Feb. 27, 2012

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Feb. 27, 2012

**NOTE: This article was originally written in 1998 and contains many outdated links. For the sake of keeping the story accurate and intact, we are leaving the links as originally written. To view any non-working sites, paste their URLs into the Wayback Machine found at http://www.archive.org.

Is your high school teaching students to access the Internet for research? Then it is essential that students also learn how to validate the information. The Internet is a place where you can find “proof” of essentially any belief system that you can imagine. And, for too many students, “If it is on the Internet, it is true.”



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The following story is also true.

Fourteen year old: “I’m working on a history paper about how the Holocaust never happened.”

Long pause. “Zack, where did you hear that the Holocaust didn’t happen?”

“The Internet. It’s on a Web page at Northwestern University.”

Zack found his “information” from a Web page at http://pubweb.northwestern.edu/~abutz/di/intro.html, titled “Home Web page of Arthur R. Butz.” On his low-key home page, Butz explains that he wrote “A short introduction to the study of Holocaust revisionism” and that his material is intended for “advanced students of Holocaust revisionism.” At the top of the page Butz identifies himself as “Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Northwestern University.”

His article begins with the following:

I see three principal reasons for the widespread but erroneous belief in the legend of millions of Jews killed by the Germans during World War II: US and British troops found horrible piles of corpses in the west German camps they captured in 1945 …, there are no longer large communities of Jews in Poland, and historians generally support the legend.

During both world wars Germany was forced to fight typhus, carried by lice … That is why all accounts of entry into the German concentration camps speak of shaving of hair and showering and other delousing procedures, such as treatment of quarters with the pesticide Zyklon. That was also the main reason for a high death rate in the camps, and the crematoria …

Look at the above from the perspective of a 14-year-old untrained to think critically about information. He’s researching the Holocaust, and suddenly finds this Web page. His teacher told him to find a unique topic, and this certainly fits the bill – he’s never heard these ideas before. The page is simple and clear. It’s written in a calm, logical tone. The page is clearly intended for experts in its field. Best of all is the source: Northwestern University! And a professor to boot! Perfect.

I’m afraid that kids use the Internet without being taught how to use the Internet. To survive in the future economy, kids must learn how to research, publish, and communicate working with the Internet and other information tools. What skills will be important for kids to learn and for schools to teach? Not how to use Windows or Netscape.

Instead, the most vital skills will involve applying knowledge to produce information and facilitate communication. And one of the most important skills will involve evaluating the resources you decide to use. As much time as we spend teaching kids how to find things on the Net, we need to expend 10 times more effort teaching them how to interpret what they’ve found.

So how could Zack have applied those skills to Butz’s Web page?

Thinking About What We’ve Found

The fact remains that kids will increasingly depend on the Internet for information. As they use the Web, they need to evaluate their findings using several techniques, which I will place into three main categories: Purpose, Author, and Meta-Web Information.


We should always try to ascertain a Web site’s purpose. What is it trying to do? Why was it created? Most Web sites are designed to sell services and products, present information, advocate ideas, or entertain. Many sites do several of these at once.

A Web site’s purpose will not always be clear. Look at Butz’s site. His purpose is surely advocacy, although he comes across as an objective information provider, especially in the closing sentence of his article: “Surely any thoughtful person must be skeptical.” Would that ring any warning bells for a 14-year-old? Are ninth graders taught how to distinguish between objectivity and advocacy? Make sure that kids understand the purpose(s) of a Web site, and that those purpose(s) may not be entirely obvious.


The next step in validation involves the site’s author. We all know that it’s easy to fool people. Many people, especially kids, will believe someone if he sounds authoritative. When I’ve talked to adults about Butz’s Web site, they never fail to point out that Butz is a professor, sure, but he’s an Engineering professor. How does that qualify him to speak as an expert on the Holocaust? It doesn’t. But people see “Professor” and take what he says as gospel.

Zack didn’t know anything about Butz but could have researched his background. ProFusion (http://www.profusion.com) is a multi-search engine that takes queries and searches several search engines at once, including AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo.

