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By ALICE KEIM, New York Times, published January 24, 2000
As a child, I spent hours each evening comparing notes with friends and exchanging ideas on different topics. We had encyclopedias and textbooks as guides, and if we were lucky, we also had help from our parents. But the biggest resource we had was one another.
Today's students still rely on one another for homework help, but now they communicate in chat rooms and are able to go onto the huge information superhighway without interrupting their online conversation. And for many students, the library encyclopedia has been replaced by search engines such as Yahooligans and Searchopolis.
And there are many sites on the Net designed specifically to aid students with their homework assignments. Some rely on experts who respond by e-mail or chat with students. Others work as Web site clearinghouses by providing links to child-friendly educational sites on different subject areas.
As an experiment, I collected a week's worth of assignments for fifth-graders at my school. I brought textbooks home to complete the assignments but primarily relied on the Internet and the various homework help sites to answer my questions. I tried to balance the lofty goal of learning as much as possible through each assignment with the all-too-common tendency to get the answers as quickly and easily as possible. As my mother used to say, done is beautiful.
What I found was that homework sites are frequently trustworthy and accurate and that some provide amazingly speedy responses. They are a convenient way to get answers within a couple of days, but if you are working on a tighter deadline, you must find a live tutoring site. I also found that it is easy to get too much help -- good news for the student who needs a quick fix and potentially bad news for teachers and parents.
Any site that provides an e-mail exchange with teachers or an online chat room with subject area experts gives a child the opportunity to ask a question and get the correct answer before trying to answer it without assistance. The online experts cannot determine who needs the help and who just wants a shortcut.
America Online Homework Helper
I have never been a fan of AOL -- I find it an unnecessary shortcut for students who should be learning to manage information on the Web. But when I asked 80 fifth-graders whether any of them used AOL, about 90 percent of the students raised their hands, so I thought its homework area deserved a look.
AOL's Homework Helper section of its Kids Only channel proved to be a pleasant surprise. It has 1,700 volunteer teachers and tutors and more than 100 peer tutors. Most of the tutors are certified teachers who volunteer from their homes in the evenings. Peer tutors are students ages 16 to 18, many of whom receive high school service-hour credits for their work with AOL. Although that is not clearly explained on the site, tutors can be identified by the user-name prefixes AAC for the teachers and HHPT for the peer tutors. The only problem is figuring out where to go for help.
The AOL site features elements common to most of the help sites I visited: a Web search engine and an encyclopedia. I also found a useful online dictionary and thesaurus on the site. Each major curriculum area has a link that leads to activities loosely based on the subject. For example, clicking on the Social Studies link calls up geography games, maps and a safari game. The activities vary in educational value. The two most prominent sections of the site are the Ask a Teacher message board and the tutoring rooms. AOL says the site helps an average of 4,000 students in the tutoring rooms each week and answers 2,500 questions through the message board.
Ask a Teacher was confusing at first, but once I got used to its clumsy navigation, it was extremely useful. You choose a subject, then a curriculum area and grade level. You then post your question. A teacher will post an answer or reply on the message board within 48 hours. That works, but searching to find your answer can be difficult. On a Friday night I posted a science question on the fifth- to sixth-grade Science area. I went back to the site on Sunday and searched but couldn't find my question. I then went through the listings one at a time and found my question with two responses attached.
While the answers were right, they seemed to have been answered by another user or student. Students must determine for themselves whether the answers are trustworthy. That may involve finding answers on their own, which defeats the purpose of using a shortcut, and there are often hundreds of messages to scroll through.
The AOL Tutoring Room is what sets this Web resource apart from most other homework helper sites. The area is an organized chat room that allows students to talk one-on-one with online tutors. The room is open most weeknights and at certain times during the weekend. The students log in and are asked for their grade levels and questions. The questions must be related to the subject area of the chat room, and no off-topic chat is allowed. I observed some users being suspended for inappropriate behavior and others receiving warnings because they were not sticking to the topic.
I logged on just before 9 on a Friday evening and asked, for a mythology assignment, what was Vulcan's other name. A tutor sent me an Instant Message within a few minutes with the answer: Spock. I responded in confusion. Another tutor explained the other teacher's confusion in thinking "Vulcan" was a Star Trek reference. He was able to refer me to a Web site that included the Greek and Roman names for most of the gods. Following the tutor's instructions to scroll down the page, I quickly located the answer: Hephaestus.
