Hitting the top searches, to many students, is the same as hitting the most relevant sources. But according to Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, says this is far from the truth. Check out his talk below to show how information is not being shared the way most people think it is. This is something that needs to be taught to students
Performing effective Google searches is hard to teach. For starters, I don't even know if it would be accurate to say I do effective searches on the Internet. I'm sure a Google-certified teacher has a thousand ways to find information that I have never even considered. What I know about doing Google searches is what I've been picked up as a grad student and a teacher from doing. I don't have a ton of training in all the ways that you can exploit the resources of a search engine. Because of this, my confidence in teaching kids how to use it is limited. Also, a lot of the methods of searching I do feels to me intuitive and therefore is hard for me to teach. It is difficult for me to break down into steps something I just work out in a kind of organic way.
I work the problem until it sorts itself out. How do you teach that?
There are ways, certainly, and I think it comes down to seeing it as training students to be detectives. I love detective fiction and I'm always interested in how a writer creates sophisticated plots that is a character working through a problem. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series is probably the most apt example of this. The way that Lisbeth manipulates the Internet is displayed as being almost supernatural. But even the hacking and surveillance seems a little far-fetched, the general principle that through intelligent, methodical application of problem-solving skills can empower individuals using search engines is still something we can strive for.
A lot of this thinking comes from my addiction to reading about smart but gruff detectives working through cases, but it also comes from this post from Daniel Russell on his blog. Russell works for Google, where he studies the way that people search. Every Wednesday Russell posts a series of questions. Each question is harder than next, and readers are asked to find all the answers and then share how they were able to use Google to locate that information. As I've looked through some of the questions asked, they can be rather hard. But it sure beats students clicking on the first two hits of a general search. Every Thursday Russell posts the answers and the level of problem solving skills is pretty amazing.
All of the questions in the latest search challenge are related to Thomas Jefferson's relationship with wine. The third question, which makes it the hardest, asked, "How many times did Jefferson refer to wine in ALL of his writing?" Not something you can just look up. You have to work the problem.
I had in my mind a few ways to solve this and the actual resolution actually wasn't too different than what they ended up doing. This is from Russell's Thursday post, where he explained how he figured it out:
He goes into a more detailed explanation of all that was entailed, but for that you should check out his blog post.This comes under the category of downloading and scraping content from web sites (which we'll discuss later in more detail), but for this problem here's what I did.a. Find a collection of ALL of Jefferson's writings in plain text.
b. Download all of those texts and concatenate them into one big file. (Remember that this is someone writing with quill and ink--he didn't write THAT much text in the course of his life.)
c. Do a textual search for "wine" throughout his collected text (by using Control-F, Command-F, or if you're geeky, grep).
This to me is a great way to get kids to learn about searches. The content you are asking them to find is irrelevant; it's the act of finding it that's important. As a matter of fact, the more obscure the information is, the better. This is because if the knowledge is readily available because of its inherent utility, students won't need to employ as many problem-solving skills to find it. Figuring out how many times Jefferson mentions wine in his correspondence is useless cocktail trivia, but learning the skills to draw out that kind of information from the Internet has great relevance
I think I am going to do this once a week. Present the students with three questions, scaled from easy to medium to hard. Then I'm going to give them some time to work the problem and students can share out the ways in which they found it. What was their thought process? How were searches adjusted as you learned more information? How did one line of inquiry help build onto the next? Did you use Google News? Google Scholar? Google Books? (It always surprises me how little Google Books is utilized.)
Coming up with these search challenges is not easy and requires you to have to really think about how you conduct searches, drawing light on how narrow your own skill set is. Hopefully by doing this I will improve my own ability to do effective searches, which in turn will help me teach it better over time.