Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies

C. Frederick Risinger
No doubt about it—the Internet is changing social studies teaching and learning. Even teachers who have never logged on and who teach in technology-poor schools report that many students are turning in assignments using resources found on the World Wide Web. Other teachers tell of students bringing printed web pages to school that contradict the textbook or, even scarier, what the teacher told them yesterday!
In a recent survey of what classroom teachers say they want included in professional development programs, educational technology—specifically, how to use the Internet—ranked higher than content updates, motivational techniques, and assessment strategies combined.1 The number of schools (and content departments and individual classrooms) with their own websites is growing rapidly. Some observers, including former NCSS president Howard Mehlinger, suggest that educational technology could make the public schools as we know them irrelevant. Mehlinger outlines four possible scenarios. In two of them, home schooling or alternative institutions such as private schools will come to dominate the U.S. educational landscape.2
While the Internet and the World Wide Web (there is a difference—the Web is but one part of the Internet—but the two terms are used interchangeably) are changing all schooling, they may have their greatest impact on the social studies. Even a casual Web surfer will note that social studies/social science content, broadly construed, seems to dominate the Internet. The ready availability of this information changes dramatically the long-time relationships among knowledge, teachers, and students.
In the past, the content taught to students was filtered through the state and local curriculum guide, state legislative mandates, local school boards, textbook authors and selection committees, and, finally, the classroom teacher. Students with extraordinary interest and motivation would go beyond the textbook to examine books in the school or public libraries. But those institutions, too, selected books and other resources through special mechanisms for evaluating and validating printed resources.
Today, students with computer access can bypass these filters. Moreover, they can do it easily, using a tool with a TV-like screen containing color, pictures, animation, sound, and (those most alluring of characteristics) the elements of adventure and surprise. Surfing the Web is fun for students. It’s more fun than roaming through the stacks in a library or watching educational films in the classroom. And the most fun part of all: the student is in control. He or she decides what terms to use or which “hits” to review in an Internet search. The surprises come when one website links you to another that better fits your research needs or takes you on an alternative path to a new destination.
Administrators, school boards, and policymakers know that computers and other technological advances are changing teaching and learning. They also know that access for teachers and students to the Internet is essential. Politicians also recognize the value of the Internet in schools and, throughout the nation, candidates for state office are promising that they will connect every school and classroom to the World Wide Web. As they work toward this goal, educators and policymakers alike believe that the biggest problem facing them is student access to “dirty pictures”—pornography on the Net. Politicians, educators, and computer industry leaders have spoken out on the issue and sponsored highly visible conferences to discuss it.
While there are sexually-explicit websites on the Internet, I don’t see this as an insurmountable problem. Several companies are marketing filtering software that, while not perfect, works
fairly well. And the software will get better. Additionally, most of the sex-oriented sites require registration through an “adult check” system that prevents underage websurfers from entering the site. Finally, appropriate placement of computers in the classroom, computer lab, or library/media center may be the most effective approach. At Bloomington North (Indiana) High School, more than two dozen computers in the schoo#146;s resource center are placed so that they are easily monitored by faculty and staff.
No, dirty pictures are not the primary dilemma for social studies teachers who want to draw upon the rich resources of the Internet. The real problem is information evaluation and validation. Anyone with a bit of computer savvy can set up a website on any topic. There simply are no content restrictions, peer review, editing, or any other limitations or constraints on what information might appear on a web page. A 16-year-old fan of rock star Marilyn Manson can set up a website every bit as complex, attractive, and informative as one set up by General Motors to plug their new line of sport utility vehicles.
One librarian likened using and citing information on the Web to swimming on a beach without a lifeguard. This analogy, which implies physical danger to the swimmer or, in this case, the websurfer, is an overstatement. However, there could be a sort of intellectual danger if teachers and students don’t openly confront this issue, and make the evaluation and validation of information part of the learning process. This must become an integral part of using the Internet in teaching and learning social studies.
For years, good teachers have encouraged students to evaluate primary documents, detect bias, and identify points of view. But that was when we (teachers, textbook authors, librarians, administrators, and others) controlled nearly all of the information that students were asked to evaluate. The rules have changed. Students have access to a vast pool of information, much of which is excellent and some of which is inaccurate, confused, scurrilous, hateful, and a pack of lies.
The type of websites that cause concern for social studies teachers can be categorized in three groups:
Hate Sites. These sites range from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Online to an anti-Catholic site titled “Jesus Christ is the Only Way to God” to a site featuring “wistful odes to the Nazi Era” by Frank Rennicke. There are hundreds of these sites, many of them quite sophisticated. Moreover, they will be found by all the search engines, such as Alta Visa and Lycos. Type in “Nazi Germany” and Rennicke’s songs will appear on the list.
Dumb Sites. There are many web pages that contain irrelevant or factually incorrect information about a topic. These are often personal web pages where the “author” inflates his or her individual accomplishments (like padding a resumé). Sometimes they repeat “urban myths” or stories about a celebrity or political figure that cannot be proven. One of the best examples is the Kurt Vonnegut commencement address at Vassar that never really happened—in reality, it was a journalist’s column from the Chicago Sun Times.
Conspiracy Sites. For whatever reasons, Americans (maybe all humans) believe in conspiracies. Perhaps it’s because we can’t believe that the world “just happens.” Conspiracy sites abound on the Web. Some are silly, like “Conspiracy Central,” which alleges “interplanetary conspiracy of covert government operations, UFO’s, foreign agents, and black magick (sic).” Others are more insidious, like those alleging that the Waco deaths were deliberately planned, or that an organization of industrialists and political leaders (controlled by Jews and called the Bilderberger Group) meets to plan wars and economic depressions in order to bring the world under one government—controlled by themselves, of course. The most popular conspiracy sites currently on the Web are those dealing with aliens at Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1940s and the TWA Flight 800 tragedy. The JFK Assassination Site is also right up there.
It’s this third group that concerns me the most. Some of the conspiracy theory sites are amusing. Others, such as the site that continues to allege that the CIA sold tons of cocaine to L.A. street gangs to support the Contras in Nicaragua, or the one that claims that Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was shot to cover up a Clinton administration scandal, can erode belief in our judicial system, our government, and even the concept of democracy itself.
Yet, the Internet provides such a wealth of resources that social studies teachers and students must find a way to use it. As I wrote this article, I logged onto the Net, and in ten minutes found a U.S. Civil War site with letters and poetry written by a 19-year-old soldier from New York; the full-text of a proposed bill that will end the IRS “marriage penalty”; an article by Jefferson Davis’s wife describing the last Christmas in the Confederate White House; and a collection of full-color posters from both World War I and World War II.
As stated earlier, I believe that social studies teachers and other educators must confront the validation dilemma head-on. Nearly every state and local curriculum guide includes something like “to identify, evaluate, and use information....” as one of the student skill objectives. Indeed, one of the most useful and enduring competencies our students could acquire is the ability to effectively analyze and evaluate information. It should be a part of every individual and group project. Moreover, guidance and help are available. Just as the Internet presents this paradoxical problem involving “knowledge,” it also provides ideas for social studies teachers who want to help their students become discriminating information users.
Many websites—particularly those of college and school libraries—have rating guides, evaluation forms, and checklists for determining the validity and reliability of websites. One of the best comes from a site titled “Kidnet” from the University of Texas library system (see the accompanying box). If teachers would work with students at the beginning of the school year to apply these guidelines to websites, and then encourage them to use these techniques throughout the course, the students would develop a valuable set of skills along with a healthy skepticism. Teachers will find that students become more analytical and thoughtful about all sources of information, including their textbooks and the daily newspaper.
Rather than avoid the sites that contain inaccurate or scurrilous information, I believe that we should use them to teach students about content evaluation and validity. I recommend student activities or projects, preferably in a group format, where students look for, examine, and either support or debunk information.
Certainly, the Internet will continue to grow in size and importance as our current students become adult voting citizens in a pluralistic world. What better set of skills could we teach than ones that equip them to discriminate among the multiplicity of views and ideas on the Internet? A few sites that provide starting points are listed above. Some are sites that have evaluation guides and information for students using the Internet. Others are places to begin to explore the weird, wacky, and sometimes frightening Internet underworld.

