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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hype? Fact? Helping Online Students Evaluate Websites


Developing the ability to distinguish website hype from reality is a critical skill, but one that tends to be overlooked in online courses. This article models how to develop writing assignments that give students an opportunity to examine websites' claims made about products, the use of logic, and the nature of the "evidence" used to support the claims. It also gives students a chance to look at two sides of the story, and to examine evidence through lenses colored by presuppositions, assumptions, beliefs, and values.

Let's step back for a moment and take a look at importance of the issue. Can you think of highly touted product that has been promoted on the Internet as a miracle cure? Do you believe all the claims? Some of the claims? Why? Why not?

Excellent examples of website hype can be found in herbal products and remedies. An example is a natural product that comes from the bark of a South American tree called "lapacho" in Argentina and Paraguay, and "Pau D'arco" in Brazil. All sorts of claims have been made for it, including that it is effective in fighting viruses, improving circulation, and killing cancer cells.

Does the bark of the Lapacho tree (pau d'arco) cure cancer? Is this product the Amazon rain forest's natural Viagra? The lapacho tree, which is native to Paraguay, Brazil, and northern Argentina, is known for its gorgeous flowers. The descendants of the Guaranis, the indigenous peoples of the Alto Parana area, claim the inner bark has curative powers. Recently, lapacho bark has been tested as a cure for cancer, as well as a "vitality enhancing" elixir and potent aphrodisiac.

Sample instructions for a paper assigned to English composition students: Here is an example that will help you hone your critical thinking skills and your ability to evaluate information and sources. You may write your paper on the bark of the lapacho tree, or on any other item that has been hyped. (Vioxx? Certain diets? Vitamin E? Rock and crystal healing? Stem cells for curing Parkinson's?)

Whether lapacho contains active ingredients capable of bringing about the health benefits is a critical question, and a portal to a deeper issue. Do herbal remedies work? Are there "secrets of the shamans" that could be used for the good of humanity? If so, what are they? How do we test them? Some believe herbal remedies are more effective than conventional medicines, and are more affordable and accessible. Others believe that it herbal remedies are nothing more than snake oil. At best, they're not harmful. At worst, they could actually destroy one's health.

Essay: Sample Structure

The Vivid Vision (Paragraph 1): A scene that depicts an array of herbal medicines (perhaps a scene from a health food store), perhaps an individual taking an herbal remedy.

Background and Definitions (Paragraph 2): What is the lapacho tree? Where is it found? Why is it considered medicinal? What part? Who used it? When? Why? The key is to brainstorm with appropriate questions, to help bring into focus the topic.

Who says so? Why? (Paragraph 3): This is a series of questions that are made to test the assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, and possible motives of the individuals who are saying things about the product.

What have people experienced? Testimonials. (Paragraphs 4 and 5). Are testimonials believable? Are they always legitimate? Find two or more and analyze them. Look for flaws in their arguments, or incomplete information.

What do you think? (Paragraph 6). Would you give lapacho bark a try? When? Where? Why? What do you think? What did you base your decision on? Please provide examples or personal testimonials.

Conclusion (Paragraph 7). Not completely necessary, if it has been covered earlier.

Useful Web Resources

Rain Forest Information:

Clinical Trials for Lapacho (Pau d'Arco)

Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
: Lapacho

Purple Lapacho: Ancient Herb, Modern Miracle?

Drug Digest: Lapacho.,3923,552793%7CLapacho,00.html

What Is Lapacho Used For Today

Pau d'arco

About Lapacho
Questions About Herbal Remedies

: Your Guide to Quackery, Health Fraud, and Intelligent Decisions.

Lies and Deceipt in Alternative Medicine:

For that Healthy Glow, Drink Radiation!
Popular Science.

Heavy Metals in Ayurvedic Herbal Medicines. ScienceWeek.

Snake Oil -- The Wikipedia Entry.

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