In days of old a teacher might have instructed the class: "Turn to page 16 and copy the labelled diagram into your exercise book." Today the instruction is more likely to be: "Go online and find a diagram to put into your PowerPoint presentation." These two directives are far from equal, however, not least because in the first case, the specific source of the information is identified, whereas the second asks pupils to trawl an unclassified virtual library in the vague hope that something appropriate will appear.
Helping pupils to find appropriate materials, without the frustration that inevitably arises when their first few attempts fail to produce anything meaningful, is crucial if an online research assignment is to run smoothly.
It would also be useful, in terms of fuelling later class discussions, if the pupils didn't all come up with exactly the same materials from the same websites.
An easy way to address the latter is to use a variety of search engines. Number the pupils (one to five, for example) then tell the ones to search using AltaVista, the twos to use Lycos, the threes to use Alltheweb, the fours to use Ask and the fives to use Excite.
You can find search engines' addresses by entering "list of search engines" (with the quote marks) in any search engine. You can then write the appropriate URLs on pieces of paper and hand them to the numbered pupils - or post your own list of search engines on the school's virtual learning environment.
Having given pupils their search engines, remind them that collating words within quote marks usually forces the search to produce hits that match the entire expression exactly, whereas leaving out the quote marks allows hits for each individual word in the phrase.
You can demonstrate this by contrasting the number of hits obtained from "picture of a labelled plant cell" with the same term entered without quote marks. This is also a good opportunity to point out spelling variations in cyberspace (such as labelled with or without the double "l").
Having found some online information it is useful to be able to assess its likely quality. The well-known example that bears repeating is the website www.martinlutherking.org that appears high in Google's results when "Martin Luther King" is entered. This purports to be "a true historical examination" but the domain ownership database www.easywhois.com reveals that the website is owned by Stormfront, which is a white supremacist organisation.
It is reasonable to hope that academic and educational websites will be authoritative, as might be government websites, although official biases may be evident.
To find such websites specifically, all that pupils need to do is define components of the expected URLs in their web searches. For example, search for: inurl:gov "battle of the Boyne". If you want to remove the various music hits that appear in the results then simply add-music after the term in quote marks.
Finally, rather than using an all-purpose search engine, you could choose a customised search engine (CSE) that has already been compiled for a particular topic. To find one focused on geography, for example, search for: "custom search engine" + geography. Alternatively, use the term inurl:cse as part of your search text. As an example, go to zaidlearn.blogspot.com and scroll down to click on OCWOER Search in the Zaid Learn category on the right hand side of the screen. The hits that are generated from this CSE identify free educational resources from all over the web.
Jon Tarrant is head of physics at Hautlieu School in Jersey and is the island-wide VLE co-ordinator for Jersey's secondary schools.