Searching for Students

By Michael Haran


With the implementation of blended-learning in the classroom more and more students are using the internet to search for their course-related research as well as their everyday life research. Since children are now being exposed to digital education application as early as three-years old, many of which are downloaded from the web, a need now exists to teach children not only web etiquette and citizenship but also how to securely search and evaluate what’s found. For example, not long ago I was standing in line the supermarket and two kids around five-years old were pushing keys on their father’s smartphone looking for the “Angry Birds” app when the dad turned to them and said “Don’t click on the Angry Birds icon that wants money – only the one that’s free.”

As the web has grown over the past twenty years more and more people are contributing to its content.  This is, after all, what the Internet promises itself to be: the common medium, open to all, with no barriers to the free flow of ideas and information around the world (Burbules and Callister, (2000) p 71). In their book “Watch It: The Risks and Promises of Information Technologies for Education,” (2000) Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr state that “This makes the need to evaluate the value and credibility of what one encounters on the Internet a crucial skill if one is to be an active beneficiary of the available information and interaction.”

Since students will be using the web to find information long after their formal education has ended it is important that children are taught not only what’s available on the web but also its value. Schools may try and block what a student can access on the web but if s/he wants to find something they will find a way either in school or out. A good example of this was in the fall of 2013 when more than 300 students, who had received iPads at three of the first Los Angeles Unified School District schools to receive them, quickly cracked their security settings and began surfing the Web.

One of the first things the student must be taught is to know when a situation calls for critical analysis and why critical exploration is such an important educational goal. The student searching the web must be able to make continually rapid assessments of credibility. Each new participant to an online discussion, each new Web page, each new e-mail message, gives rise to another potential in which something false, dangerous, offensive, or worthless may come across one’s screen (Burbules and Callister, p. 72).

A pervasive skepticism toward everything found on the Internet is not a bad starting point.

Some of the skills of critical reading require heuristics or “rules of thumb” which can be used unconsciously and inform quickly what sort of material is being dealt encountered. Because these rules of thumb are imperfect they may let in too much or exclude too much. Too little information can never be good but one can never have too much information as it can lead to the serendipity so critical to innovation. However, dealing with large volumes of information requires the necessity of making initial judgments quickly, even if imperfectly.

Judging credibility is not unique to the Internet. Every time one reads a newspaper, asks a teacher a question, or looks up information in an encyclopedia, assumptions are being made about the value and reliability of the information one expects to find there. In many cases this judgment is based on indirect inferences about the source’s reputation, reliability, and trustworthiness. Sometimes it is based on a track record of previous experiences with that information source, which has proven dependable in the past (Burbules and Callister, p. 72).

If a source of information is based on recommendations by other known persons credibility judgment is pushed back a level since that information is deemed reliable. There is a good deal of information that is contained within an e-mail message, a comment to a news group, a Web page, and so on that can tell the reader something about its origins. The address or URL sometimes gives a person’s name and institutional affiliation.

The “.com” or “.edu” can tell something about the source, which might be a qualification or a disqualification because the same feature can many times often be viewed either way. At a recent Google Education Summit class (Critical Thinking and the Web-Searching in a Google Infused World – Holly Clark – participants were encouraged to read the URL; examine the content; ask about the author; and look at the links. Other indicators of credibility include email digital signatures and informative home pages.

Normally, in the online environment, we only encounter what a person wants us to know about him or her so there are many opportunities to adopt a partly or entirely fictional online identity. Sometimes this is playful but it can also be malicious (as with online predators). Although there are online resources for learning more about people, but we usually don’t have the time to do an identity check on every persona encountered online. Without reference to information outside the context of a Web site, a reliable judgment about its value is impossible.

Because of the internet’s hypertexted networked structure, other relational criteria of credibility are sometimes needed. For example, in ordinary texts, references and footnotes are often measures of credibility as they show that the author has read other relevant work and is attempting to authenticate by associating it with other established sources.

Almost every page on the Web links to, and is linked from, one or more other pages. How a reader comes across a page is often a significant factor in how it is apprehended: If it is linked from a page that the reader already believes is reliable, there is a “transfer” of credibility from the first to the second. From the standpoint of credibility, this network of links tends to “support” the credibility of the sources linked to, and of the sources linked from (Burbules and Callister, p. 74).

Although hardly a perfect indicator, the number of “hits” or visits a website has received over a particular period of time could show a measure of credibility through the site’s popular appeal and acceptance.  The Internet can also be especially helpful in increasing credibility by cross-checking information through multiple sources and not just relying on any one.

But critically responding to the Internet (or other sources as well) requires more than just judging credibility in these ways. It means asking other sorts of questions than simply “Is this true? Is this useful to me?” important as those questions are. In part these larger questions involve judging non-epistemic factors about the information available: asking social and political questions asking questions that go beyond the available information, and asking questions about one’s own criteria of judgment, and what they are and are not adequate for (Burbules and Callister, p. 76).

