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In Search of the Truth . . . Etc.

September 01, 1997|Lawrence J. Magid

For kids who are able to get online--at school, home or a public library--the Internet can be a great resource, offering help with homework, ideas for projects and plenty of study and research materials. But to use it effectively, students have to learn how to avoid its numerous traps.

My main advice for would-be Web surfers is to learn how to use search techniques and try to avoid spending too much time in sites that waste your time. Search services like Yahoo, Infoseek and Lycos--which offer indexes broken down by categories as well as the ability to search--can help you find just about anything online, but if you don't use them correctly, you can be overwhelmed.

(For a listing of the major search sites and tips on how to use them, point your Web browser to

Basic research skills were never more important than they are when using the Web. Because it's easy and inexpensive to publish on the Web, it's very important for students to learn to distinguish among fact, opinion, speculation and outright lies.

One way to be sure you're getting trusted information is to visit "branded" sites from major news organizations and publishing companies. Although errors and shoddy scholarship and journalism can sometimes slip into these sites, most are generally quite good.

Just about all major news organizations now have Web sites, as do most universities and many libraries. The Los Angeles Public Library (, for example, not only has its catalog online, but also makes a number of research databases available to patrons with library cards.

It's also important to understand the difference between research and plagiarism. When I was a kid, we had to retype material that we lifted from an encyclopedia, newspaper or other source. Now you simply copy and paste.

There's nothing wrong with using secondary sources as part of research, but students need to understand how to interpret what they read, put it in their own words and cite their sources. Maintaining originality while incorporating other people's material is, along with over-reliance on spell checkers, one of my children's biggest challenges.

There are several online encyclopedias, but most charge a fee. Microsoft, which publishes the 30,000-article Encarta Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, offers a portion of that material on its free online "Encarta Concise Encyclopedia." While it lacks some listings as well as the multimedia sizzle of the CD version, this free online encyclopedia is quite extensive and easy to use.

Knowledge Adventure, which publishes games and learning software, has a free online encyclopedia ( that isn't nearly as extensive as Encarta but is a bit more fun.

There are also some fee-based online research tools, including Electric Library (see related story at right).

America Online has separate "homework help" sections for kids, teens and adults. These include links to a Compton's Encyclopedia, a dictionary and a thesaurus. There is also an "ask a teacher" area where you can pose a question to a real teacher and get an answer, by e-mail, within 48 hours.

The most useful area, according to the sixth-grader in my house, is the discussion link that takes you to a live chat area where you can discuss issues and get answers in real time.

The Learning Kingdom ( offers some excellent educational games written in Java. You can play some for free or, for $9.95 a month, enroll in "Math in the Kingdom," which offers hundreds of interactive lessons. The company offers a 10-day free trial.

The biography site ( from A&E Television offers brief bios of "15,000 of the greatest names, past and present." Don't expect much detail, but it's a quick way to get a brief overview.

Kids Web ( is an extremely rich and well-organized set of links, broken down by the arts, sciences, social studies and miscellaneous.

Let's say you're studying Afghanistan. You can search for it in Yahoo and find a number of sites, including the Afghan Daily News, which will keep you posted on current events and even link you to a live chat room called "The Afghan Chat Room on the Internet." A search in Lycos ( yielded 100 hits, including one site that describes "Archeological Sites and Treasures in Afghanistan."

Our military and civilian leaders would never dive into a country without first checking with the CIA, and neither should you. A quick visit to the CIA World Fact Book will provide you with information about the country's government, natural resources, economy, environment, political hot spots, health statistics and other vital data.

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