George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Think about 2008 for a minute. Wikipedia was only two years old, and Facebook had only existed for four. I was supporting a research project with a group of sixth graders studying ancient history. Throughout the process, I asked student after student, "Where did you get this information?"

The stock response: "On Google."

"Google's not a source," I repeated.

They stared at me.

Relating these tales to my mother, she said, "I don't know what's up with all of this Googling. It just sounds so dirty!" Given my anti­-Google sentiment at the time, I had to agree. Between my mom and my students, I knew that I had to do something differently.

As adults, we remember when being told to "look it up" implied hauling out an encyclopedia or dictionary, sifting through a card catalog, or even using a book's index. With the influx of mobile technologies, however, "looking something up" could mean asking Siri or Google, clicking or tapping to get a dictionary, or opening a number of reference apps. Given the facility with which students can now access information across devices, the requisite skills for analyzing and assessing that content have changed. Research used to imply a trip to the library where a skilled educator modeled effective methods in a controlled environment. The challenge now is to replicate that experience in a new and undefined context with virtually unlimited information.


Fast forward to this past winter. Mom now has an iPhone. "I just love asking Siri," she tells me.

If we believe the ad campaigns from Apple and Google, we should simply ask our device for the answer. Right? Perplexed by the prospect, a few weeks ago, I reached out to my PLN. Who is Siri anyway? I wanted to know what she was searching.

Maurice Draggon (@draggon) tweeted: @brholland Siri searches partnerships Apple has formed or you can specify the search engine.

It turns out that Siri searches whatever you want: Google, Bing, Yahoo or Wolfram Alpha. While all of these search engines have their place, we need to consider how we model effective strategies so that Siri (or Google) doesn't become another source to our students.


While on my Google tirade, I happened into a kindergarten class. In the midst of exploring dinosaurs, one little girl asked a question that the teacher didn't know. "Let's Google it," the teacher suggested to the student. Unable to contain myself, I jumped in and showed the student how to access World Book Kids ­- which not only had information at a lower reading level, but also included text­-to­-speech.

(Click to enlarge.)

Credit: World Book Kids


Thinking about our own education before iPads, smartphones and laptops, if we wanted a definition, we opened a dictionary. For background knowledge, we could consult an encyclopedia. As topics became more complex or specific, we used primary sources, magazines, and a host of reference books. Before going to a card catalog or Lexus Nexus database, we knew what we needed in terms of the actual, tangible source. This same thought process applies to digital resources. Our students should identifying what they need before they begin searching.


Students tap on iPad or right­click on Mac to access a built-in New Oxford American Dictionary. With the Google Dictionary extension for Chrome or Firefox, students can read a definition and hear the pronunciation directly within their browser. Go to or install the app, but whichever way you teach your students, the key is that they know the connotation of using a dictionary to define a word. Students need to understand when and why a dictionary will have the best solution.

Encyclopedia-Type Information

Like it or not, Wikipedia -- and its app -- puts a complete encyclopedia at every student's fingertips. And while a hardbound Britannica may be a thing of the past, the app isn't. From subscription services such as Grolier or World Book Online, to the free Yahoo Encyclopedia provided by Columbia, we can still teach students -- especially younger ones -- to begin their research with encyclopedia-type information.

Primary Sources & Reference Material

In high school, I spent hours in the Emory University library reading books for my U.S. history term paper. Our school library, and even the public library, couldn't get them as quickly as I could just travel across town. Today, with Project Gutenberg and Google Books, practically anything in the public domain can be downloaded and read on a laptop, iPad, tablet or even smartphone. Similarly, from purchasing digital texts through iBooks, Kindle or Nook, to leveraging digital artifacts such as those available through the Smithsonian or Library of Congress, students in inquiry-based classrooms can access content from virtually anywhere and at any time. In fact, more advanced students can even search Google News for primary source materials, as shown by Linda Lindsay (@mauilibrarian2) in this video:


"I'm assigning topics and having the students Google them for homework over the weekend," my sixth grade social studies colleague told me.

I took a deep breath.

"Trust me," she said.

On Monday, the students entered the computer lab no longer thrilled with their topics. When I asked, they explained that they couldn't find anything. I was ecstatic!

We discussed Boolean Search, choosing effective keywords, and not starting with Google. To make the concept tangible, we started by looking for "german shepherd" -- a brown and black dog or a person of Germanic descent who works with sheep? (Note: not only is it safe to search for "german shepherd" in front of students, but it is incredibly difficult to find a person with a sheep!)

From that point forward, I started scaffolding these search skills across my elementary and middle school curricula. Students learned a progression from dictionary to encyclopedia to search engine, and to use the search engine that would best fit their needs.

