The World Wide Web is a wonderful resource for students, but it also has its intellectual dangers: Because anyone can become a published author, how can students separate fact from fiction?
Sometimes it's easy. An online tract about UFO abduction is likely to raise eyebrows. Something more subtle, such as a Web site claiming someone can catch the virus that causes AIDS by sharing toothbrushes, might not, even though it's totally inaccurate.
"Few people check to see whether what they read on the Internet is true," says Nancy Reger, coordinator of information services at the Baltimore County Public Library. "They print things out and go, `Wow, this looks really official.' "
In the Internet age, students -- and even adults -- need to become more critical consumers of information, says librarian Ann O'Neill at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, Md.
O'Neill teaches a course at Towson University on how to evaluate information on the Internet. She says the first thing students should do when they pull up a Web site is find out who created it and what their credentials are.
Often, this is not as obvious as it should be.
One trick students can try is to look at the Web site's address, which contains clues about what kind of site it is. There's a big difference, for example, between "www.whitehouse.gov," the official Pennsylvania Avenue homepage, and "www.whitehouse.com," its XXX-rated alter ego.
Most people know that if the address contains ".gov," it's a U.S. government site. Other common appendages include: ".mil" for U.S. military sites, ".edu" for educational institutions, ".com" for commercial sites and ".org" for sites run by not-for-profit groups.
Another idea: Check to see if anyone is identified as the site's copyright holder, as this might provide a clue to the credibility of the information.
Even if the Web site is operated by a university or hospital, experts caution that students need to evaluate information on the site with a critical eye. "You cannot assume anything ... because they also allow students to post things," O'Neill said.
O'Neill warns her students to "beware of the tilde," because this punctuation mark is often used in a Web address to signal someone's personal Web space, an area that may not be endorsed by the institution that runs the site.
Another important issue students should consider is timeliness: How often is the information on the site updated?
The best Web sites tell visitors on the opening "splash" page when the site was last updated. Some sites, such as CNN, specify this time to the minute. In other cases, students may find that a site hasn't been updated for months -- even years.
Students should analyze a site carefully for bias. The Web is overflowing with pages from all kinds of institutions, ranging from multibillion-dollar corporations to religious extremist groups, each with its agenda.
Finally, beware of outright hoaxes. Some of them look pretty persuasive. For an example, check out the manufacturer of the RealAroma odor drive, which transmits smells over the Internet (www.realaroma.com). Really.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service