Look no further

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
If you want to know about online searching, there's no better place to start then Google. Jack Kenny reports

"The greatest challenge facing us now," said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and former president of Brown University, "is how to transform information into structured knowledge, and not to allow people to deny us choice by inundating us with information. And that's where education comes in, we have to have a methodology to be able to understand, to ask the right questions."

When a simple search engine query on John Donne the poet uncovers 830,000 sites, it's clear that the right questions are the key to information literacy. It's difficult to believe that there has been no effort made to ensure that children know how to use the internet effectively. Sixty two per cent of searchers accept the results thrown up on the first page, according to a recent survey.

It is an understandable reaction to the flood of information a search engine can provide, overwhelming both teachers and students. Writer James Herring believes children should be taught what he calls the PLUS method: Purpose, Location, Use and Self-evaluation. The concept is explained on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website. And US ICT guru Alan November has some provocative thoughts and suggestions on his website. Information literacy is at the heart of the Big 6 skills website based in Rochester, New York.

If we are moving to an information economy - and more than 70 per cent of employees in developed economies are information workers - we need to develop their information-handling skills. Information is the new gold.

Look at Google; it has moved from the dream of students in 1998 to a company with net profits of $2bn (pound;1bn) last year and a market value of $120bn.

Google, like most of the popular search engines, is growing more sophisticated and has well exceeded the original brief. Is it reliable? Product marketing manager Andy Ku points out that Google engineers spend a great deal of time making sure the most relevant information comes to the top of the page. "These are the most popular sites. In a way we are using the collective wisdom of people out there to say that this is a trustworthy source. It is the general population putting a stamp of trust on certain sites."

Andy points out that there are aspects of the search engine that are not obvious. "If you come across a word that you do not understand you can type 'define and the word' into the search box and it will give you a definition."

Type "link:" in the search box along with the URL of a site you are interested in and Google will tell you all the sites that link to that site. Useful if you are unsure about the credentials of a site.

Google News, Andy believes, will be useful in any part of the curriculum that requires up-to-date information. "Google News aggregates a bunch of information. You can get topics from around the world and compare what different sources say about current events. For any one researching a topic such as global warming Google can set up a news alert and an email will be sent as soon as an item is discovered."

Noel Jenkins's Juicy Geography site shows what can be done with Google Earth. Teachers are combining and linking Google Earth with images of places and extra information and making it available to other people. The technique is called "mashups" (see contact details).

Jason Cook, also of Google, was keen to talk about Blogger, another Google tool he believes has relevance for education. "Blogger brings the power of publishing to everyone. It can be teachers talking to teachers about best practice. It can be teachers talking to students. The teacher at www.appliedscienceresearch.blogspot.com uses the blog to run his classroom. If you look at the entry on March 4, there are comments on that site from the students. It is an area students can access from home, is easy to set up and the teacher can administer and control it. A good example of a teacher caring for the students outside the school."

Google is doing things now that go far beyond the search engine. There is Gmail, Google Talk, Sketchup (3D Sketching) and they have just bought Writely, an online word processor. So we now have tools to support virtually all the ICT skills available free online.

The bright people have realised that information is the key to a modern economy. Isn't it time that education woke up to that?

Top Sites

www.big6.com Key site for information literacy. Covers important topics such as extracting and gathering information from different sources, what to do with information once it is acquired, synthesis and presentation.

Essential.

www.ltscotland.org.uk5to14specialfocusinformationskillsplus.asp James Herring's information literacy model tool.

www.novemberlearning.com

Interesting ideas on how to decode, validate and evaluate websites.

www.juicygeography.co.ukgoogleearth.htm

Amazing site helping geography teachers search the world.

www.brightplanet.comdeepcontenttutorialssearchindex.asp A heavyweight document, "Guide to Effective Searching of the Internet".

Extremely worthwhile.

Search engines

www.google.com

49 per cent of the searches across the world are done through Google.

vivisimo.com

A different way of searching, this clusters the searches under appropriate headings or categories.

www.metacrawler.com

Uses search technology to search Google, Yahoo! Search, MSN Search, Ask Jeeves, About, MIVA, LookSmart and more.

www.lexxe.com

Uses natural language technology. You can ask questions such as: "Who founded the Red Cross?"

mindset.research.yahoo.com Results sorted according to whether they are more commercial or more informational.

www.live.com

From Microsoft and still "beta" (ie under development). Worth comparing search results with those from Google.

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