Internet not always good source
By MICHAEL SCHERER, Staff Writer
Tuesday, May4, 1999 -- (EASTHAMPTON) - Fourth-graders at Center Elementary School were recently surfing the Internet for information about ancient Egypt, when they came upon the Tomb of the Chihuahua Pharaohs.
"The implication of the site was that the Egyptians worshipped Chihuahua pharaohs," said Jamie Callan, a Center School parent and professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Of course, Egypt never had any Chihuahua pharaohs, but many of the students were taken by the joke, said Callan. However, a closer investigation of the fictional Chihuahuas revealed they were in fact intended as a fun graphic-design project, not an Egyptian history lesson.
Callan said the Chihuahua site illustrates one of the dangers that accompany the enormous opportunities offered students by the Internet - information is not always reliable.
"You'd be surprised at how many kids are using the Internet already, but they are getting relatively little guidance," Callan said. "We want to make them more critical consumers of information."
For the last several months, Callan has been working with a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop lesson plans for elementary school students that will teach them, among other things, how to not be duped by bogus sites.
Callan said when he started working with students at Center School, as part of his research, he found that many thought of the Internet as a single place to visit, making all sites equally credible.
"We need to get them aware that the Internet is a bunch of different computers connected by telephone lines," Callan said.
That means that while some Web sites may look official, they are actually deceptive sources of misinformation.
On Thursday, Callan met with a group of 10 fourth-graders to lead them through his third lesson plan, an Internet scavenger hunt, asking them to decide whether the information they find is credible.
"Some of the information just seems like it's not true," said fourth-grader Laura Kareta.
Laura said she recently used the Internet to find information for a report on Greek athletes, but the Chihuahua pharaohs taught her not to take all the information she finds at face value.
Callan said that students should get in the habit of finding out who authored a particular page on the Internet. If the site was designed by a museum or a zoo, students should know to give it more credibility than an individual or a business selling a product, he said.
"If you find (the information) at two or three sites you might believe it more than if you got it at just one site," Callan added.
Callan also hopes to teach student basic Internet literacy skills, like scrolling through a page before they start reading to find where the information they want is located.
Callan has already posted three of his lesson plans on the Web (http://ciir.cs.umass.edu/k12/), and he says he hopes to have a complete curriculum designed by the end of the school year.
Teachers across the country will then be able to use his plans to teach their students about this powerful and often misunderstood technology, thanks, in part, to the students of Center School.
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