Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Internet Searching 101



What do you do if you need information? Google it.

Topic 3 of ETL501 is titled 'Effective Search Strategies', and is all about how teacher librarians can:

  1. Become experts at using information retrieval tools and techniques to find information for teachers and students.
  2. Help teachers and students to improve their own internet search strategies.

When my children have a school project and use the internet to search for information, watching them makes me want to scream. In fact, I'd rather not be in the house at all when they're searching the internet for information.

Why?

They have only one option for searching for information - Google.

They have only one preferred site - Wikipedia.

They have unreasonable expectations i.e. that they can type a question into google and that it will spit out the answer, that their search will take a maximum of 5 minutes, and that the information they get will be easy to understand, interesting, and correct.

AAAAAAAAARRRGH!!!

You would think, having a wonderful mother like me, so knowledgable and helpful (!), they would enjoy searching for information on the internet. NOOOOO...

Anything I suggest is boring, too difficult, too time-consuming, or just plain WRONG.

The cries of "I don't get it!", "Why is it giving me this - it has nothing to do with what I'm looking for!", "There's nothing on it!" and "I can't find anything!" are enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

Interestingly enough, they seem to have no trouble finding what they want to look at on You Tube! Of course, I could explain to them that it's because they're actually using the right tool for the job, in the right way, and that they don't mind getting sidetracked by other, unrelated information, but why bother...they wouldn't listen to me anyway!

Enough raving...back to the topic at hand - effective search strategies.

I cannot tell you how fabulous I think Noodletools is! It has, among other things, a feature called 'Choose the best search'. It has links to many different search engines and directories, listed under headings like I need facts, I need opinions and perspectives, and I need help to define my topic.

As an exercise, I used Clusty to search using the terms volcanoes schools teaching. I had never seen or heard of Clusty before, but Noodletools suggests it as good for brainstorming topic ideas, narrowing a topic or uncovering buried sites. Results are displayed in clusters.

The idea of the exercise was to find sites suitable for a secondary school geography teacher to use (it did not say whether the teacher was using the sites for his/her own subject information, ideas for teaching strategies/lesson plans, or to suggest to students for their own research/learning activities).

The results list top ten found http://www.teach-nology.com/themes/science/volcano which would provide the teacher with some options to look at.

When I clicked on the 'science' cluster I also got http://www.erth.waikato.ac.nz/schools which is designed to provide assistance with the teaching of Earth Sciences.

When I clicked on the 'lesson, plan' cluster I also got http://geology.com/teacher which has a wide range of teacher resources.

This exercise highlighted for me a very important point. If a third party is looking for websites (for example, the teacher librarian looking for websites for the geography teacher), then the instructions on what is being looked for better be very clear and specific. The purpose of the information is especially critical, otherwise the teacher librarian may think they have come up with some wonderful websites, only to find out that they don't do what the teacher wants them to do. This is a similar problem to one I have when I'm helping my children. Inevitably when I get them to some websites that I think will be wonderful, they reply, "No, Mum, that's not what I want.". Do your own searching is a pretty good rule of thumb!

Apart from Noodletools, there are some other web-based helps for successful internet searching. AskScott bills itself as a 'virtual reference librarian', provides a service similar to Noodletools, and has an internet search tutorial.

The Seven Habits is a fount of knowledge! Links galore to articles galore about all aspects of internet searching. The most useful bits (in my opinion!):

  • Use quotation marks around phrases to tell the search engine to only bring back pages that include the search terms exactly how you typed them in order.
  • Get out of the habit of using one search engine for everything. Like Noodletools, this encourages asking yourself questions such as "Do I have a general search question that can be aked with a few key words?", "Do I need an answer quickly and don't want to search for it?" (My children - should use - Answers.com, BrainBoost, Factbites or Ask Jeeves.), "Do I need help narrowing or broadening my search?", "Do I need academic or research oriented results?", "Am I looking for multimedia?" etc.
  • Get some tricks up your sleeve, like using inurl: , boolean logic, and site: .
  • Learn a bit about how things work so that you are using the right tool for the job.

As another exercise, I used Surfwax to search using the terms 'drought in NSW' causes effects. I had never used this metasearch engine before. The initial search gave me 388000 pages found, but I discovered an excellent feature that I could use to narrow my search focus. It provides 'sitesnap' which gives a snapshot of the site, followed by a list of 'focus words' used on the site. By adding the focus words 'drought problems' to the search I cut it down to 43 pages found, and adding 'causes big dry' I got just 10 good results. With more experience and practice, I think I could get good results from this tool.

The intention of the exercise was again to find sites suitable for a secondary school teacher. So I decided to try Librarian's Internet Index which is billed as 'websites you can trust'. My initial search using 'drought in NSW' causes effects got no results. Using just 'drought in NSW' was not successful either. Using just drought got 46 pages. On the positive side, there was an excellent description of the content of each page given. On the negative side, nothing found was suitable.

I also had a go at a Yahoo video search, thinking that the teacher might appreciate a documentary to show the class. Unfortunately, I was not successful at finding anything useful.

I'm sure that with practice and experience, I will be able to pull this all together to become a fabulously effective internet searcher. But will my children...???

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