The Internet and its profusion of information presents new challenges for today's students and teachers. We asked Cornelia Brunner, associate director, and Bill Tally, senior research associate, of the Center for Children and Technology/EDC to talk about some of those challenges, including the need to make students (and teachers) information literate.

BILL TALLY: Cornelia, how would you define information literacy?

CORNELIA BRUNNER:I think being information literate means being able to gauge the value and meaning of information in multiple media from a variety of sources, as well as being able to create and disseminate information using those same media. I know that's quite a mouthful.

BT: What new challenges are facing teachers and kids who have begun using the Internet for teaching and learning?

CB: The greatest challenge has to do with the undigested nature of the information that they're suddenly encountering on the Net. Kids have never before been exposed to information in such variety — not only by subject but in quality. Everyone is worried about pornography on the Net, but I think the pornography issue is just the most public way of talking about this. I personally think misinformation is far more dangerous.

BT: Why is that?

CB: The kind of pornography that kids who are not hacking around are likely to find is really no worse than what they see on newsstands. It's more difficult than it's generally hyped to be to get access to the kind of pornography that would be frightening to kids.

BT: What kinds of things on the Internet are you more concerned about?

CB: Information which purports to be relatively neutral writing or reporting that turns out to be dangerously untrue — and there is so much out there.

BT: For example, denying the existence of the Holocaust.

CB: Right. Until now, most kids were confronted with real controversies only in carefully managed classroom situations. Teachers have handled controversial issues by presenting two different perspectives — or, at most, two and a half — usually with some way to arrive at an acceptable consensus. But on the Net, students are likely to encounter multiple perspectives — some of them offensive, inimical to consensus. You can have people on the Internet saying things that are truly outrageous and wrong, and using all the tricks of the trade to substantiate them. In denying the Holocaust, for example, they could bring up statistics and show all kinds of "proof." In its form, the piece of writing on the Internet could look and sound similar to other, more legitimate arguments kids have heard before.

BT: When you are dealing with print materials, there is additional material — for example, book jackets, bibliographies, and footnotes — you can examine to tell how reliable a source is. How can teachers and students verify the reliability of information on the Internet?

CB: There are few ways so far. One is to check out the source of the information. If something is from the CIA World Factbook, it is likely to be written in an apparently objective style which hides the fact that there is a very real bias. Kids should be taught to recognize this.

Another way is to check out the links provided by the author(s). Students can gather a lot about authors'predilections by what Internet sites they consider valuable and by what news groups they are part of. To use an extreme example, if a student gets involved in an online discussion about gun control and notices that the bottom of the posting that the author also belongs to alt.rec.guns or alt.conspiracy, they'll get a sense of the author's political point of view. Students can always e-mail an author with questions designed to gauge his or her reliability; they can also compare any Internet site with others on similar topics.

But, in general, the conventions that would identify the quality of material on the Internet have not yet been developed. The best indicator so far is the quality of the written texts themselves. If something is well written and makes the kind of sense a good essay does, it is likely to be more reliable, but that can be deceiving. Images are very deceiving as well. Some of the most interesting information has no multimedia glitz at all, while some of the cheapest, most dubious information is heavily illustrated.

BT: Before the Internet, a teacher who wanted a student to dig into a question would send that student to the library. How different is it sending a kid onto the Internet to find out more?

CB: Kids have to learn how to search without a librarian helping them to refine what to look for. A thorough Internet search will always result in too much information, so kids need to develop skills to figure out how to eliminate information — "I don't even have to look at that, that's not useful" — and then to ask, "What's missing?"

Kids often only begin to interpret and understand an assignment as they do the research. Because they don't have an easy set of categories to put the information in, they can get sidetracked intellectually. At the same time, many kids follow the urge to just get the damned assignment done. If they can find a picture, article, or statement that looks right, they're satisfied. The job of the teacher is really to push them further, to say, "What you've found is good, but how does it fit with what you know already — and what more do you need to know?"

BT: What other skills do students need for an ever-changing, ephemeral medium like the Internet?

CB: Students need to know how to locate information, how to appraise its value, how to question it, how to download it — and then how to construct it and upload it. They also need an appreciation for electronic epistolary etiquette. There are ways to "flame out" online that, however well-intended, are very destructive because they monopolize the discussion space and turn others off. Some people just get carried away and there are no real clues telling them that it's enough now, everybody has gotten the point!

Students need to learn to write better and more in order to use the Net well. They need more experience reading in general to be able to understand how something strikes an audience. They also need to know when a picture or a soundbite or a movie is really necessary and when it is just an option for those who have the time and the space. Then they have to know what to DO with all that info they can download — what to keep and what to trash, what to back up and what to send on.

There are some technical skills in here, but they are minor in importance compared to the information literacy stuff.

BT: Specifically how do teachers need to be trained to give kids some of these skills?

CB:Teachers mostly have been trained to help kids move, through explanations, from a place of ignorance and confusion to a place of greater clarity and more knowledge. What they have not necessarily been trained to do is help kids understand why different interpretations make sense for different kinds of people, how people use information to make their own meaning and form their own opinions.

Teachers themselves need to be trained to be information literate. Information is not only going to grow, but it's going to be flexible and it's going to come in forms that we don't yet understand. We have to make sure that teachers learn the same kind of skills that we keep saying we want students to learn — you know, to become lifelong learners and to think critically.