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Number 99-01
February 1999

Digital Reference Services for K-12 Education: "AskA" Services

Students, educators, and parents are turning to the Internet for assistance with education-related questions. Members of the K-12 community are connecting to individuals who can provide the necessary guidance and expertise on topics such as:

  • Alaska
  • Causes of acid rain
  • Lesson plans about colonial America, and
  • Motivating children to learn about space exploration.
Digital reference services, or AskA services (so-named for services such as "Ask A Scientist" or "Ask A Librarian"), respond to these types of questions by providing information referral and subject expertise. AskA services can motivate students to learn through interpersonal communication with experts in curriculum-related topics and skill areas. AskA services can also help teachers plan instruction by directing them to sample lesson plans and by offering guidance in areas such as technology in the classroom. By utilizing AskA service expertise, the K-12 community can extend its information base as well as its instructional support system.

Current AskA services offer two main types of information-subject matter expertise: factual information, and information-referral (pointers to information resources). Specific services meet the needs of diverse audiences within and beyond the K-12 community.

AskA service experts promote subject skills as well as general information problem-solving skills. For instance, many information-referral AskA services include the paths taken to find particular information sources. Some subject matter AskA services explain why a certain answer is correct and may provide additional practice questions or ideas as a method of reinforcement.


How Do AskA Services Work?

Most services have a web-based question-submission form or an e-mail address (or both). Users may submit questions by using either form. Once a question is received by a service, it is assigned to an individual expert to be answered. An expert responds to the question with factual information and/or a list of information resources. The response is either sent to the user's e-mail account or is posted on a Web site that the user can access after a certain period of time. (For more information on how AskA services work, see Wasik, 1999.)

Many services have informative Web sites that include archives of questions and answers and sets of frequently asked questions (FAQs). These usually encourage users to browse their collections before submitting a question in case sufficient information already exists.


Sample Listing of AskA Services

Hundreds of AskA services are currently available to the K-12 community. Many of these services specialize in the sciences and in general reference, while very few services address questions in the arts, history, literature, foreign language, and world geography (Lankes & Kasowitz, 1998). Below is a sample of AskA services in several categories:

  1. Art
    National Museum of American Art Reference Desk

    http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/referencedesk/
    The National Museum of American Art Reference Desk is an AskA service of the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. Information specialists at the museum answer questions regarding American art. Specific questions receive brief, factual responses, while users with broad queries are directed to sources to aid in their research.

  2. Education
    AskERIC
    http://www.askeric.org/ AskERIC is a personalized AskA service providing education information to teachers, librarians, counselors, administrators, parents, and others. It began in 1992 as a project of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology at Syracuse University. Today, it encompasses the resources of the entire ERIC system and beyond.

  3. General Reference
    Internet Public Library (IPL) "Ask A Question" http://aristotle.ipl.org/ref/QUE/ Internet Public Library (IPL) "Ask A Question" suggests ideas and resources to help users find information on virtually any topic. The site also features a FAQ of popular reference questions, a virtual ready reference collection categorized by subject, and tips for searching for information on the Internet as well as in public libraries. The University of Michigan School of Information hosts IPL.

    KidsConnect http://www.ala.org/ICONN/AskKC.html KidsConnect is a question answering, help, and referral service for K-12 students on the Internet. The goal of the service is to help students access and use the information available on the Internet effectively and efficiently. KidsConnect is a component of ICONnect, a technology initiative of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association. KidsConnect is offered in partnership with the Information Institute of Syracuse, Syracuse University, and is underwritten by Microsoft Corporation.

  4. Math
    Ask Dr. Math http://forum.swarthmore.edu/dr.math/ Ask Dr. Math is a question-and-answer service for K-12 math teachers and students. The service provides an archive that is searchable by grade level and topic and includes such features as FAQ, archives, and other resources. Ask Dr. Math is funded by the National Science Foundation and operates under the auspices of the Math Forum at Swarthmore College.

  5. Science
    Ask A Volcanologist http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/ask_a.html Three professional volcanologists staff this question-answering and referral service. Within three days, the service attempts to answer all questions received. The service is part of the larger VolcanoWorld Web site, hosted by the University of North Dakota, which includes a keyword-searchable FAQ of commonly asked questions on volcanoes, lesson plans for teachers, lessons and activities for students, and links to sources of other information about volcanoes.

    Ask Shamu http://www.seaworld.org/ask_shamu/asintro.html Ask Shamu is a question-and-answer service of Sea World, Inc. and Busch Entertainment Corp. which answers questions about the ocean and marine animals. An 800-number (1-800-23SHAMU) is provided for students to submit questions by telephone, and for teachers to request curriculum materials. The site also features a FAQ, curriculum guides, and more.

    How Things Work
    http://landau1.phys.virginia.edu/Education/Teaching/HowThingsWork/home.html
    How Things Work is a question-and-answer service for users of all ages with physics questions. The site also features a searchable index of previously answered questions, a recent questions list, and links to other related resources. The service was founded and is operated by a physics professor at the University of Virginia.

    MAD Scientist Network http://madsci.wustl.edu/ MAD Scientist Network is composed of over 500 scientists from around the world. The MAD Scientist Network answers questions in many areas of science and includes an online archive of question-answer sets in addition to other resources. The MAD Scientist Network is operated from Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis.


Finding AskA Services on the Web

The following Web sites contain collections of AskA services that can be searched and browsed.

AskA+ Locator http://www.vrd.org/locator/ AskA+ Locator contains over 70 AskA services that answer questions in a variety of subjects. Records for each service inform users of service scope, answer policy, and other important features. The Locator is created by the Virtual Reference Desk Project http://www.vrd.org.

Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) http://www.thegateway.org Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) contains records of more than 3,000 educational resources. In addition to AskA services, the Gateway includes links to Internet lesson plans, curriculum units, and other materials.

References and Readings

AskA Digests [Online]. Available: http://www.vrd.org/AskA/digests.shtml [1998, December 11].

Lankes, R. D. (1998). Building and maintaining Internet information services: K-12 digital reference services. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. (ED number pending)

Lankes, R. D. & Kasowitz, A. (1998). The AskA starter kit: How to build and maintain digital reference services. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. (ED number pending)

Wasik, J. M. (1999). Building and maintaining digital reference services. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. (ED number pending)


This project has been funded in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0005. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Education's web site is: http://www.ed.gov/


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