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How to Use the Internet to do Research

By Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #27, 1999.

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Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn


Homeschooling families use the library often. But did you know that the Internet can be just as useful (or even more useful) in doing research?

Some will say that the Internet is a dangerous place for kids. Unfortunately, in these days the library can be just as dangerous. In the 70's and 80's when we first started going to libraries we had no fear of letting our little ones roam the rows of books. Today, you need to be right with your children as they examine books. There are wicked pictures in public library books and on their covers in open display. It is the same with the Internet. You should never let a young child on the Internet alone. You train the child where he can go and to stay away from anything unknown. By the time the child is 15 or so he could be doing some Internet research on his own. Always position the computer in or near the main room of your home, never in a bedroom or basement.

We will discuss two parts of the Internet that are valuable research tools: newsgroups and mailing lists.

What are Newsgroups?

Newsgroups are easy and convenient to use (right in your own home). You can get into a newsgroup quickly, post your question or print out a response, then leave immediately.

To understand what newsgroups are, imagine a huge building with thousands of rooms. Each room is labeled with a different subject heading and has messages posted on its walls. You are free to go into any of the rooms, read any of the messages and either respond to any of these messages or post new messages of your own.

Newsgroups are divided into several categories which are called hierarchies. Here are some of the hierarchies that homeschooling families will be interested in:

  • rec (recreational, art, music, audio, aviation, food, gardens, hunting, pets, scouting, games, sports, travel, crafts, or hobby-related newsgroups)

  • sci (science oriented newsgroups such as medicine, agriculture, math, chemistry, aeronautics, anthropology, and space - research and application)

  • soc (newsgroups on social issues such as religion, history, culture, and politics)

  • humanities (literature, classics, music, and fine arts)

  • alt (a huge bunch of newsgroups on all kinds of subjects, many bizarre and weird, but a few very useful ones - these newsgroups have less restrictive rules governing how they are created).

  • k12 (k-12 education)

  • misc (everything that doesn't fit into any of the other categories, including education)

Each of these broad hierarchies is divided into smaller categories which may, in turn, be divided into yet smaller categories. To avoid any confusion as to the topic under discussion and to make it easy to locate, each newsgroup is assigned a unique name. For example, misc.dogs would be a newsgroup in the misc hierarchy but specifically about dogs. Here you would find discussion concerning anything about dogs in general. You could post questions to this newsgroup such as, "What is the best kind of dog food for a puppy?" "What do you do with a dog that barks too much?" "Should I buy a dog from a pet store?" The newsgroup entitled misc.dogs.goldenretrievers would be a newsgroup specifically about the golden retriever breed. Misc.dogs.goldenretriever. fleas would be people discussing the flea problems of their golden retrievers. You've got the idea.

There are thousands and thousands of newsgroups covering almost every topic you can imagine. The vast majority of these newsgroups are profane and worthless, but a few are valuable to the homeschooling family for doing research. Newsgroups bring together specialists in a particular field, and when you post a question to a newsgroup you have the undivided attention of these specialists.

Here are some specific questions we had answered by newsgroups:

  • Helena couldn't figure out one of her Saxon Math Algebra II problems. We posted the problem on the newsgroup alt.algebra.help. On the subject line we wrote "question about Saxon Algebra II from homeschooled student." You want to be very specific about what you put on the subject line (just like when you send someone an email) in order to attract just the right person. Some newsgroups have hundreds of messages posted on them every day, and you want your message to get noticed and answered as soon as possible. We received our first answer to this question in half an hour!

  • Last summer we bought a microscope. We wanted to observe blood cells but didn't know how to make up a slide, so we posted a question on sci.bio.microbiology. This newsgroup seemed to have a lot of traffic (lots of recent questions, answers, and discussion). Some newsgroups are almost dead. They have very few postings. Our microscope question generated responses from a lab technician working in a gene-therapy group in Germany, the director of the Center of Ultrastructural Research at the University of Georgia, a science teacher home with the flu, a Ph.D. at the University of New England, a lab assistant at the University of Illinois (he sent us a big packet of educational materials), the Professor of Biology at Quinnipiac College, a writer with scientific training, and the Director of Microbiology and Pathology at Royal Darwin Hospital. The answers came quickly, and it was just what we needed. If we had used the library to find these answers, we would have first had to find the books and then find the information in the books. It would have taken much longer. Using the Internet we was able to find the answers to our questions quickly without leaving home.

  • Hans wanted to learn to play the banjo. We posted on the newsgroup alt.banjo the question "Am interested in learning to play the banjo - what would be the best book to start with?" On the subject line we wrote "beginner's banjo question." We received answers from banjo players all over the country.

  • The alt.speech.debate and alt. speech.misc newsgroups were very useful to us this past year as we were starting out in debate. We posted numerous questions and received scores of answers from debate coaches, high school and college debate students, and professors of debate.

  • Questions to the newsgroup sci.logic always generate lots of answers. Your question will be answered, and then the participants will proceed to logically analyze all the answers. We have posted questions on what would be a good logic textbook, and we received answers from a professor in Copenhagen, a professor of philosophy at Bucknell University, and a professor of philosophy and religion at NCSU.

  • We have posted messages asking for information on particular physics, biology, and chemistry textbooks. We received a wide range of opinions on the value of different texts. An advanced placement physics instructor led us to an excellent physics text and video course.

  • One of our favorite responses was an answer to a question posted to alt.animals.pandas. We asked how many pandas are in the U.S. The superintendent of the Sequoia Park Zoo replied that there are three!

Here are some other newsgroups you might find helpful:

  • rec.birds
  • misc.education.home-school.christian
  • rec.crafts.textiles.yarn
  • alt.war.civil.usa
  • misc.survivalism
  • rec.games.chess
  • sci.chem
  • alt.collecting.stamps
  • alt.ham-radio
  • geometry
  • humanities.classics
  • alt.history
  • soc.history
  • k12.ed.science
  • law.school.legal-prof
  • alt.org.toastmasters
  • rec.music.folk
  • alt.sci.physics
  • rec.food.recipes
  • alt.genealogy
  • alt.usage.english
  • alt.books.cs-lewis
  • alt.usage.german
  • humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare

Since there are so many newsgroups - often several on any one subject - it is sometimes difficult to find the right one. On the newsgroup news. groups.reviews there is posted a document that will give you some general methods of finding the right newsgroup for a topic.

You can do a search of newsgroups to find all the newsgroups on any particular topic. We searched the newsgroups for the word "spanish" and found 8 newsgroups, only one of which appeared useful (alt. usage.spanish). The others were either dead or filled with ads and junk. We posted a question asking how to find a good Spanish curriculum. Within hours we received an answer from a Senor Refugio S. Lozano which detailed what to look for in a good Spanish textbook.


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