The ability to search the internet is one of the most useful 21st- century literacy skills. So why do so many people teach it badly? And why do thousands of children spend hours finding nothing?
We need to teach them to search properly. At Musselburgh Grammar School we decided to take a different approach with our 16 to 18-year-olds and more than 300 of them piled into the hall. With these numbers, it was more of a lecture than a personalised lesson, but I was hoping that the content would keep a mass of adolescents (who thought they knew more about computers than me) engaged for 45 minutes.
First, I covered some internet facts. I explained that school is harder now than it was 200 years ago, because we have more information and knowledge. In order to survive in a 21st-century world, we have to use this knowledge or know where to find the information if we need it.
I held up a copy of The Times newspaper and told pupils that experts believe "a week's worth of The Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime during the 18th century".
Take the English language - there are now about 540,000 words in the English language - about five times as many as in Shakespeare's time. I asked volunteers to write a word that exists now that did not exist 100 years ago. Examples included Google, Wikipedia and microwave.
One reason we have so much more information, I suggested, is because of the internet - and the reason it is growing so quickly is the ability to create user-generated content so easily.
I asked for a show of hands of people who had a bebo or MySpace page - this illustrated that most of the class had contributed to the growth of the world's most popular source of information.
So how can pupils make the most of the information available? They need to be able to search through it properly. So we talked about the following search engines:
- Google Advanced Search (google.comadvanced_search) - I showed the group how to use the advanced search to narrow down search results by selecting "exact words", "one or more words" and "unwanted words".
- Quintura (quintura.com) - A visual search tool, ideal for generating ideas and narrowing down topics for project work.
- Google News Search (news.google.com) - It only searches the news and lists events in chronological order.
- Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) - This searches academic and university journals. Great for higher-level reading from credible sources needed for projects.
We finished with a discussion on how reliable the internet is as a reference source and I talked about ways you can verify information on web pages.
I gathered feedback using the school's Promethean Active Expression voting system from a sample of the audience. I was pleased to find out that 100 per cent of the sample had learnt something new.
Ollie Bray is depute head at Musselburgh Grammar School in East Lothian, Scotland.