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Defining Reliability In a Wild Wiki World

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, September 10, 2006

In the wacky Wiki world that is the Internet, it's hard to know which information is reliable and which isn't.

User-created content, such as entries found in Wikipedia, the open-to-most online encyclopedia, comes with varying degrees of trustworthiness. Wikipedia, for instance, relies on a number of citizen editors, who act as a broad peer-review process for entries, but it's still possible to get something by them that's just plain wrong. Eventually, the entry might be removed but maybe not; Wikipedia boasts more than 1 million articles.

At the same time, Wikipedia has become enormously popular, especially with younger users. Type just about any topic into the Google search engine, and its Wikipedia entry will pop up on the first or second page of results.

This has alarmed many teachers and professors, who have forbidden their students to use, or at least cite, information found on Wikipedia and similar user-generated sites.

Now, Dulles-based AOL thinks it may have a solution.

It has launched a new site meant to aggregate the most reliably sourced information for students, educators and parents. The site, called Study Buddy ( http://www.studybuddy.com ), is free and open to all, including non-AOL subscribers.

It's broken down by topic and grade level. I clicked on "mathematics," "9-12" and "differential calculus," a topic that dogged me in high school and college. I got plenty of solid explanatory articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia and Merriam-Webster. Also, the site's Backpack feature lets students stick valuable Web sites -- ones they want to use again -- into one place for easy finding. The site boasts 1 million pieces of content.

There is a composition feature called "Writing Wizard" that asked me to write a homework essay about "differential calculus" and offered instant feedback. Just for fun, I wrote: "Sir Isaac Newton invented the calculus to explain the complex variables of velocity and acceleration. He learned that acceleration is just really, really fast velocity."

Seconds after I submitted my essay, the "wizard" told me that the "the" in front of "calculus" was probably unnecessary and criticized my repetition of words(!) but did not point out that the second sentence is, um, wrong. Maybe I was asking too much of the wiz.

AOL has a couple of other useful sites for K-12 learnin':

· http://www.aolatschool.com is aimed at teachers as they prepare lesson plans and as a place to safely direct students for credible information. I typed in "Star Trek" (natch), and up popped an ask-a-scientist page from the Argonne National Laboratory, an Energy Department lab in Illinois that descends from the Manhattan Project lab where the world's first nuclear chain reaction was created. Someone asked one of the Argonne brains if Star Trek's faster-than-light warp speed is possible. A very patient scientist gamely explained why it's impossible to know -- Star Trek is fiction -- but outlined the space-time principles behind it in lay language. AOL's At School search aggregates information from 300,000 pages of Web content, screened by educators, from sources such as NASA and PBS.

· http://www.aol.com/learning is for parents helping their kids with homework. It has lists of words your fifth-grader should know, for instance, and tips to help your kids develop better writing skills.

These free services could drive traffic to paid versions of the sites. For $4.95 per month, AOL Family Library offers a deeper collection of articles and links, some of which go to Time.com, also owned by AOL parent Time Warner Inc. Ads are limited to banners on secondary pages, not main search pages.

June Herold, vice president of education services at AOL, said the company surveyed parents over the past couple of years and found they were frustrated by having to sort through the results generated by conventional search engines to look for relevant information to help their kids with homework. And they were worried about the Wiki Effect -- uncertain reliability.

Further, Herold said, "Our focus groups show that even if parents think Wikipedia may in general be okay, they are concerned that students are not being exposed to other sources."

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