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Student Research: The Right Information at the Right Time

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Google puts a universe of information at the end of any Internet connection.

This is both true and unhelpful. It offers up the universe, but no one needs the universe -- they need the right information, and they need it at the right time.

A fact. A concept. An image. A resource. Maybe a new perspective.

And finding the right information at the right time can be as challenging as finding just the right word for a poem or the right song for an occasion. Research is often conducted in short bursts when there is library or computer lab time scheduled, often at the beginning of a project, or in the middle when ideas run dry.

This is curious.

In an always-on learning environment, constant access should be leveraged. This doesn't mean that learners should always be online, but rather they should always have that access.

Searching for Information

While other ways of finding information exist (e.g., bing), and new ones are surfacing (Quora), by far the most popular is the noun that has become a verb: Google.

"Googling" the lyrics from a song, a retailer's reputation or the author of a text is often the fastest way to find information. In fact, I'll often back out of a website to Google something I'm looking for rather than use that site's built-in search mechanics and navigation.

If you can learn the art of the keyword search, along with a handful of other Google tricks and tips, you can usually find what you need, or at least where to look next. But the whole "universe at your fingertips" is unhelpful in this sense: what you'll actually find when you look is strangely limited.

The way Google retrieves information encourages web content creators to use SEO techniques. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It's not necessarily as nefarious as it sounds, since it's easy to imagine a world where only the very best information and ideas are found. Value is subjective, and in the real world it's traffic, not knowledge, that drives the decision-making about what "content" is.

With such a crushing amount of information out there, even Google has to wave the white flag and ask for some help in finding information via massive servers, bots, spiders and even their social media platform Google+. Some content designers have learned how to get their content discovered, while others have not.

This presents a challenge.

The Timing of Information

In learning, as with boxing, dancing, selling and clock-making, timing is everything:

  • The right question at the right time
  • The right assessment at the right time
  • The right information at the right time

When and how students reach out for information often changes the nature of the information they're reaching out for. Are they asking broad, sweeping questions that survey macro-level themes? Minor, detail-oriented questions that represent "lower-level" information?

Google struggles with the former dreadfully. I recall teaching a unit on the definition of humanity a few years ago and cringing -- even audibly groaning -- to see students on Yahoo Wiki Answers querying, "What are the sources of humanity?"

This is a classic case of user error, but Google encourages it by issuing you 27,674,767 search results for even the most outlandish term.

Signal to Noise

There is no single way to make sure that students have the proverbial right tool (information) at the right time. Some of this is teacher instinct; some of it is a matter of serendipity.

But the juxtaposition between overwhelming information sources and the critical nature of information timing can cause some teachers to pare down data sources for the students, or to improve the quality of research results by adding their own sources. "These three websites, these two books, these four essays."

Reducing "information noise" for students is near the top of the list of responsibilities for the 21st century teacher.

But teaching students to do this for themselves -- so that they have a far greater likelihood of finding the right information at the right time -- just might be responsibility number one.

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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I have read as you most likely have as well that knowledge doesn't have the value it once had. The argument goes this way: Since everything s available on the Internet, ANYONE can get it - and thus someone having that information without having to use the Internet has no real advantage, no supplemental value. Sort of ...

As the author of this blog post notes, because EVERYTHING is available, one must know how to search AND more importantly, how to evaluate the information's usefulness to the situation at hand. To accomplish the required outcome, two efforts MUST be accomplished: (1) the person must have the core knowledge LEARNED (knowledge that enables gathering, organizing, and evaluating broader information related to the topic) - so basic or core knowledge IS REQUIRED AND HAS VALUE; and (2) the person must develop those gathering, organizing, and evaluation skills - in addition to the skills associated with using this body of information to address the situation(s) at hand, as well as assessing value added and documenting these efforts.

To be good at dealing with such situation - having the skills and procedures - is not a simple or straightforward routine. Hence, it must be a part of a good K-12 education - with increasing exposure in courses as early in K-12 as possible.

Rhonda Howard's picture
Rhonda Howard
Middle School Teacher-Librarian

I have also had the problem of not finding what I was looking for while searching. One example was when I wanted to discuss the idea of "Big Brother" and planned to have my students find information on the internet. Fortunately, I attempted this myself, before asking students to do so. Because there is a television show by the same name, I was overwhelmed with those results. I have learned to play with the search terms, and I can model that and practice that with students. Do you have suggestions for teaching kids how to do better searches? How to evaluate sources? We have found that even citing sources from the internet can be detective work. Thanks!

latusuli1's picture

WOW! I never thought of Google in this way! Reading this, just gave me some insight on how i as a teacher can direct my future students to be at the right place and at the right time especially when it comes to the search bar: having your question ready, information and assessment ! Using this strategy is perfect when learning how to improve students learning!

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