1. Delia Gillen, Cathy Hart, and Marianne Hawks, Needs Analysis for the Office of Professional Development (Bloomington, IN: School of Education, 1997).
2. Howard M. Mehlinger, “Achieving School Reform through Technology,” Technos 5 (1996): 26-29.

C. Frederick Risinger is director of professional development, school services, and summer sessions at the Indiana University- Bloomington School of Education, and coordinates the social studies program. He is a former NCSS president.

Evaluating Online Information

1. Your Knowledge
How does this new information compare to what you already know?
How does it change what you know?

2. Authority
Who is providing the information?
Where did their information come from?
Do they provide evidence or examples to support their points?
Why do you think they are providing this information?

3. Time
How old is the information?
Does it include recent information?

4. Scope
How much information is given?
How broad is the topic area?
How in-depth is the information?

5. Form
In what package is the information being presented?
Is it a WWW or gopher document, a text file, a newsgroup posting, or an e-mail message?
Is it in text, image, and/or sound form?

6. Clarity
Is the information clearly presented?
Is it well organized?
Is the site user friendly?

7. Recommendations
Have people who you respect (friends, teachers, librarians, or parents, etc.) recommended this site as a good source of information?

8. Validity
How true do you think the information is?
What makes you think so?

9. Importance
Is this important information?
If it is, why is it important?

Kid’s Internet Gateway
The University of Texas, Austin, provides this site for K-12 students and teachers. It includes a list of “Internet Do’s and Don’ts”; links to several subject area sites such as the arts, literature, and social studies; and a group of carefully monitored listservs (discussion groups) for teens.

The Literature Connection
This is one of the links from the previous site. It is primarily for language arts teachers, but it has a wealth of information aimed at secondary students regarding writing assignments. It has a Chicago Tribune article on Internet cheating and a site on overcoming procrastination.

Social Studies Links for Kids
Another University of Texas site, this one features many web links that are available on teacher-oriented sites, but also includes those that are specifically directed at students. For example, there are sites titled “Middle School Archaeology” and “Africa Online—Kids Only.”

The Road Less Traveled: Conspiracies and Hoaxes Road Less Traveled/Conspiracies and Hoaxes/
This is one place to start looking for the conspiracy sites, many of which are linked to some of the hate groups. It includes such titles as “The Unabomber’s Manifesto,” the “Kennedy Assassination Home Page,” and “50 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.”

Virtual World of Intelligence
Containing even more conspiracy groups, this site includes the National Security Archive, an independent research group at George Washington University that collects and publishes recently declassified government documents. It contains recently released documentation on the death of Che Guevara, White House e-mail from the Reagan-Bush years (New York Magazine calls the collection “A rich historical record—and a source of occasional high comedy.”), and documents and pictures from the 1970 meeting in the White House between President Nixon and Elvis Presley. The documents include a six-page handwritten letter from The King to the President. Folks, you have to check out this site.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.