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.
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.
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 Dictionary.com 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.
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
- 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.
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.