication, with half of all kids using IM or a chat room at least once a week [25% said they rely on chat, IM or email as the primary way to keep in touch with friends].
      • "Significant disparities in Net access and use persist when it comes to the valley's poorest, least-educated and Latino households, but those gaps have narrowed dramatically.
      • "The image of the computer geek with a pocket protector hasn't entirely vanished, but ... it's being eroded by ordinary kids who have Internet smarts plus well-rounded lives outside the computer lab.
      • "For many Silicon Valley teens and preteens, the Net's true value is measured in social currency. [69% said they go online to use chat or IM, and of those, one in four said they use them every day; among the 38% who said they use chat or IM at least a few times a week, 66% said they spent 1-3 hours per session; "a few reported spending more than 10 hours a day chatting;" 33% said they know some friends only online; 25% said they have met someone online whom they wouldn't have otherwise known.]"

    2. IM good for teen writers

      We know teenagers are "creating a new social world online, one that often excludes parents," as the Washington Post puts it. We know that the main tools of that social scene are email and instant-messaging. And we also know that grammar-conscious teachers and parents have registered their concerns about how kids write online. What we don't often hear is that the very fact that parents aren't a presence in teen's online social scene could spell something quite positive: a rules- and judgment-free environment very supportive of self-expression, lots of it! They love communicating online - it's recreation not work. So smart teachers are capitalizing on this phenomenon.

      "More and more teachers are concluding that kids' comfort with language [online] actually might improve their writing, if that interest can be harnessed in the right way," according to the Post, which adds that IM and email are "creating a new generation of teenage writers, accustomed to translating their every thought and feeling into words. They write more than any generation has since the days when telephone calls were rare and the mailman rounded more than once a day." A researcher the Post mentions actually watches teens as they IM and email. Sometimes they just tap out what pops into their heads; other times they think through what they're saying carefully, edit to clean up typos and imprecision, and read over before sending - all of which hones writing and editing skills. Researchers say their subjects have "an instinctual understanding that writing has a purpose and an audience. Kids learn that how they write will determine whether their meaning is received correctly," according to the Post.

    3. 10,000 Norwegian children tricked

      A recent survey conducted in Norway found that 10,000 Norwegian children have been conned online by adults saying they were children. The study was conducted by a Norwegian organization called SAFT (Safety, Awareness, Facts and Tools), reports Nettavisen. "Based on the information revealed in the survey, Internet guides aimed at schools and homes will be made in Norway," Nettavisen adds. Here are other key findings:

      • The number of Norwegian children meeting strangers face to face after getting to know them on the Internet is five times higher than what parents believe.
      • 40% have visited pornographic Web sites.
      • 10% have met people in real life after meeting them on the Internet.
      • 18% who have met someone in real life after meeting them on the Net said that the other person was in fact an adult.

    4. 'Clean Net' for Thai kids

      Parents in Thailand now have a comprehensive online-safety resource, the Bangkok Post reports. The Thai Web Master Association has launched "to promote Internet knowledge to Thai parents and be a centre for measures to protect children from online dangers." To build a database of "green links" - a white list of child-safe Web sites - the site hopes to help create "a strong parent network that can help screen content for children." (Our thanks to QuickLinks for pointing out these two items.)

    5. Mobile education?

      A program in the UK, Italy, and Sweden is testing to see if mobile phones and palmtop computers can help renew 16-to-24-year-old dropouts' interest in education. The program may be useful to adult literacy programs as well because, "makers of educational materials Cambridge Training and Development have found that mobile learning has an element of privacy which can help those embarrassed by their numeracy or literacy skills," the BBC reports. The 4.5 million euro ($5.3 million) program is funded by the European Union.

    6. How spam-blockers could ruin email

      The arrival of spam-blocking services and software may very well spell the end of an era - especially for people like you (our readers) and us. The increasing popularity of "challenge-response" spam-blocking tools and services is the turning point. "In theory, well-designed challenge-response utilities won't challenge mail from known correspondents or mail that you've actually asked to receive. Unfortunately, many current challenge-response systems are poorly designed, which could wreak havoc on mailing lists and other legitimate communications," according to CNET. Here's how they currently work: "The operator of the mailing list receives a message - from each subscriber using the poorly designed challenge- response utility - that asks the list operator to respond to the challenge. Replying to a handful of challenges is no big deal, but if many subscribers start using poor challenge-response software, it will pose a serious problem for mailing list operators. Big corporations may be able to afford to hire someone to sit in front of a computer and spend all day proving they're not a spam bot, but nonprofit groups, individuals, and smaller companies probably can't." Our newsletter is among those not able to respond to all spam challenges. The only remedy at the moment is to ask readers who choose to use these systems to be sure to put our newsletter on their lists of allowable senders.