Other questions required more persistence. I joined the science tutoring chat room, stated my grade level and then asked, "If strawberry plants reproduce asexually (grow runners), why do they have seeds?" Someone whose screen name did not have an AAC or HHPT prefix sent me an Instant Message. I asked if that person was a tutor and was told yes. The tutor then asked if I was Jewish. I ignored the personal question and repeated my extra-credit challenge. The person then gave me an incorrect answer to my question and again asked about my religion. When I asked about this question's relevance to the topic, the person logged off. It is easy to report inappropriate behavior right at the site, which I did. Shortly after that, I went through a series of tutors who tried to answer my query. The first referred me to a fact sheet about planting that had an extremely difficult vocabulary. I eventually was referred to a tutor who was able to provide grade-appropriate help. The answer, that the seeds are used to spread the plant to other locations, still spurred many questions about this duplicate system of reproducing. The tutor referred me to a wonderful Web site with everything I could ever want to know about fruits. In all, I was in the tutoring room for more than an hour to find the answer to a difficult question. Ultimately, it was nice to know that AOL's tutors and other resources could provide the answers when needed. It may take three minutes or an hour, but the help is there.
This site has an incredibly extensive database of linked sites to search. The area for students is broken into three sections: Kids, Teens, and College and Beyond. While you must search to locate your answer, the site does an excellent job of breaking down the subject areas into manageable sections.
For example, in the Kids section, there are 24 subject areas, each with subheadings. The science group has 11 subheadings, and clicking on any of them calls up additional choices. That helps a student narrow a search before getting to the site's resources.
While there are many resources available at this site, some of them are less than impressive. While searching in mythology, I found several text-heavy and cumbersome links. I eventually found what I was looking for, but it took several tries.
Ask Jeeves for Kids
This search engine is extremely helpful in answering any question. Ask Jeeves has long been one of my favorite search engines; the children's site is just as wonderful as the grown-up version.
The user types a question in plain English, and the engine provides places to find the answers. There is the option of having your spelling checked before submitting a question. That extremely useful for student users because spelling mistakes can confuse even the best search engine.
Ask Jeeves for Kids is simple and effective. It links the user only to child-safe sites.
About.com's homework help site is easy to use and straightforward, and it provides a good shortcut to accurate information on the Web. Designed for teenagers, it has a chat room for students once a week, and it allows you to e-mail your expert guide directly with questions or search through previously answered questions in a Forum section. The Forum also offers a message board for users to post questions.
The messages can be answered by anyone who is using the board, so the student is left to decide whether the information received is accurate and reliable. The site also has a limited list of Web links in the basic subject areas. It is rather heavy on text but utilitarian and accomplishes many of the same functions as the AOL site.
While this Scholastic Web site is thoughtfully composed and safe for children, it is also extremely limited. The home page offers links for Teachers, Kids and Parents. Among the categories in the Kids section is Know Way, which links to two sections of research: Article Archive and Web Guide.
The article archive is a collection of more than 700 articles from Scholastic's various publications. While the number sounded impressive, the section would be relatively unappealing and of little use to an elementary-school student. There is no search engine for this section, so finding information within an article is cumbersome. Unless I was looking for one of these very specific articles, the section would not help.
The Web Guide, on the other hand, is fantastic. It has a simple search engine that provides easy-to-read summaries of the sites it picks. The user can search by subject area or look for a specific topic or word. The linked Web sites are appropriate for children and, for the most part, easy to understand.
TekMom: Resources for Students
Can using the Web be like having a cookie and hot chocolate on a stormy afternoon? TekMom's Resources for Students site is as close as you can get on the information superhighway.
TekMom, who identifies herself as a computer teacher in northern Virginia and the mother of a teenage son, has put together a wonderful group of resources for parents, teachers and students. The layout is simple and the content extremely useful.
TekMom combines useful links and student resources in one easily navigable location. There are four main areas for students: Search Tools, Technology Buzzwords, citation guidelines and Computer Ethics. The Tools area is a guide to useful Web tools. It includes links to subject-specific search engines, engines created for children, online encyclopedias and dictionaries, maps and useful images.
