The Traditionalists Strike Again
Education traditionalists tend to suggest the internet is the end of research as we once knew it. In a much cited study by the Pew Research Centre, 76% of teachers said the internet has made students less thorough in conducting research and 94% meant that today’s students equate academic research with Google searches.
However, the conclusion that this has to be a negative development is unfounded. After all, the internet is an amazing resource that provides any research material students could wish for – if they can find it. Even though some students blindly use Google searches in a zombie-like manner, that is due to lack of understanding and not an inherent part of researching online.
The Google Machinery
Another study, by the ERIAL project, concluded that students use Google inefficiently. One reason behind this could be that they fail to comprehend the machinery behind a Google search. Firstly, Google categorises online content. Secondly, it matches parts of that content against the particular search terms using various algorithms. Thirdly, it ranks results according to relevance.
Knowledge of the ins and outs of that second step allows students to access clever mechanisms that have been inserted by Google engineers over the years. Some of these features are remarkably powerful, but still easy to use:
- Quotation marks (“”) prevent Google from looking at the words individually. Instead it examines the particular combination of words enclosed.
- A hyphen (-) excludes results that match a particular word. This is especially useful when the top results turn out irrelevant, since hyphens can be used to exclude concepts and websites step by step, quickly reaching the relevant result by elimination.
- Entering “site:” followed by a website domain limits the search to results from that website.
- Writing “OR” between search terms allows Google to treat them as alternatives, and will not look for a combination of the two.
- When clicking on a result, ctrl+f makes it easy to find the relevant section of the website.
The bigger picture
The above are basic steps, but they show that there is more to a Google search than meets the eye. In a third study, it was found that experienced online users activate their brain almost twice as much as inexperienced users when searching on Google. This also shows that a Google search can be a powerful intellectual exercise, not just a lazy shortcut to information.
Therefore, teachers should not divert digitally native students away from their natural instinct to use Google. Instead, they should make students use Google more effectively. Students need to understand that Google is designed to scratch the surface of the entire internet, showing them where to dig deeper. It’s the beginning of the research process, not the end. Terry Heick, the man behind TeachThought, suggests the use of Google-proof assignments. One example is project based learning, which requires synthesis of several strands of information, each of which can be found by way of a cleverly drafted Google search, but they need to be combined over time in order to gain importance. This requires students to reflect on their search results and use the information.
No one wants a classroom full of Google zombies. But instead of forcing them to use print literature, as some teachers do, stimulate them to use Google effectively! The digitalisation of education needs to be embraced, not resisted. It’s a shame that print literature is still viewed as having higher value than online sources.