Tracy Sockalosky (@tsocko) and I started this table over a year ago to help identify potential alternatives to Google. Please know that the "reading level" is just our suggestion based on experience with students.


  • Reading Level: Grades 3+
  • Purpose: Search engine for primary source materials and news articles already vetted by educators


  • Reading Level: Grades 1-4
  • Purpose: A version of SweetSearch for elementary students


  • Reading Level: Grades 4+
  • Purpose: Academic search engine that primarily brings up reference materials

  • Reading Level: Grades 1+
  • Purpose: Search engine of animals and endangered species that includes fast­facts, scientific data, photos, videos and maps

Wolfram Alpha

  • Reading Level: Grades 3+
  • Purpose: A computational search engine that produces "objective" results


  • Reading Level: Grades 4+
  • Purpose: An anonymous search engine that does not connect to past searches or social media

A great activity, particularly with older students, is to have them use the same keywords across multiple search engines and then compare their results.

NO Googling?!

Though I encouraged my students to use a variety of options other than Google, it was in the vein of "once you know the rules, then you can break them." Through the process of redefining how I taught students to approach the acquisition of new content, they learned to identify the who, what and how, but the most critical lesson may have been the ability to distinguish between inference questions and factual questions. In other words, if students asked a why question, then they needed to use their brains, rather than a computer, to find an answer.

One of the top reasons that schools and districts have invested in iPads, tablets and other mobile devices is to provide near-instant access to the multitude of materials available for students to consume. As educators, we need to ensure that our students can then find what they actually need.

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer Carey's picture
Jennifer Carey
Director of Educational Technology from Miami, FL

I've found it's a larger problem with images. When I ask students to cite images they will often put "Google Images" with a three line URL citation. I now take the time to show them how they properly find and document images. I also let them know clear as day that citing "Google Images" will be given no credit.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Great point about images, Jen!

I found that a whole different conversation evolved around whether or not you could "take" images from Google at all - vs using Creative Commons images. I always think about Clay Shirkey's talk that we are "raising a generation of pirates."

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Thanks for sharing, Beth! This is very useful. The "Google It" issue was a problem with some of my former students, especially with images as Jennifer mentioned. It's nice to have alternate solutions.

Beth Miller's picture
Beth Miller
Library Media Specialist, Crabapple Middle School

What a great way to discuss the research process ... What's the definition of "look it up"? Can't wait to incorporate it in classes this week ! Thank you.

Carole Bell's picture
Carole Bell
Former Librarian and Library/Technology Administrator for McAllen ISD, TX

Please consider including Infotopia ( and Kidtopia ( in your list of recommended search engines. Created and managed by retired librarians/teachers, Infotopia and Kidtopia are custom Google search engines that only search web sites recommended by teachers and librarians, and that are vetted by the webmasters. You can read some of the comments made by Infotopia users all over the world: "Infotopia: A great way to search ... it has become increasing frustrating for students and teachers to try to narrow down the information a search produces as well as check for accuracy, currency, and authority. Well, along comes something to help - Infotopia. Infotopia is an academic search engine that searches with Google but accesses only trusted websites previously selected by librarians, teachers, and library and educational consortia. Automatically it has the Safe Search filter on. ...Fifth and sixth graders ... enjoyed the ease with which they found reliable websites and images and all said they would use it again in their own research."
Voices From The Inglenook - Cold Spring School Library
"This is the alternative to google that we should be telling our students about! Infotopia is a search engine that uses limited and ``approved`` sources (resources it lists for searchers so that you know where the information is coming from). Perhaps its best feature is the refinement bar on the top of a search that allows searchers to easily apply limitations and refinements to it."
Provincial Intermediate Teachers` Association (Canada)
.. "The reason I love it ( so much is that it is powered by Google but the web sites it finds have been vetted and recommended by teachers and librarians. Actually, a retired librarian developed the search tool. For academic subjects, the search results are quite amazing and it cuts down on evaluation time for you and your students."
Barbara Connolly, Riverdell High School, River Edge, NJ

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Carole.

Thank you so much for the recommendations. I will certainly add them to the list. It is definitely a work in progress.


Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Beth.

Glad you found this helpful. Our librarian did a great activity with students where she asked them to compare encyclopedia articles from books with the same online articles. They then had a really interesting conversation comparing the two formats.

Good luck!

Carole Bell's picture
Carole Bell
Former Librarian and Library/Technology Administrator for McAllen ISD, TX

I quoted your article on your blog about "Didn't Your Mother Tell You Not to Google?" at an all day inservice for teachers yesterday. I think it really helped them understand the problem with using an unvetted search engine.

Thanks for your article!
Carole Bell

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