If Zack ran a search for “Arthur Butz,” he would find Butz’s name on a page titled “Holocaust Deniers” at a site called HateWatch (http://hatewatch.org/). Similarly, Zack would find Butz’s article listed on HateWatch: An Educational Resource Combating Online Bigotry “ (http://hatewatch.org/-follow Online Bigotry-Hate by Category-Holocaust denial). Zack would find Butz mentioned negatively in a March 1998 USA Today article titled, “College anti-Semitism on the rise, according to new report” (http://www.collegenews.com/headlines/news173.htm). Zack would find Butz’s book described as popular among “anti-Semites” in a review of Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust found at http://www.skeptic.com/02.4.siano-holocaust.html. Zack would find Butz mentioned appreciatively on the “Aryan Re-Education Page,” at the frightening address of “whitepower.com” (which contains a section for anti-hate sites labeled “The Hall of Shame: JEWS SCUM.”).

If Zack had run this multi-search on Butz, he would have seen how other people categorize Butz.

Meta-Web Information

“Meta-Web Information” allows Zack to look at Web sites as part of the Internet; in other words, meta-Web information validates Web pages solely within the context of other Web pages.

Let’s start with the URL, or address, of a Web page. Kids need to know when they’re accessing a personal home page. Most Internet Service Providers give their subscribers a few megabytes of free space on a Web server to use as they please.

Here are two sample URLs: “http://www.cdsinet.net/users/bartlett” and “http://www.alphalink.com.au/~jdm/index.htm”. An experienced Web user knows that both URLs point to personal home pages.

In the first example, the word “users” is the tip off. “bartlett” is the user name of someone who accesses the Internet through cdsinet.net. In the second example, focus on the “~”. A tilde — the “~” — indicates a Web site created by someone given space on a Web server. “stefan” is the user name of someone who accesses the Internet through icon-stl.net.

Knowing the above, if Zack looked at Butz’s URL – http://pubweb.northwestern.edu/~abutz/di/intro.html – he’d see the “~,” a dead giveaway that this is a personal Web site. Instead of assuming that Butz’s Web site was sponsored by Northwestern, Zack would know that it was equivalent to a bulletin board posted outside an office.

Just as Zack can read people by their clothing, he can learn about a Web site by looking at its URL. But even though clothing tells us a lot, the company a person keeps tells us more. Learning how a Web page interacts within the network of all other Web sites is valuable information.

Zack has a powerful tool that can place a Web site in context – the link command.

To apply the link command to Butz, Zack should go to AltaVista at http://www.altavista.com/, type “link:pubweb.northwestern.edu/~abutz/index.html” (without the quotation marks and without a space after the colon), and then click the Search button.

Zack will get nothing. It doesn’t work. I don’t know why, and it could lead Zack to give up in frustration. He should try this instead: “link:pubweb.northwestern.edu/~abutz/”. For some reason, truncating the URL works. At AltaVista, we find out that 879 Web sites point towards Butz’s Web page.

The 879 Web sites referencing Butz basically fall into two categories: hate monitors and hatemongers. Among the hate monitors, Butz is a shining example of a Holocaust denier. Among the hatemongers, Butz is a shining example.

One site particularly stands out. I doubt if Zack would have had any problems evaluating Butz after he went to “White Nationalist Links” at http://www.crusader.net/resources/links.html. Once you see who thinks Butz is a great source of information, the game is up. Could there be any doubt when Butz is on the same page as links to Online Fascist Resource Page, Knights of Michigan KKK, White Power Central, and Texas Aryan Nationalist Skinheads?

A Happy Ending

In the end Zack’s high school arranged for an interview of a Jewish woman who lived in Europe during World War II. It is always a good idea to look beyond the Internet for sources of authentic information.

Alan November is the founder of edtech consulting firm November Learning. Join Alan in Boston July 17-19 for his 2019 Building Learning Communities®, where hundreds of educators from around the globe will gather to discuss the world’s most successful innovations in education.

51 Responses to "Teaching Zack to Think"

  • I didn’t know how to validate the information either. Zack is not alone. This information was very helpful to me. Thanks.

  • Eun Lee says:

    Thanks for the information. It really helped.

    • Justus Siltala says:

      I agree with you. We do need to be more careful and diligent with what we are reading to find out if a site is fake and or unreliable.

  • Joe Sordyl says:

    I think that after reading this article, this would help me understand how to tell which web page is legit or what is fake and unreliable. Thank you!

    • haleigh says:

      I agree with you we need to be careful of what we view online and double check the sources

    • 02-24-2014
      I agree with Joe Sordyl. You cant always rely on certain web pages nor believe everything you here or see on the internet. Yes the internet gives you numerous answers but not all are valid and legit. Be careful on researching information because it may give out false answers.

