Research, which involves the systematic search for answers to questions, has been affected by the advent of the Internet. Older research methods and habits such as library visits and interviewing are still relevant in the context of
a classroom that has access to Internet technology. However, research on the Internet introduces a host of new considerations that any conscientious researcher will have to face in conducting research of some quality. Students who gain experience in conducting research on the Internet will be better equipped to face these issues than students who have not had any exposure to the possibilities and issues associated with Internet research.
Traditionally, the image that comes to mind for many people when they consider the term "research" probably looks something like this: A solitary person hunches over a stack of books in a remote corner of a library or a scientific experiment in a laboratory late at night, taking notes and recording information. The idea is that this person, in either setting, is bent to the task of slowly and systematically piecing together information; sometimes it takes several trips to the library or several tries with the experiment for the person to be sufficiently satisfied with the information gathered. There could be any of a number of purposes for the collection of this information, which the collector suspects will be useful in some capacity.
However, these are not the only methods by which, or the only conditions under which, people gather information, that is, conduct research. Indeed, the previously described image of research may be accurate at times, but it is only part of the story. When considering the full range of purposes and methods of research, it becomes evident that the picture of the solitary researcher working long, lonely hours is not the only accurate picture of research, although library and hands-on work are important aspects of any useful search for information. Research is the process by which people conduct inquiry, by which they systematically collect information for contribution to a greater, established body of knowledge. This process can and does encompass many different methodologies and practices. Research can take the form of a person using library resources or conducting an experiment alone, and such work is usually important for establishing a context for other information-seeking endeavors. However, research can also involve one person asking a series of questions from an interview protocol and recording the responses, several people having a focused discussion about a particular issue, or even 500 people filling out a survey whose results are compiled, tallied, analyzed and interpreted.
Two distinguishing features of research are the fact that it needs to be conducted according to generally agreed-upon methods in order to be considered true research, and the fact that the results of the research process are meant to be shared with others. These features illuminate the social aspects of what is often considered to be a solitary process; in the context of research, the methods by which information is sought and analyzed, and the reasons it is collected, are at least partly social in nature.
Given, as shown here, that research has decidedly social aspects that expand and enhance its definition, and given that the Internet has been touted as one of the greatest communications innovations ever, we have included research as a big idea around which teachers can organize their Internet-based instruction. It is easy to see that conducting Internet searches, reading information in HTML documents, and even "surfing" blindly have some of the same characteristics that have just been enumerated about research: some methods of searching work better than others; students and teachers must hunt through various information sources to find those that are trustworthy and useful; and eventually, it is likely that students and teachers will want to present their research findings in some manner that gives others access to them. As with most everything the Internet touches, however, research conducted on the Internet will raise new methodological and communications issues that it would behoove teachers and students to start considering early on in their research careers.
According to Shulman, "[m]ethod is the attribute which distinguishes research activity from mere observation and speculation" (page 3). Denzin and Lincoln (page 12) describe a five-step process for conducting scholarly educational research, for instance, and a quick examination of some educational research journals indicates that for the most part, educational scholars and authors utilize this process in some form. Putting aside the question of the efficacy of this particular incarnation of the educational research process, the point is that within the educational research community, there is a tacit agreement that research must be conducted according to certain accepted standards and practices. This is important because these standards and practices help to ensure that the researcher has undertaken her work rigorously and conscientiously and has produced results that are meaningful and trustworthy, in short, that are valid.
Before the advent of the Internet, much of the accepted process of conducting research involved library work. Teachers and students could use the library card catalog to search for information. Books, periodicals, and other media were sorted according to an established, accepted system, the Dewey Decimal System. However, although the Internet is a storehouse for vast amounts of information, effective methods of accessing that information differ from those used to find library resources, and so teachers and students are forced to learn new ways of narrowing their searches for information, new protocols for conducting research. Search engines, e-mail discussion lists, and electronic databases of all kinds pose new challenges to the researcher, who must not only have an awareness of what she is seeking, but also an awareness that old ways of finding information may not map onto newer tools.
Internet researchers, then, not only must individually struggle to learn how to use new tools, but they must also collectively struggle to come to some consensus about "proper" and "improper" procedures for using these tools: how to cite resources; how to identify valid sources in an environment in which anybody with server space can publish; how to carry on a conversation over e-mail with somebody who has written something of particular interest. Some of these issues, such as the method for citing resources, are already being resolved, but some will be the subject of debate for the forseeable future. Students with good critical thinking skills and sufficient experience in conducting research on the Internet will be better positioned to take part in this debate than students without such skills or experience.
The other aspect of research that Internet use has affected is the presentation of findings. Before the Internet came into common use, a researcher could expect a relatively small audience for her work, whether it was schoolwork for a teacher, or an article for circulation to 5000 people who subscribe to a special interest magazine. The general rule of thumb was that the research pieces that were circulated to larger audiences underwent more rigorous editing and critiquing; the student probably gave her paper the once over before submitting it, and perhaps even had her parents read it, but the authors of research articles were probably required to make several revisions to the manuscript and resubmit it numerous times, at the request of a board of editors. Authors whose works were exposed to large audiences felt more pressure to be able to claim that their work was accurate and well edited than authors whose works were only seen by a relative few.
The fact that now anybody with server space can publish work without necessarily having to submit to an editing process is a result of Internet technology. Since Internet access is generally free or inexpensive, and since freedom of speech has prevailed on the Internet because the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was deemed unconstitutional, it is common to see documents on the Internet that have obviously not been proofread, let alone edited carefully. This adds an entirely new dimension to the research process; not only can researchers "publish" their own findings much more easily, but they may also be exposed to research findings whose evidence and motives are sketchy. Ensuring that researchers use quality sources and publish quality work will require that they become more conscientious and critical, both toward their use of Internet materials as the foundation for research conclusions, and toward their publication of their own materials on the Internet. Have the researchers used plausible sources? Have they subjected their own work to rigorous editing and revision?
It is evident that Internet use raises many questions and issues related to the research process. The Internet is a valuable source of information, but it can also hinder students who don't know how to use it efficiently in their attempts to produce quality research findings. Teachers and students can help each other learn how to maximize the benefits of Internet research and minimize the pitfalls by sharing suggestions and offering constructive criticism to each other.
Denzin, N., and Lincoln, Y. (1994). Entering the field of qualitative research. Handbook of qualitative research. Sage Publications.
Shavelson, R. J. (1981). Statistical reasoning for the behavioral sciences. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
Shulman, L. S. (1988). Disciplines of inquiry in education: An overview. In Richard M. Jaeger (ed.), Complementary methods for research in education. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, p. 3-17.