One of the foremost concerns that educators face in a digital age is the near ubiquitous access that students have to information. This undeniably has a huge positive impact on their education and, on the whole, provides them with fantastic opportunities to discover and drive their own learning, but it also has inherent pitfalls and dangers for educators to be aware of.
As a tool for learning and education, one of the greatest strengths of the Internet is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The Internet exists as a forum where everyone can have a voice and that voice is more or less equal to everyone else’s. Two direct effects of this fact are that there is far more valuable information readily available than there has been ever before, and there is also far more misinformation strewn amongst it. Before the rise of the Internet, the prevailing means of obtaining information was through books and, in order to be published in a book, that information had to be read and reviewed by editors and any number of people before it would reach its audience. The Internet, on the other hand, simply requires an ‘author’ to press publish.
The ease with which information can be published online can be a fantastic learning opportunity for students to be able to publish their own work to an authentic audience. However, as a result of the anonymous nature of the Internet, assuming that they have given no indication of their age or their status as a student, their work will be viewed on its own merits by anyone who sees it. This can, however, pose a problem for students who are trying to conduct research. They will almost certainly stumble upon sites that contain inaccurate or intentionally misleading information on almost any topic; students therefore need to be equipped with skills to help them verify and analyse their findings.
This means that the skill in locating information has taken a back seat to the importance of verifying it. In the past, one of the most necessary skills in researching was to be able to find the information itself. Now, finding information is not so difficult; what is difficult is finding accurate information.
The key to students verifying their own information is for them to develop a questioning attitude. ‘How do you know that? Why should I believe you?’ are questions that educators want to encourage. Some key understandings that teachers can develop in their students to aid in this questioning mindset are:
- Understanding that there is incorrect information on the Internet
- Using keywords as search terms
- Knowing the basics of how search engines work
- Realising how easy it is to publish to the Internet
- Understanding the need to reference and how to reference
- Knowing how to verify references on a site
- Realising that domains have different associations
- Developing note-taking skills
Using Keywords as Search Terms and Understanding how Search Engines Work
When researching on the Internet, students will often simply enter the question or the topic into Google and if they do not find what they are looking for in the first few sites that appear, they will either give up or claim that there is not an answer to the question. This is because students often have little to no understanding of how search engines actually work.
Search engines work by collecting all the text that is present on a webpage and then collating it and ‘scoring’ word combinations using mathematical formulas in order to determine the level of relevance that the content of the page has to a specific search term or query. This is a very basic description of what is going on; it is important to emphasise to students here that they are not asking the Internet a question when they use a search engine. What they are doing is comparing the words that they are typing in the search box to all the words on the webpage. The results suggested by that search engine will be the pages that are both the most popular that also feature the most terms in common with the ones that they have searched.
Rather than phrasing their research as a question (ignore the ‘how do I’, ‘what does’, ‘when did’), ask students to enter only the words that are most important to the topic that they are researching. For example, if students are researching climate change and they need to find out how climate change impacts the world and what can be done about it, they will most likely want to type into Google ‘what is climate change and what can I do about it?’ While this might return some results that will point them in the right direction, a far simpler and more effective search would be ‘climate change prevention’. This second search includes fewer terms that are far more relevant to the original question and is therefore more likely to return results that have a bit more substance.
A very simple way to get students into this keyword mindset is to have them brainstorm or make a mind map of all the most important terms related to the subject that they are researching. This then becomes a word bank for them to use in their searches. Furthermore, it is important that students understand that one attempt at a search is often not enough; they will need to refine their search by selecting different keywords and using different search strategies to assist them.
Some strategies that students can make use of to gain a bit more control over how the search works and to refine their search are to:
- double and triple check all spelling
- start with very specific search terms that are the most relevant to the question
- use quotes around search terms (“like this”)
- reduce the number of words in the search and remove any unnecessary words (what, how, good, why, I, wonder)
- make use of a ‘+’ before the search term like “+this” – this adds importance to the term and increases its importance in the search.
- remove all prefixes and suffixes from the word and reduce it to its base word
- only use ‘what is…?’ in a search is when looking for the definition of a word
Part 2 of this article in the next issue of Education Technology Solutions will continue the discussion on how teachers can help students to develop a questioning mindset with regard to assessing information found on the Internet.