The Wayback Machine is a reference tool for the internet Age as basic as a dictionary. When was the last time you saw a student use it?

When I’m giving a talk to students about being responsible digital citizens, I’ll tell them, “You know, some day you might apply to college, or run for Congress—and you might regret something you posted online when you were young.” And there’s always one student who will say to me, “Mr. November, we’re not that stupid—we’re going to take those things off the web before we apply to college.”

At that point, I pause the discussion. I show them a website called the Wayback Machine, and I call up some website that’s been gone for 10 years. There it is, live on the screen, as if it never had vanished. Typically, all of the links work as well.

The audience goes from laughing at me for how naïve I am for not realizing there is a delete button for the web to stunned silence in the blink of an eye.

I should really bring paper bags, because some kids are so nervous about the implications of what they’ve just seen, they’re hyperventilating. They simply had no idea that the overwhelming majority of the internet is being saved in its entirety, links and all. This caching process happens every few weeks or months, depending on the nature of a website and how often it’s updated.

The Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to index the web, runs the Wayback Machine. Since its launch in 1996, the Wayback Machine has saved more than 466 billion web pages and counting—including many pages their owners believed (or hoped?) were long gone.

As many students are recovering from their own sense of naiveté, I ask them a simple question: What happens when you’re reading an article online, and you come across a link and you click on it, but it’s dead? They’ll say, “Well, I just give up.” And I say, “Watch this: You just copy the link, and you paste it into the Wayback Machine, and presto—there’s the website.”

Students are shocked to learn that it’s so simple to recover lost links. This is like knowing there’s a dictionary when you’re learning to read. It is that basic and that important of a reference tool for the Internet Age.

While the Wayback Machine is useful for showing students the dangers of posting inappropriate content online, and it’s an indispensable tool for recovering lost Internet links, in the hands of a creative teacher, it’s a truly extraordinary device that can lead to deeper learning.

Next page: How science, history, and math teachers use it