Riches and rogues on the Internet / Joe Nathan’s Column

By Joe Nathan on September 17, 2014 at 11:21 am


Riches and rogues! The more I look, the more I find some of each, and a lot between, on the Internet. Families and educators have a huge task helping young people learn how to gather information on the Internet. Here are five guidelines to consider.

Joe Nathan

But first, a brief story. Youngsters in schools today have never known a time when Internet searches were not available. But for many of us, it’s still a marvel.

About 20 years ago, one of our children, then in elementary school, introduced me to online searches. We were at dinner, talking about school assignments. She mentioned that she had a project due the following day on bluebirds. I asked what she had gathered so far. “Nothing!” she responded.

“Yikes,” I told her. “We need to finish so we can go to the library.”

“No, dad,” she explained, “I’m doing an Internet search right after dinner.”

She gave me a brief introduction to this idea – literally the first time I’d heard of it.

Fast forward to today. At its best, one of the most valuable parts of the Internet is the opportunity to find original sources. The Library of Congress has an extraordinary free service, found at This is part of the nation’s riches: millions of items in their virtual storehouse, from “Understanding the Cosmos” to “the Dust Bowl” to “Immigration” and “Symbols of the U.S.”

The value of original sources leads to my first guideline: Before making a decision about a report on anything, look at the original. This was reinforced recently when I received a press release saying Minnesota’s students’ average was No. 1 in the country on the college entrance test, the ACT. I looked up the actual report and found that Minnesota students ranked first among states where 30 percent or more of high school students took the test. But several other states with a smaller percentage of test takers had a higher average.

To their credit, when contacted, state officials changed the press release on their website. They’re constantly helpful. But reading original sources is important.

Second guideline: Consider the motive. What’s the overall purpose of the group providing information on the Internet? Is it to promote a particular idea, like a union, charter public schools, use of a particular test, the oil and gas industry, or …? It’s a free country, with free speech, but we need to help youngsters understand that some groups use the Internet to promote their particular values, beliefs and causes. Some are rogues, promoting hatred.

Third, what facts are available? Facts are not always neutral. But as in the case cited above about ACT, facts helped provide a more complex, complete description.

Fourth, what are the facts and opinions presented by people who disagree with a particular idea or cause? Before reaching a conclusion, wise people check out different views. Often there aren’t just two sides, but a number of positions on an issue. The Middle East is a great example. There are multiple viewpoints and a wide range of facts.

Finally, we need to help young people understand the value of being open to new discoveries and experiences. Computers and cellphones are two great examples. Facts and experience are changing.

Those are five guidelines I’ve used. Please share how you help youngsters distinguish between Internet riches and rogues. With your help, I’ll return to this issue.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.