As students get back into the routine of another school year, many will be taking advantage of the scores of experts from academia, government, and elsewhere who offer free online advice to those needing homework help–as long as the inquiring young minds are motivated by curiosity and aren’t merely lazy.

One such resource is Robert Stewart, the man behind the “Ask Dr. Bob” internet service.

Stewart says he is glad to answer any questions students might have about oceans. But he draws the line when students ask him to complete entire homework assignments. When one student eMailed a list of 10 questions from an assignment on octopuses, he replied simply with a link to a web site about them.

It’s all in a day’s work for Stewart, a Texas A&M University oceanography professor who responds to questions from teachers and other adults, too.

“I find a lot of very curious students out there who really have an interest and are trying to find out something to arouse their curiosity,” said Stewart, who gets a $100,000 a year grant from NASA to run the service and his OceanWorld web site.

Henry Fliegler gets no such funding, yet he’s no less dedicated to helping students around the world with math problems. He spends about three hours daily answering 25 or so questions, up from three or four when he started in 1996.

The retired engineer from Orange, Calif., said he gets enough reward from the “17 jillion … thank-you notes,” including one declaring him “my math God.”

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Fliegler said.

Among his favorite questions is one from a second-grader who asked whether it’s OK to count with her fingers (yes, as long as the answer isn’t more than 10). He also hears from adults, including an Italian math professor who wanted him to critique a paper on a new number theory (he suggested contacting wiser folks at Princeton).

Rosalie Baker, a former Latin teacher who now edits a nine-issue-a-year archaeology magazine for children called Dig, said she’s happy that students with assignments “are not just looking at a book on archaeology and giving some rote answer.”

Students also can turn to for-fee services, some of which are paid for by their schools.

AskMeNow will launch a mobile service this fall in which people can call or send an eMail message with a simple question and receive a text reply on their phones within a few minutes. More than 10,000 people are now participating in a free test, and the company eventually plans to charge up to 49 cents a question, possibly less for students.

Google Inc. offers the Google Answers service, in which users are matched with researchers willing to conduct online searches for a fee. Though a credit card is required, Google says parents sometimes sign up for their kids.

Google also runs ads from companies offering to complete homework assignments, including one promising to “solve hard problems” for a recommended $20 a problem. “Why not pay us to do your homework?” the ad teases.

Dr. Bob Stewart, a Texas A&M professor, has a web site that enables him to field students’ and teachers’ questions on oceanography. (Associated Press photo)
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Such come-ons hint at one of the downsides to online homework help services.

Another problem is that students have to evaluate them for credibility, because the internet allows anyone to claim expertise. Services offered by universities and government agencies, for instance, probably are more reliable than a commercial service with little information about its operators.

And because many of the free services are run by volunteers, responses can take days, weeks, or even months. Baker said she saves the best questions for her magazine, meaning students with an assignment due in five minutes could be out of luck.

Many such services stopped as more people found out about them, because the volunteers simply got overwhelmed, said Joshua Koen, who tracks such resources at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Students should think twice before submitting a question and make sure it’s not something–such as what “NASA” stands for–that is easily answered elsewhere, he said.

The common complaint from those running such services relates to students who see them as shortcuts to doing the work.

“Some will say, ‘Show me how to do this step by step,'” said Sally Illman, an online math and physics tutor at Elluminate, which offers free services for customers of certain textbooks and for-fee tutoring for others. “Some people come in thinking they will just watch a movie and see someone doing their homework for them.”

But Illman said many students are glad to devote the time once they adjust their expectations.

Some commercial services have shied from such offerings completely.

Scholastic Inc. has opted to focus on teaching students good research methods rather than providing answers.

“Learning is not about immediate answers,” said Seth Radwell, president of Scholastic’s online division. “It’s about figuring out how to get better at research and organization.”

America Online Inc. recently discontinued a bulletin board where students could post questions, opting instead to let visitors search for answers prepared ahead of time on frequently asked topics.

“It’s more efficient,” said Jennifer Maffett, director of AOL’s Research and Learn unit. “It’s the way we can reach the most kids.”

Some services, including AskMeNow and Webmath.com, blend automated responses with human-generated answers to serve more users.

Ken Leebow, an author who visits schools to educate parents and teachers about internet resources, also suggests that students look through answers to frequently asked questions that many sites cull.

Fliegler, for instance, has a page with the basics on fractions, decimals, and percentages and suggests that students check there first.

But for tougher questions, the 82-year-old Fliegler said he will keep giving individual responses “as long as I can stay alive and stay alert. It’s good mental exercise for me at this stage of the game.”

Links:

Ask Dr. Bob
http://oceanworld.tamu.edu

Flieger’s Mathman
http://www.fliegler.com/mathman.htm

Ask Dr. Dig
http://www.digonsite.com/drdig

Stevens list of “Ask an Expert” resources
http://www.ciese.org/askanexpert.html