      • Kyle G. says:

        I totally agree! This info is so important. I have always used the internet for everything but now I’ll think twice. They’re right when they say you learn something new everyday.

    • Antoinette Ferguson says:

      I agree a lot of times the internet is not always correct so we have to double check our sources to get the information we need

    • Cecilia Guajardo says:

      I agree with you here. It can be uncertain if what we are reading on the internet may or may not be true or backed up with “proof”. So we always have to find a way to check if its valid. Great source of information that helped me learn something new.

    • Cecilia says:

      I agree with you also. I find this article very useful for everyone in general not just kids and teens but adults too. It is important to know if the information your absorbing is real or fake and has proof. Knowing how to spot if the website your on is a personal one or not is also handy to know because I wouldn’t know if the information on the personal website can be factional. Thank you for sharing!

    • brooke says:

      I agree with Joe Sordyl. This helps me understand which websites I should look out for.

  • Rachael J says:

    Wow, I never new about the Tilde showing it to be a personal page, and I’ve used the internet my entire life. Great article! This should probably be seen by anyone who wants to cite an internet source.

    • Taylor Dean says:

      I agree with Rachael J, the importance of people knowing this information about the internet is extremely critical. The difference between an official webpage and a personal webpage plays a predominant role in things such as research papers and etc.

      • Dylan says:

        I agree with Courtney you need to do the job and get it done in full and done right. How are you going to keep a job if you just do things half way?

    • Alli Gutierrez says:

      I agree with it is very important to get information from an official webpage and not from a personal webpage because some people have different beliefs about some stuff and may express his/her opinion on the website and it may not be true but they believe it to be true

  • Courtney Moore says:

    This information will let other students think twice about doing half-heart ed work.

  • Alexis says:

    I agree with Rachael J. on this one. It is truly eye opening when you stumble upon a site or information that seems harmless and legitimate. It certainly makes you think about the sources you are using and believing.

    • Gabriel says:

      I agree with you, Tanya. Our children really aren’t educated when it comes to topics of this matter. I’m pretty sure they know how to surf the web flawlessly, but when it comes to validating the information they may have researched, they’re not knowledgeable.

  • Tanya says:

    I agree that our children are not educated on how to validate the informaiton their getting off the internet so that they can form an educated conclusion on their research topic.

    • Steven Tyler Hutchinson says:

      I agree with you Tanya, our children are not educated on how to validate the information on internet. There are so many diffrent stories on just one topic they just find one story and go with that story which all could be false information.

    • Sara says:

      I agree with tanya, of course a fourteen year old kid wouldn’t know much about the holocaust and how big of a deal it was. He was probably just thinking that it was a unique subject. Yes, he defiantly should’ve done more research on the topic, and that topic should defiantly be more openly taught. Too many people believe anything they read on the internet. It is very important to get your information from a valid webpage or maybe open a book instead (;

  • Cody says:

    I agree with Alexis and Rachel this is a eye opening site and it does raise questions as to whether or not you can trust sources. Who knows, maybe most sources lie.

  • Garison Graham says:

    I agree with Rachael J. on this one. It is truly eye opening when you stumble upon a site or information that seems harmless and legitimate. It certainly makes you think about the sources you are using and believing.

  • Chance Brown says:

    Students need to learn to evaluate the quality of information they find on the web as well as other information resources such as books, magazines, CD-ROM, and television. Ask students to be skeptical of everything they find. Encourage them to compare and contrast different information resources.

  • Chance Brown says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Rachel here on this one. Children really do need to be taught the ways of the internet as to not be tricked into believing every thing they hear.

  • Alexis Magallanes says:

    I agree that students shouldnt only depend on the internet for research. Most websites let you edit information and anyone can go on there and add something ridiculous to it. Theres tons of other sources and people who might have experienced what you are learning about.

  • Dave T says:

    Great article, children definitely need to be capable of spotting false information on the web. I was also unaware of how to spot a personal site.

    • Tiffany P. says:

      I agree! If technology is going to increase, shouldn’t we teach the next generations how to properly use it?

  • Isela says:

    This article has opened up my mind and has taught me that there may be sites that will educate students incorrectly , so it is essential to educate them and warn them that there are sites that will not give factual information.

  • Brosnan Cooks says:

    I agree with this article because of some students don`t know how to research work they just look it up and the first thing they see they copy it and think its true and that`s the end of the research.