      CNET is not alone in its view. is as critical of anti-spam measures tried to date, and describes them all in a useful roundup. (The term this article uses for "challenge-response" blocking is "authentication systems.")

    7. Third-generation file-sharing

      You may have heard of Kazaa and Grokster of the post-Napster, 2nd generation of file-sharing. But if your children are serious music and movie file-swappers, those services may be old hat already. You may want to know about next- generation services such as eDonkey and BitTorrent. Tech-literate young people certainly don't want to wait around for slow file transfers and downloads. The new services are "designed specifically to increase the efficiency and speed of transfer for large files," especially movies," reports CNET, adding that "some of these tools have been in development for several years, but are just now reaching the critical mass needed to make a dent in the file-trading world." CNET gets this from sources in the copyright community, who are interested in these new tools because they're starting to rival the "piracy potential" of the post-Napster generation of swapping services. That means users of these services are on record and movie company's litigation radar screens. The CNET article does a good job of explaining how these 3rd-generation services work and how they make it harder for copyright owners to sue their users. To give you a feel for the numbers, the most popular second-generation service Kazaa claims to have been downloaded 230 million times; eDonkey 50 million times. These services are used to share software programs, games, images (including pornographic ones), and text documents, as well as music and movies.

    8. Digital homeschooling

      The schooling happens at home, but the teacher isn't Mom or Dad. The New York Times story leads with a family in Ohio. Though the parents believe homeschooling is best for their children, the mother doesn't feel capable of teaching them, the Times reports. "So the Nelsons enrolled their children in the academy, a public charter school for kindergarten through fifth grade that exists only in cyberspace. (Charter schools are publicly financed but independently operated.) The academy is chartered by the state and run by K12, a for-profit education company based in McLean, Va." Customers get "an online curriculum, an online attendance and grading program [students in publicly funded programs have to log a certain amount of school time a year, e.g., 900 hours], a loaned computer, and a teacher who is reachable online, by phone, and occasionally in person." The Times offers some numbers - "fewer than two dozen virtual elementary and middle schools nationwide, in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio and a few other states"; 7,000 K12 students nationwide; and 400 K-8 students at Sylvan's Connections Academy. Whatever the implications of these programs, they certainly increase the number of options available to parents and teachers, as well as students.

    9. New US ratings system

      A new nonprofit organization called Common Sense Media announced it's putting a new entertainment rating system on the Web. According to the International Herald Tribune, the group promises a more parent-sensitive guide to TV shows, movies, CDs, books, video games, and Web sites than has been offered before. Other distinctions Common Sense Media claims are the staff-written reviews it plans to provide along with ratings, as well as the breadth of coverage it plans. Other ratings systems are more focused on single media, such as film or video games, the organization says (the Herald Trib piece mentions other such ratings providers). The Web site will ask users to enroll as members with a voluntary donation of $25. The organization's founder is James Steyer, author of "The Other Parent," about the effects of media on children, and founder of Children Now.

      We'd like to hear from you about this: Do you think another or better ratings system is needed? Will you use it? Would you pay for this service?

    10. AOL and Microsoft agree!

      In a "surprising twist," as reported by the Washington Post, AOL Time Warner and Microsoft ended "one of the most bitter rivalries in modern corporate history this week," in the New York Times's words. First the two giants (one in software, the other in entertainment) announced a few weeks ago they'd agreed to collaborate to beat spam. Now MS has agreed to pay AOL Time Warner a $750 million legal settlement, and the two have announced a sweeping program of cooperation on everything from digital music delivery to instant-messaging interoperability (allowing their IM services to talk to each other), CNET reports. According to the San Jose Mercury News, certainly the deal helps each company solve some important problems: AOL gets to pay down some serious debt and MS needs to put the antitrust era behind it. We're all watching to see what all this means for the average Net user. Some analysts are saying the two companies are going back to their roots to do what they do best, that it's the end of the "media convergence" era; others are wary of what the deal means for competition and "the little guy," like RealNetworks.

    11. High school student hacks school computers

      A 17-year-old in California hacked into his school's computer system and changed his and a classmate's grades, the Los Angeles Times reports. He also accessed confidential student information such as Social Security numbers. "District officials mailed letters ... to the school's 2,400 students, notifying parents and recommending that they contact the nation's three major credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on their child's file," according to the Times. There were 1,744 Social Security numbers in the database. The student was suspended, could be expelled, and may be charged with violating state theft and privacy laws. Our thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this item out.

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    That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


    Anne Collier, Editor

    Net Family News


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