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August 26, 2021

by Renee Morrison, The Conversation

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closings meant that more than 90% of learners worldwide had to study virtually or from home. The Internet, already an invaluable educational tool, has therefore become even more important for students. One of the most common Internet activities by students, both in schools and in homeschooling, is searching online.

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This means that teachers and the parents currently representing teachers must help students develop online search skills. So what can parents do to support their children when tasks sent home from school require an online search for information? And what can they do to expand such work for the gifted or when the work sent home runs out?

Teachers and parents can influence a child’s internet skills. In fact, their success in finding depends on the amount of guidance and explicit instructions from adults they receive.

Unfortunately, research suggests that some teachers do not offer such explicit instructions. Some also struggle to structure (and support) students’ online search tasks beyond the lower order skills. There is even evidence of a lack of search skills among teachers and parents themselves.

Making the “invisible” processes behind search more visible improves the online information search for teachers and students. That way, educators (be it temporary or professional) should design activities that put the search process itself first. This makes the students more aware of what is going on “behind the scenes” of a search and how they can influence these processes.

How could you do this? In a study in Queensland, students were asked to sort 12 picture cards. The maps were designed in such a way that initially three “categories” – animals, means of transport and countries – were obvious.

The students easily sorted the cards into these categories. But they were then challenged to discern all of the other sorting options, much like Google does every second of every day. For example, when “Kangaroo” was removed from the “Animals” deck and instead placed next to “Australia”, the students quickly merged the remaining cards in a similar manner.

This activity sparked discussion about how many different ways there could be not 12 but 200 million cards – or websites – sorted. It is a reminder of the importance of being clear about what you want Google to do to help Google sort its 200 million websites.

Educators sometimes set tasks that are too extensive for students and likely to return millions of search results. Many are likely to be irrelevant or inaccurate. Teachers can also set assignments that encourage students to use Google as a mere encyclopedia that only requires lower order passive learning.

If we want students to engage in higher-level thinking instead, more structuring of the search tasks is required.

Educators can start by making specific demands on the outcomes that students are working with. Perhaps ask them to find a website from Australia (try adding “site: .au” at the end of the queries) and one from England – this could be especially interesting when playing The Ashes. Students may be told to find some sources prior to 2000 and others from the past 12 months (select “Tools” then “Anytime” from the drop-down menu).

In order to encourage students to target websites with conflicting information and describe how they decided what to believe, they need to compare, rate and analyze.

The number of results a search engine returns can help indicate the quality of your search query and make it more efficient to find reliable information. At school, students report that they typically do not consider the number of results returned and have little experience in narrowing or increasing those results. In Australian homeschooling, too, parenting educators and students rate “narrowing / expanding the search” as one of the most difficult steps in the search.

Now that students know a little more about how Google needs to sort websites, ask them to modify their query to rearrange the top five or ten results returned. Ask them to reduce the (probably millions) results to just 10,000, 1,000, or even ten.

Students explain that if only the end product or outcome of the search “counts” or is rated, then their focus is on it and never the search process itself. This changes when the tasks are more structured and specific requirements and guidance are given will. Students then focus more on gathering quality information.

Attitudes have proven to be more important than available resources or even the teacher’s skills when it comes to enhancing students’ authentic technology-enabled learning. Many restrictive search settings need to be changed to ensure that students get the most out of Google.

We can start changing what to look for and how using the tips above. But what if your child doesn’t want to listen to you as you search? This is reported frequently.

Even the students do not always see their teachers as a good source of information when searching. And it’s true, some teachers and parents have a lot to learn about using Google.

However, my study testing the concept of the “digital generation gap” among Australian home school students found that parent-educators (the older generation) were more on the lookout than their children, the so-called “digital natives”. Perhaps students can learn more about the search from their parents.

The answer is unlikely to force your children to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Instead, it can help to change young people’s attitudes towards search and encourage them to realize that it is sometimes difficult and frustrating to do so.

When it comes to schoolwork, data from over 45,000 students in 12 countries tell us that Internet research is “by far the most widely recorded use of ICT”. Educators who focus on “learn to search” and “search to learn” who encourage critical use and question attitudes towards Google are better able to help students discover the unprecedented educational opportunities online -Search to use.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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