In the TEDx talk (The Revolution in Asking and Answering Questions: Daniel Russell at TEDx Palo Alto High School Google’s Daniel Russell argues that we have moved from an age where asking questions was hard because of past technology. We are now in a time where we can ask interesting deep questions by knowing; a. knowing what content is out there; b. knowing what tools exist to help answer these questions; and c. knowing how to combine these to ask the best and right questions. He continues that we want to go from a place of wonder to a place of deep understanding.

Technology is now woven into the way we can ask questions and think about the questions we can ask. Russell go into a description of the “Control F” key (also “Command F” and “Edit/Find” keys). He lamented that 90% of English internet users do not know about this feature and 51% of teachers also do not. He goes on to explain that the key is used to find certain text in documents. The use of this feature changes the type of question that can be asked. If you know the “control F trick” it can change the way you think.

Russell then talks about “hoax” websites like the “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” hoax site and how a high school student fell for the hoax and included the “octopus” in a school paper. It seems she didn’t know that the “:P” sign is a universal symbol for sarcasm. The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website is among a number of sites commonly used in Internet literacy classes in schools, although it was not created for that purpose. He concludes his talk by stating that you need to know a question’s associated tools, genre, media and content; and that the future of asking questions is knowing what’s possible because it changes the way you think and expands the way you think about the world – It opens entire new cultures to understanding.

But apart from identifying the sources of information, one also needs to question the emphases and omissions of content, how it is organized and represented, and so forth, which may serve particular interests over others. This involves going beyond assessing the truth of information, because something may be true but still be harmful or partisan in its presentation or effects. Sometimes these effects might be very subtle; but they are almost never neutral, and with certain kinds of content they are absolutely unavoidable. This will often not be so simple as detecting “bad” effects; more typically, there are multiple effects of information, some potentially beneficial, some potentially harmful but in ways that are very difficult to separate or trace through to precise outcomes, especially in advance (Burbules and Callister, p. 77).

The meaningfulness of information can sometimes be seen in greater complexity by questioning the context of information because a broader overview can, in some cases, reveal the hidden agendas expressed by the apparently neutral. This line of questioning should include asking the question, “What or what isn’t here?” This line of critical reading would require filling the gaps between what one knows and what one recognizes that they don’t know.

This is one of the most important and yet most difficult dimensions of critical use; since, for all its encyclopedic content, the most striking thing about the Internet is still its silences. In a way this also requires asking questions about the Internet itself, since one of its prime features is an illusion of comprehensiveness; there is so much to it that it is difficult to imagine anything important being left out with its millions of references. As more people become dependent on the Internet for information, it becomes all the more necessary to remember that other sources of information need to be preserved and respected as well (Burbules and Callister, p. 77).

How to integrate the comprised media sources that it comprises is another aspect of going beyond what can be found on the Internet. Since a great deal of content is produced in forms such as graphics, sound, video it cannot be judged by just accuracy. Understanding the meaning of what is represented in these information forms requires additional interpretation and judgment skills. Interpreting internet produced images, music, video, and so forth, is not the same as reading text. In addition, the unique way in which the internet integrates text and alternate images forms, like graphic novels and music, becomes an expression in itself.

To see the Internet or other information and communication technologies as an entirely self-correcting or self-policing system would be a mistake because critical judgment does not operate separately from substantive content knowledge. The background literature and standards of evidence required by particular disciplines vary as do interdisciplinary standards. They all still originate within the particular discipline’s methods of inquiry, testing, and arguments and are defined by its content in unique ways.

This means that the more critical use of information and communication technologies will still require diverse content knowledge. Some of this might be gleaned from the Internet but in most fields the majority of relevant content can only be acquired by reading and learning from other sources. Some students will be more critical in certain contexts than in others which is not because they lack generic “critical thinking skills,” but because they have a greater background knowledge applying those skills within certain disciplines.

Because of its capabilities to be a medium of sharing, testing, and interpreting new information, the internet also has the capability to interfere with such judgments and for some users, the experience of interacting online tends to reduce the time or interest in applying a careful filter to everything encountered there. A great deal simply goes by unquestioned thus diming the prospects of serendipitous innovation.

Critical users are concerned with selecting, evaluating, and questioning information as it relates  to their purposes (users of information) whereas a hyper-reader is more willing to see the context-dependency, and not the absolutism, of those criteria; and is more willing and able to act in a creative manner to restructure and reinterpret information and communication environments, and not simply to accept or reject them.

Hyperreading begins with what makes hypertext: the link. Hyperreading is the process of reading across links as well as within the context of a narrative.

