Hang ups

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Occasionally in this column I turn a phrase so exquisitely it warrants inclusion in the Oxford Book of Quotations - and nobody says a dickie bird. If, on the other hand, I happen to accidentally split an infinitive, I can be sure of at least a megabyte of e-mail. But it isn't only my grammar that has readers rushing angrily to their modems. It always comes as a shock, but there are some who actually find fault with the things I say.

For example, last week I suggested that too many pupils under-achieve, not because they don't want to learn but simply because they don't know how to. I argued that they need to learn a range of skills from how to manage their time to how to read with discrimination. I suggested that sixth-form students should buy the excellent Strategies for Studying, by Mike Coles and Chas White (Carel, Pounds 24.95). But one reader insists that they needn't bother because there is plenty of appropriate material available free on the World Wide Web. She is right, of course. When I used the key words "study skills", the Lycos search engine found 43,456 relevant files. In fact, students could find out so much about the art of studying that they'd have no time left to do any. That, of course, is always the problem with the Web - it's simply too big. There are too many blind alleys and garden paths to tempt even the most self-disciplined traveller; too many quacking wild geese waiting to be chased.

If that weren't bad enough, there also are too many pranksters deliberately spreading misinformation - as I have discovered to my embarrassment. I read an electronic round-robin which warned that e-mail with the title "Penpal Greetings" contained a lethal computer virus. In good faith, I reprinted the information in Hang ups. As legions of readers have kindly - and sometimes unkindly - pointed out, the round-robin is a hoax. Not only is it not true, but it cannot possibly be true: "malicious code", as it is called, can't be embedded in e-mail text. You can read any e-mail (but not necessarily any attachments that arrive with it) in the certain knowledge that your hard disc will not be infected. Among the 13,895 sites devoted to computer viruses, there are a few which contain useful lists of these spoof warnings. I should have visited one of them and double-checked before rushing into print.

My excuse is that when one reads something on-line, it always seems so plausible. It's different with paper documents. We can, almost instinctively, assess the reliability of what we are being told. We pick up clues from the layout, the publisher's imprint, even the texture of the stationery. It is not hard to differentiate between an official circular and a spoof churned out on a word processor by some nerdy student. But the VDU is the great leveller. Everything looks like everything else, so it's much harder to judge the authenticity of the information accessed. That's why it's so important that young students, who will be using the Internet in school and adult life, are given proper tuition on how to evaluate data. These are the study skills that should be at the core of any curriculum designed to prepare children for the Information Age.

Finally, some addresses, which I promise I have checked and double-checked. Virginia Technical in the US has a useful guide to studying at http:www.ucc.vt.edu stdyskhtimesug.html.

For details of current virus hoaxes try http:ciac.llnl.gov ciacCIACHoaxes.html.

And if the editor of the Oxford Book of Quotations wants to get in touch, I am at arnoldevans@ easynet.co.uk

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