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November 1999

College course unravels Web of fact, fiction

Source: Judith Pask, (765) 494-6729;
jmpask@purdue.edu

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- As more students surf the Web for research on term papers and class projects, educators are recognizing the need to teach them how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

"The Internet is very different from a library, where materials have been selected through a review process," says Judith Pask, librarian for the Hicks Undergraduate Library at Purdue University. "With a library collection, you know that a person or committee has looked at the material and decided it's worthwhile. But virtually anyone can put anything they want on the Internet. There are no checks for accuracy or bias."

Purdue addresses this issue in a course taught by Pask on information strategies. The class includes instruction on how to find, evaluate and present information via the World Wide Web.

Exercises in the information strategies course are designed to help students develop a critical eye for information available on the Web. During the last presidential campaign, students in the course were asked to look at two Web pages dedicated to Sen. Bob Dole and determine which was factual and which was a spoof.

"They were to evaluate both sites to find out Bob Dole's middle name." Pask says. "One was an official campaign site that provided the correct answer, Joseph, while the other was a complete parody of the official site that said, among other things, that his family owned the Dole Pineapple Co. Students who believed the unauthorized Web site told us his middle name was Jezebel."

Pask offers the following tips to students who are new to Web research:

  • Start with a man-made directory rather than a spider-built search engine.

    "A directory like Yahoo offers categories to pick from to narrow your search and then returns sites that have been reviewed by a person. Those sites are much more likely to contain at least some information on your topic," Pask explains. "A spider-built search engine generates listings automatically based exclusively on the words or phrases you have plugged in, and that can lead you off in a lot of different directions."

    An example that illustrates the difference would be to conduct an Internet search to find out how to go about adopting a wild mustang.

    "By following the cues of a directory, you can zero in on mustang adoption pages rather quickly," Pask explains. "But if you plug the word 'mustang' into a search engine, you will retrieve lots of irrelevant links, including many related to the Ford Motor Co."

  • Not everything is free.

    "Much of the best information on the Web is not free to the general public," Pask says. "You need to be subscribed to an on-line service to get access to it."

  • Once at a Web site, look for the identity of the author.

    "It's important to know who is presenting the information and why they are an authority on the subject," Pask says. "Sometimes it's not immediately apparent, and you have to do some backtracking through the URL. The root address, which comes immediately after the "www" but before the first backslash, can tell you a lot about what you're seeing on the screen."

    A general search for information about the French artist Paul Cezanne could turn up the URL http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/glimpse/art/html/partthree.html, which shows three Cezanne paintings that are in the collection housed at the presidential residence in Washington, D.C. The root address "whitehouse.gov" tells the viewer that the source is indeed the White House.

  • Pay attention to domain names.

    "A root address that ends in the letters 'edu' is going to be from an educational institution, while 'gov' is government, 'org' is a nonprofit organization, and 'com' will be a commercial site," Pask says. "Plus different countries have different domain names. A two-letter country code will alert you that the laws, culture and even the language may be different at that site."

    Some examples: "ae" (United Arab Emirates); "at" (Austria); "ch" (Switzerland); "de" (Germany); "es" (Spain); "fr" (France); "gr" (Greece); "hk" (Hong Kong); "in" (India); "jp" (Japan); "mx" (Mexico); "sa" (Saudi Arabia); "th" (Thailand); and "uk" (United Kingdom).

  • Check the date the page was last modified.

    "There are no rules about taking pages off the Web when the subject matter is outdated, so students need to be watchful for that," Pask says.

    Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; sharon_bowker@purdue.edu

    Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu


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