Usually people see the points of a narrative as primary and the links as connectives. However, the links themselves also associate relationships that change, redefine, and provide enhanced or restricted access to the information they comprise. The hidden rhetoric of links includes the expression of meanings, the betrayal of biases, and with suggested inferences sometimes reader manipulation. The link is the structural elemental that represents a hypertext as a web of meaningful relationships.

A Web link, almost by definition, has the potential to become related by repetition such as a list of “Human Rights Violations” may include links to pages dealing with corporal punishment in schools, or vice versa. There is an implication with each archive or search engine of a certain degree of comprehensiveness beyond its actual scope.

For all its wealth and complexity, the Web comprises only a fraction of culture, society, and politics, worldwide and its omissions are often quite glaring, but nothing in its self-descriptions suggest that what is not included may be more important than what is. Many Web links use a particular word or phrase as a pivot point from one context to a very different one. Keyword search engines are based almost entirely on this principle.

Hyperreading is important to reading Internet materials and there are several dimensions involved with how hyperreading might be taught. One aspect of developing this capacity is to learn about the mechanics of online design such as what goes into selecting material, making links, and organizing a cluster of separate pages into a hyperlinked Web site.

The more that one is aware of how this is done grants the hyperreader the opportunity to question, criticize, and imagine alternatives. Links are made and specific individuals and groups having their own assumptions, prejudices, agendas, and limitations make them and that no matter how flexible a hyperlinked structure might be it is still a structure with particular organizational and connective features.

The Web and other hyperlinked media will not be equally hospitable to all cultural groups and individuals as a medium always advantages certain voices and perspectives and disadvantages others. It is a special skill of hyperreading to be able to recognize the Web’s limits and to imagine what is not or may not be there, and to read the absence as well as the presence of information.

Because of the apparent inclusiveness of the Internet and because of the apparent neutrality of the associations it establishes such awareness needs to become a particular virtue of hyperreading. When a reader has such capabilities, and has considerable exposure to and experience with sources of information and knowledge besides the Internet, the Internet can provide an enormous opportunity for discovery and synthesis. Given the lack of such capabilities and experiences, it can be a frightening medium of manipulation and distortion-all the more effective for its flashy, user-friendly facade. (Burbules and Callister, p. 92).

One of the challenges faced in teaching students the skill of finding out what is not on the Internet so that the silences do not become institutionalized as the boundaries of possible knowledge while at the same time working to keep readers from accessing certain material that is judged “inappropriate.” Since the material will always be there to be found, trying to keep them from it might simply make the temptation all the greater so maybe there could be a better way of helping young people identify, judge, and criticize “inappropriate” material than by trying to keep them from ever seeing it.

While it is not that different from other attempts to foster a skeptical and discerning literacy toward a multitude of texts, critically reading the Internet raises some particular challenges, especially for young people.

The hypertexted seductiveness, complexity, volume, and speed of the internet are unprecedented and it will continue to play a growing role in people’s educational, social, cultural, working, and political lives. The challenge is teaching students in telling the difference between the hazards of flawed information and the much that is important, useful, interesting, and entertaining.

Hence, these issues of critical use and of hyper-reading are important because they illuminate, in a special way for our times, the basic processes of selecting, organizing, filtering, interpreting, evaluating, critiquing, and synthesizing information that underwrite our constructions of knowledge and understanding. This has always been, in some ways, the central educational project (Burbules and Callister, p. 93).

Developing more critical users of the internet is a very important educational aim in itself and a look at a study of college student’s research tendencies give some insight into how that educational aim is transposing.

In a 2009 study conducted by the University of Washington, 2,318 college students responded to questions about their research strategy for finding information, whether they were conducting course-related or everyday life research. They sought to understand how college students find information and conduct research—their needs, strategies, and workloads.

Some of the more significant study findings included:

  1. Almost all students used course readings and Google first for course-related research and Google and Wikipedia for everyday life research.
  2. Most students used library resources, especially scholarly databases for course-related research and far fewer, in comparison, used library services that required interacting with librarians.

The findings suggest that students conceptualize research, especially tasks associated with seeking information, as a competency learned by rote, rather than as an opportunity to learn, develop, or expand upon an information-gathering strategy which leverages the wide range of resources available to them in the digital age.

Welcome to college in the digital age. Students are entering the world of higher education at a time when the entire digital information universe is expanding at an unprecedented rate — six-fold each year. This dramatic proliferation of available information coincides with young adults being asked to receive, access, evaluate and deliver more information than most have ever had to process in their lives.

The study’s findings suggest that many of today’s college students don’t take advantage of all the different digital resources that are available to them. Whether they were conducting research for a college course or for personal reasons, nearly all of the students repeatedly used a small set of familiar, easy to use, information-seeking sources.

