Online resources both blessing and curse

December 8, 2010 — by Jackie Gu

In an era when the Internet has become an increasingly prominent part of society, the usage of online resources has grown significantly. Need help on math? Try Wolfram Alpha, an answer engine that can assist with anything from elementary arithmetic problems to calculus. How about literature? Check out Sparknotes, the online Bible for students who haven’t completed (or, in many cases, even started) their assigned reading. And there’s always Google, the most useful for information about anything and everything.

However, while the Internet provides an easily accessible, expansive digital sea of resources, it can be a mixed blessing. The key difference between electronic information and print lies in their authenticity: While printed resources usually have layers of editing and approval to ensure the accuracy of information, information on the Internet is often unverified.

Although top-quality online databases are often more advantageous to students because they are equally as reliable, accurate and even more timely than print resources, users need to know how and when to seek verification of information. Blindly relying on a general search engine is unwise and sometime unethical, despite it being a common practice among students.
Because of the inherent nature of the Internet, anything from fact to outrageous hyperbole can easily be published under the pretense of truth.

Students, especially those who are inexperienced, will often do online “research” that consists of a paraphrased version of the first page of Google search results. The problem with electronic research lies in the naivety of users rather than issues from the source itself.

Take the story of “Teaching Zack to Think,” for example, an article from the September 1998 edition of High School Principal magazine. The article exemplifies the necessity of utilizing online information properly and validating it before blindly taking it for truth. Zack, a 14-year-old student, was assigned to research a unique topic for his history class. While browsing the Internet for interesting topics, he came across a Web page claiming that the Holocaust didn’t exist.

Intrigued, he decided to use this for his paper that would later be titled “How the Holocaust Never Happened.” The page had come from the website of Northwestern University, written by a professor, leading Zack to believe he had found a fully reliable source—but the professor was a Holocaust denier, the meaning of which Zack did not bother to find out.

The usage of online resources can be highly beneficial, but dangerous to those not trained to think critically. It is vital that students exercise caution, careful not to freely paraphrase unverified information—and maybe stopping to double-check a source before turning in a paper about how Hitler was secretly a woman.

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