Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

Alan November? Let me Google that

Posted 2 October 2018 Google search 

We increasingly depend on technology to do everything from searching a favourite recipe – okay, ordering food from your favourite local restaurant – to checking whether ‘yex’ is a valid Scrabble word – it is: it’s an archaic word meaning to sob. 

Google has become an ingrained, indeed, essential part of our daily lives. Our students are learning in the middle of an information revolution, where data is expected to double every two years for the next decade, and students have access to authoritative and debatable information that may be biased by ideology, commercial interest, partisanship or the ‘relevant’ geographic location of the searcher. 

The truth is that every student can use a browser, but ask them about their search strategies and most admit they simply key the assignment topic – say, ‘”This dead butcher and his fiend-like queen.” To what extent do you agree with Malcom's judgement?’ – verbatim into their browser. 

This strategy can yield appropriate results, but many students use it simply because they haven’t been explicitly taught to do anything else. And most look only at the first page of results, trusting in the veracity of the black box of Google’s PageRank and other algorithms, and believing the top hits contain everything they need to complete their Macbeth assignment. 

Three strikes and you're out

The problem is that students’ searches often yield results with a localised bias, and when they don’t find what they are looking for, usually within three search attempts, they typically give up and assume that Google cannot yield appropriate results. It’s not surprising that students use the simple strategy – it’s quick and easy, and the localised bias in Google’s algorithms is hidden – and the three strikes response is actually a search behaviour that Google has created – PageRank is a measure of popularity but also purports to be a measure of trustworthiness. So if three searches don’t yield trustworthy results on the first page, it’s understandable when students think they ‘must’ not exist. 

Sophisticated search strategies 

The internet presents our students with the significant challenge of learning how to navigate and curate appropriate information from a vast amount of information. To meet that challenge, they need to learn how to design searches that take them past the first page of mostly localised results.  

They need to learn that the internet enables access to more than Instagram, Snapchat and cat videos; it’s a powerful academic resource. When used properly it can support the development of higher-order skills like critical analysis and evaluation, problem-solving and creative thinking.  

Consider the search: ‘Iranian hostage crisis’. A search by a student in Australia will yield a Wikipedia entry, a CNN ‘fast fact’, a United States federal government Archives item and a 2014 BBC news report on US policy on Iran, but no first-page sources from Iran. Wikipedia, by the way, explains that in Iran the event is known as ‘The conquest of the American spy den,’ a good illustration that, while Wikipedia may not be an authoritative source, it is a tool students can use to identify and elaborate alternative search terms. 

To yield Iranian sources, students need to know to use ‘ir’, the two-letter country code for Iran. Including ‘site:ir’ - so ‘site:ir Iranian hostage crisis’ or even ‘site:ir conquest of the American spy den’ – in their search will yield results from Iran. To yield more authoritative or academic sources, students need to know to add ‘ac’, indicating ‘academic,’ applied to universities and other higher education institutions – so ‘site:ac.ir Iranian hostage crisis’ or ‘site:ac.ir conquest of the American spy den’. 

Internet searching is a skill. As teachers, we want to see evidence not only of what our students know but also how they obtained that knowledge, so it makes sense to ask them to show their search strategies as well as what their searches yield. How students use a browser involves higher-order skills of critical analysis, interpretation, and evaluation, problem-solving, making connections and thinking creatively, but doing this well depends on learning good search strategies. 

The good news is these can be taught.  

Alan November is an international leader in education technology. As a computer science teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the United States, he was one of the first teachers in the world to have a student project online in 1984. As a guest of the Wesley College Institute for Innovation in Education, he ran workshops with Middle and Senior School students in May on the application of technology for academic research at Wesley College’s three metropolitan campuses, Clunes and the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School.

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