Regardless of their information goals and despite the availability of other online and in-person information resources such as librarians, students rarely varied the frequency or order of use. In addition, many students focused on researched information that was brief, had general acceptance and was contemporary and procrastination was more due to workloads rather than a fear of failure.

Almost every student used course readings first for course-related research assignments and, for the most part, did not consult librarians. Most used libraries for online scholarly research databases such as EBSCO; JSTOR; or ProQuest, for conducting course-related research and valued the resources for credible content, in-depth information, and the ability to meet instructors’ expectations.

Although as freshman, students were instructed on how to use online scholarly research databases by librarians most relied on their instructors as advisors for the research process from figuring out a research strategy to finding acceptable resources to writing up their findings, primarily to make sure they were meeting course requirements. Librarians appear to play an important role in the beginning of a student’s stay on campus but lessen with each passing year.

Most of the students use library databases for three reasons: (1) quality of content; (2) ability to meet instructor’s expectations for using “scholarly research resources;” and (3) perceived simplicity of search interfaces. The perceived reliability of content found on scholarly research databases was the most significant driver for student use. A majority of students use databases because they were a source of credible information—more so than what students might find elsewhere on the Internet. In addition, students use databases for the in-depth, detailed information, often found in journal articles, they could find with a keystroke.

Many students use research databases to meet instructor’s expectations for research assignments, to get a good grade, and because of success with prior use; and a majority of students also used databases because of their usable interfaces that made finding content “quick and easy” in particular, sites with a “one-search” search box. Students also like the 24/7 online, last-minute availability of scholarly research databases and because databases saved them a visit to the library.

Using public sites on the Internet, such as Google search, early on, may be one reason why students reportedly find research frustrating. Student frustrations and challenges that were found involved narrowing down topics, finding relevant resources, sorting through too many results from online searches, and evaluating the credibility of what students choose to use. Still, almost all students used public Internet sites early on, despite their known limitations.

Because many students’ information-seeking competencies end up being highly contextual, developed for passing courses and not for lifelong the pedagogical goals of deep learning and critical thinking are at risk of being greatly impeded. Accordingly, student workloads should be examined in light of an institution’s educational goals.

Because of an information strategy that is learned by rote, many students research methods appear to be far from experimental, new, developmental, or innovative. Course-related research assignments should not indirectly encourage students to half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g., assignments that state requirements such as, “must use five sources cited in your paper”).

Not only should administrators, faculty, and librarians examine whether research-based assignments result in opening students minds to expand their information-gathering competencies but they should also require that students be given course-related research assignments that encourage the collection, analysis, and synthesis of multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources, so the transfer of information literacy and critical thinking competencies may be more actively called up, practiced, and learned.

In order to rectify the librarian-student disconnect librarians should take an active role and initiate the dialogue with faculty to close a divide between them and faculty and between them and students by initiating such activities librarian-faculty roundtables, faculty visits, faculty liaison programs, and customized curriculum identifiers. No matter what the means of communication may be, however, librarians need to actively identify opportunities for training faculty as conduits for reaching students with sound and current information-seeking strategies.

In regards to the distinction between library services and library resources, many students have a very narrow view of the wealth of services libraries have to offer. Students are frequent users of library resources, especially OPACs and scholarly research databases but, for the most part, librarians are left out of the student research workflow, despite librarian’s vast training and expertise in finding information.

Questions should be addressed about how and why library services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians should look at the percentage of their campus that is using the library and for what particular resources or services and question whether they are developing a set of “niche services,” which only reach a small percentage of students.

The practice of “research by rote” does little to leverage the resources, services, and training most college campuses make widely available to students in the digital age. When it comes to finding information and conducting research, today’s students clearly favor shortcuts like consensus queues, in relative information sources. What has changed is that students must now find their information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are less of a given.

Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking. They now look at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness. They have developed sophisticated information problem-solving strategies that help them to meet their school and everyday needs.

The “New Digital Divide“ is defined by “Those who know how to “think” about search vs. those who don’t; Those who know how to validate information vs. those who don’t; Those who know where to find information in new “hot” channels vs. those who don’t; and Those who know how to get information to travel to them vs. those who will chase it” (Clark, 2014)


Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., (2000) Watch It: The Risks and Promises of Information

Technologies for Education; Chapter Four Critically Reading the Internet; Westview Press: Member of the Perseus Books Group, p. 71-94.

Holly Clark, (2014) Critical Thinking and the Web-Searching in a Google Infused World –

Alison J. Head, Ph.D., Michael B. Eisenberg, Ph.D.: How Students Seek Information in the Digital Age (2009) Project

Information Literacy Progress Report, The Information School, University Of Washington (Research Sponsored by a gift from Proquest)

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