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Making Sense of Cyber Space

Posted on 23 November 2010

web librarian

by Claire Walla

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of a library so vast and so expansive people got lost wandering around its labyrinthine corridors and distracted by the allure of forbidden sections filled with dangerous books. It was called the library of the world, and it contained every single piece of written material ever imaginable: the good, the bad, the comic and the controversial.
In reality, a physical structure with an infinite amount of information is impossible to conceive. In the virtual world, however, it’s not far from being true.
“Now, information is so vague and ubiquitous. We’re just flooded with information!” said Pierson Middle-High School librarian Kira McLaughlin. Though the Pierson library is hardly big enough to get lost in, McLaughlin, like many librarians across the country, has found herself in the position of trying to help students navigate vast frontiers of information, as academic research moves beyond the page and into cyberspace.
Part of McLaughlin’s job as a librarian is to give students the skills to research topics, vet information and draw educated conclusions so that they will be prepared for the deep level of research required in college. Nowadays, however, McLaughlin said that when she asks her students to use books to find answers for a given topic, her students generally ask, “Why can’t I just Google it?”
“It’s easy and it’s convenient,” she explained, but added that this is not always a good thing.
McLaughlin teaches a freshman seminar class each semester, for which she coaches students in proper fact-finding techniques. To convey the difference between using hard-bound sources and Internet sources, she prepares an information scavenger hunt, for which students must answer a list of questions using both an Almanac and Google. For example, one question might ask: Which two states had the highest SAT scores in 2008?
“They went crazy when they had to find it on Google!” McLaughlin recalled. She then explained to her students, some of whom, she said, were unaware of how Google ranks information, that the search engine organizes its search results based on the number of hits each website gets (or, in other words, based on each website’s popularity). Thus, McLaughlin cautions her students, Google’s ranking may have no bearing on the validity of the information.
“Information online is sometimes scattered,” she added. “And at this cognitive age [high school], it’s sometimes difficult for students to make that information make sense.”
But while McLaughlin sometimes worries about students’ over reliance on getting easy information on the Web, she also believes new technology, including the Internet, can provide students with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In addition to books and research materials McLaughlin provides for teachers that coincide with their class projects, she said the library has purchased several online databases, like ipl.org, which—unlike Google—provides information that has been vetted and approved by reputable sources held accountable for the information they provide. The library has also benefited from programs like Skype, a free online communication program. Author visits can cost up to $1,000 once you factor in travel and lodging expenses, McLaughlin said. Using Skype, however, students can chat with authors who are sitting in the comfort of their own home.
According to Pierson High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish, the school would like to take advantage of more online communication programs, like Skype. “The Internet offers more than just information, it’s a communication platform,” he said. Web 2.0—interactive programs, which include social networking sites and blogs—can prove beneficial for classroom instruction, he added, especially if Pierson decides to add the International Baccalaureate Program in the near future.
“We’re looking for international mindedness,” he added. “And the Internet is the gateway to the world.”
However, having access to an entire world of information can also come with some risks. Last Wednesday, November 17, East End parents and students heard from Sal Lifrieri, former head of security and intelligence operations for former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who spoke about “The Dangers of Social Networking.”
Lifrieri said social networking can be a problem for teenagers who fail to consider the consequences of their online behavior. “Everything that you have online today becomes your online resume,” he said. “And everything that’s out there is there forever.”
The same problems with ease and accessibility that McLaughlin used to describe the downside to doing research on Google also apply to social networking, as Lifrieri warned. Because it only takes a matter of seconds to upload a photo, for instance, Lifrieri said it’s easy to put compromising information on the Web without stopping to consider the negative effects.
However, Kalish said another upshot to bringing these technologies into the classroom is that it might help students learn how to use the Internet more responsibly. “Not only are you teaching kids how to use interactive tools in a responsible way, but the technology is a motivator,” he noted. “It’s a fun way to interact.”
Both Kalish and Pierson Middle-High School Principal Jeff Nichols are not certain as to how Internet technology will make its way into class instruction just yet. Kalish said one important element that has to be taken into consideration before implementing any new programs is safety. “We have to make sure that students are receiving the proper guidance, and make sure they know how to critically evaluate sources,” he said.
Which brings us back to McLaughlin.
Although she sees the potential risks of finding information online, overall, she said, the Internet has been a valuable resource.
“Growing up, I was limited to what was in the library, and that was it,” she said. “Technology has opened the door to other learning techniques, which has diversified the delivery of information.”

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