    • Katlyn Hughgill says:

      I agree because students should make sure they know information is true and not think everything is.

  • Chris S says:

    If someone doesn’t know that not everything on the internet is true, they just might be too young to be on the internet and not using a school approved search engine, which only give access to school-certified sites.

  • Andrew W says:

    I agree with Joe. this helps find more official topics instead of false stuff that’s just on the internet.

  • chauncey says:

    I agree with Joe. This is an eye opener. to assumed that most everything was true on the internet. I will certainly do a little investigating before use info found on the Inet. Also, didn’t know that the symbol ~ meant someones personal site.

  • Hannah says:

    I think kids these days look on the internet because some cant get to places to get books, and this is coming from a teenager! Also I agree that they are not knowledgeable and there lack of sagacity shows more than others.

  • Tiffany P. says:

    I totally agree with this article! Kids now-a-days don’t understand that not everything on the internet is true. Kids are not taught to know the difference between, for example, wikipedia and a goverment site. Kids use wikipedia for research papers, then wonder why they made a bad grade. Two ways you can figure out if a website is true is one, check and see if it has .gov or .org at the end of the url. Normally, those kinds of websites are mainly full of facts. Two, do your research on the writer/publisher. For example, Zack thought that what Bitz said was true because Bitz was a professor. If Zack did his research on Bitz, he’d realize that Bitz has no idea what he’s talking about. A lot of times, it IS hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but you just have to know where to look.

  • Gideon. says:

    wow, I’ve been using the internet a lot for most of my school assignments. The internet is a large place with varying forms information. I’m glad I stumbled across this because not only will it help validate Which information is right or not, but it’ll help think better in solving issues and not just relying on the internet for all answers. Thanks.

  • Cecilia Guajardo says:

    I agree with Joe Sordy! And by reading this article I now know how I can check if the information on a webpage is accurate and reliable. I never knew how to tell if the website could have been used for a personal home pages but at least I learned now. It is important to share information like this because as a young student myself, we search for a topic we need but not checking if what we are being told is “proof” or someones opinion.

    • Tim Gould says:

      I agree with Zach. You cant always trust the internet and it is very useful to re-cheek where you are getting your information.

  • Cecilia says:

    I find all this information useful and glad to say that I did learn something new today. I know now how to spot if the website is personal website. I myself as a student find this article useful because I know we “half-heart” things such as essays and we are not aware to where exactly our “research” also know as copying and pasting is really coming from and if it is actually true or more importantly legitimate. Great article.

  • I agree it is always important to do research but also read about that subject. The internet isn’t always correct. I agree with Kyle G. because everyday is a new day to learn and Zack learned that the website he got his information from was incorrect.

  • Aaliyah Clifton says:

    I agree with Joe Sordyl. You can’t always rely on the internet.

  • Jared Russell says:

    I agree with Chris when he said “If someone doesn’t know that not everything on the internet is true, they just might be too young to be on the internet and not using a school approved search engine, which only give access to school-certified sites”.

  • Katlyn Hughgill says:

    Students should look into information more instead of just relying on just one website. Check to see if the author is a real not just some fake website full of untrue facts.

  • parker says:

    I agree with Tiffany, the internet is full of websites with hidden agendas with all sorts of false information. It is extremely important to evaluate the source of all information you read on the internet. This story about Zack is a perfect example of every day life on the internet, and another reminder on why to be careful about what you read.

  • Christie says:

    I am so glad I saw this information. It teaches me more about valuable websites and what to be cautious about.

    Walden U student

  • Ally says:

    I agree with Christie ,this information was very useful. Not every website is reliable.

  • Ryan says:

    I’ve subbed at my local high school and the students there don’t use their computers for research (I know because my daughter is a high schooler and I know that she doesn’t use it for that unless we are looking over her shoulder all the time.) A majority of the students sit in class watching YouTube or playing video games because the teachers aren’t walking around the room or they don’t use Go Guardian to monitor.
    As far as research, when I was working on my thesis proposal I was very careful to look at sites before citing them if I used them. I came across several personal sites that looked professional and then when I would read them they had all sorts of wrong information. I even wrote an email to one “author” who said that they try to get all the correct information but sometimes they can’t (it was a site about the Revolution.) But many students now days want the easy, quick route of doing research and will just use whatever sites they find first and just go because they are waiting until the last minute to do it. Many don’t even know how to use a library (if high schools even have a library worth its salt and has a research section.)

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