TekMom includes a sentence or two about each link. The student can search directly from this page rather than linking to the resource's main site. For example, I typed in "Vulcan" in the Encarta Online link, clicked on Search and was connected directly to Encarta's references on the Roman god.
Most of the other TekMom sections are useful but contain information easily found at other Web sites. The Buzzword section is a helpful vocabulary list. There is instruction on how to cite Web sites as reference materials, and the Ethics page provides a code of ethical computer use. A fifth section, Make Your Own Smiley, is a disappointing game that allows the student to create emoticons, or sideways smiley faces, using the keyboard. It distracts from the thoughtfulness shown on the rest of the site.
I admired the CyberSleuth Kids cheery home page, which features bright but not offensive color and text and an easy-to-read list of references. But when I searched for answers, I found the suggestions as confusing as searching blindly on the Web.
For my fifth-grade social studies homework, I needed information on Sargon of Akkad, who ruled what is considered to be the world's first empire. When I performed a general search for his name and the name of some of the areas he conquered, I was faced with repeated notes saying that the site's server was being upgraded and that users "may experience a degradation of service or internal server errors." I then searched specifically in History and Education but found myself struggling with excessive scrolling and clicking on consecutive links to get to a helpful site. That is the kind of help we can all do without.
Infoplease Homework Center
The Homework Center is a strong, reliable solution to homework troubles. There are many ways to search this site. The left side of the screen features a searchable table of contents to narrow your inquiry by category. There is a central search box that allows you to search the site's almanacs as well as an encyclopedia and dictionary. You also can ask an expert a specific question, and there is a search box to sift through previously answered questions.
I used the central search field to look up Hammurabi, the ancient Mesopotamian ruler. Infoplease answered my search with two references in the Kids' Almanac and 27 in the general almanac, a dictionary and an encyclopedia. I appreciated the option to stay in a child-oriented area or to branch out if I felt the referred sites looked more interesting. The sites suggested also impressed me. This simple search provided more than enough information for a homework assignment. I also searched through the answered student questions and found two answers that helped to expand my understanding.
When I posed a question to the Infoplease Homework Helpers, I found the answer prompt but disappointing. I asked for an explanation of fraction trees for my fifth-grade math assignment. The Infoplease helpers responded within a couple of hours but could not answer my question. They included a link to Ask Dr. Math (forum.swarthmore.edu/dr.math/dr-math.html), which was helpful but did not provide an easy answer.
I also asked Infoplease if Babylon was part of Mesopotamia. Again, I received an answer within a few hours. The response referred me to a very good encyclopedia article. While I was wowed by the social studies and English assistance at Infoplease, I would not recommend it for math help. It is clearly stronger in the humanities.
B.J. Pinchbeck's Homework Helper
B.J. Pinchbeck's is hard to resist. In 1996, when B.J. was 9, he and his father, Bruce, created this homework helper site so other students would not have to search the Web for good educational material. It took them two days to get their site up and running, and today it has links to 570 sites. B.J. and his dad spend about five to seven hours a week maintaining this impressive site, and their work shows.
B.J.'s personality gives the site an honest attitude and provides inspiration for students to be as confident, creative and productive as B.J. is. The home page features a wordy explanation of the site on the right three-fourths of the page and a table of contents on the left. B.J., a seventh-grader in Beaver County, Pa., provides the Web resources; the student must find the one that is best for each homework assignment. Each of B.J.'s suggestions comes with a brief comment from him, usually referring to the strength of the site recommendation.
I was particularly impressed by the list of math resources on B.J.'s site. The site includes some Web gems such as Ask Dr. Math and Coolmath.com (www.coolmath.com). But beware: The site B.J. says he uses for his own assignments, Webmath.com (www.webmath.com), will do the problems for you without explaining the process.
XpertSite.com (www.xpertsite.com) sponsors B.J.'s site and has a prominent advertisement on the home page. The Xpert site allows users to ask an expert a question on any topic. Bruce Pinchbeck reports positive results from people he has referred to it. I found the sponsor site a bit stiff but relatively useful. There is additional advertising on B.J.'s site, but it is subtle and inoffensive.
Revenue from the advertisers and sponsors helps defray maintenance costs of the site, and the remaining profits go into B.J.'s college fund.
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