If You Give a Student a Google…The Case for Search Engine Education

Posted: August 29, 2011 in Academics, Art, Search, Technology, Tools/Gadgets
Tags: , , ,

A recent article posted on Mashable about a “Google Gap” caught my eye. The article basically poses the question “should we be teaching students how to search for information?” I often think about this without putting any of my thoughts to words. In essence, my inner dialogue usually goes something like this: “There is so much information out there, and no one seems to know how to access it.” “That’s not true, people are creating and accessing information every day.” “Yes, but how targeted are their searches? Does anyone really know how to use all of the search functionalities that Google offers?” “Yes, and I’d be willing to believe that many people use it a lot better than you.” “Well of course, but that’s not to say that it’s all intuitive. We seem to take it for granted that young people can be handed a new technology or tool and be able to use it fully to its deepest capabilities without any instructions or training, but that’s just not always the case.”

Without being a current student, I can’t say I have any idea of whether classes are being mandated or even offered at the lower educational levels on how to search for, and sort through information. If not, it’s a shame and a huge waste of really genius functionalities that apparently no one is using.

Let’s use an example. Say I am searching for the back story on my favorite work of sculpture, Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” In the main search box of Google’s engine, I type “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” Here’s what I get:

Inevitably, ye old Wikipedia entry for this art work will be in position #1. Image search results show up directly under that, then we have an entry from Smart History, then strangely a result from St. Mary’s College of California, then what seems to be a blog entry from a blog called Boglewood that addresses Italian art and history. The list goes on.

I would not be surprised if most students these days use the Wikipedia article as a fact source in their research, and try and find a decently high resolution image for any artwork requirements in their essays and then call it a day. How many students are instructed to do multiple searches?

For instance, if I then search, “Bernini Sculpture,” which will return the following:

 

My point here is that Google can almost be considered a living and breathing animal, very eager to perform for you. The more a person searches in sequence, the closer and more likely that person is to access very specific and more robust information sources. But how many students are taught that about Google? How many currently only use it for discrete one-off searches, ignoring completely the fact that Google can learn more about you and about what you’re looking for more each time you use it, enabling it to perform even better for you?

Even more disturbing perhaps is that most students have no idea that Google scholar exists! So many people my age grew up struggling with the constantly-evolving but always onerous scholarly search engines like LexisNexis and had a very hard time finding the content they were looking for, even when they encountered the right articles. Right now, if we search we get a wealth of different results:

I am old enough (and lucky enough??) to have taken a library skills course in elementary school that taught me about the value of using old-school search terminology and functionality (i.e. Boolean operators) way before Google was even a twinkle in Larry and Sergey’s eyes. But now that engines like Google do exist, and now that advanced methods of researching (such as textual and sentiment analysis on Twitter hashtag topics) become ever  more viable in the realm of social research, have schools taken up the challenge of designing curriculum to assist modern-day students with these new information engines?

The Mashable article claims that such classes and training do not yet exist, “Students in a two-year ethnographic study referred to Google more than any database when discussing their research habits. But ironically, say the study’s authors, they weren’t very good at using it.” I feel that this is a natural offshoot of an “information science” or “library science” degree, which seem to be where all librarians are headed these days. Elementary school students should be required to take a class/classes in effective search and research strategies that will help them to conduct online research for the duration of their education.

Especially since the Mashable article claims, “[The students] were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results…Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)”

It doesn’t seem ludicrous to imagine that though an incredibly resource like Google exists, students will have a hard time wielding the heavily powerful tool because they don’t understand the logic behind it, especially if no attention has been paid to teaching people how to use the incredibly powerful tool.

The series of studies that inspired the article on Mashable are known as the “Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries Project (ERIAL)” and are a collaborative effort by five Illinois universities in order to better understand students’ research habits. The findings  from these studies are set to be published by the American Library Association this fall.

To summarize the problem, this quote basically scared the crap out of me while simultaneously saddening me: “I don’t really know what there is to use,” said one first year accounting major who participated in the study. “I know there are books but I don’t really know how to find them. Really the only thing I know how to do is go to Google and type in what I’m looking for.”

What do you think about mandating search/research classes at the elementary school level for American children?

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