21st Century Skills

What You Need To Know About Web Search for Education

Both students and teachers need instruction in safely finding the information they want, and new technology is there to light the way.

Microsoft's chief educational evangelist Cameron Evans said he has a vision for the future of Web search. General word queries that yield broad results would be replaced by searches using analytical technology to identify complex relationships and find content that is best suited to the individual seeking it. As Evans explained it, "What Microsoft is doing is really focusing on machine learning: fundamentally, about how you connect disparate pieces of data together to make it actionable."

Evans' vision also calls for integrating information about the user into the search itself — think of it as a student having a Web search account. This approach could yield results that are customized to the student's established educational profile and performance level. In a classroom search assignment, every student could potentially obtain somewhat different results, all of which would be targeted to their individual needs and abilities. As Evans put it, "Students, teachers and parents should be able to find resources based on how students are performing."

That type of search is still in the future, though. In the present, educators are tackling two big issues: 1) Search results may not be appropriate to the reading or comprehension level of individual students; and 2) according to administrators, many teachers need lessons in how to search effectively.

You can see more great feature articles in the latest issue of our monthly digital edition.

Broadening Teachers' Searches
Jennifer Judkins, an instructional technologist at Lynnfield High School (MA) said she believes that one of the most important skills she works on with faculty is effective Web search. "Web search is an integral piece of almost any project we are doing, particularly when doing writing related to some sort of research," Judkins said. "A lot of people assume they know how to Web search because they can go to Google and type in some words. But the efficiency is not necessarily there."

Despite the enormous volume of content available, typical Internet users don't go past the first page or two of search results for any topic. Evans commented, "When we talk to educators they are not fully conversant on how important information retrieval technologies are to their overall strategy. When you look at the amount of content that is being created — with documents and presentations, graphics, as well as video from flipped classrooms and even tutorials that teachers are creating for students — there is so much more to find." This is where Evans hopes that the next generation of search tools will help educators better sort through data and find new content relationships from non-traditional mediums, such as social media and blogging.

San Diego Unified School District teacher Julia Garcia provides two important perspectives on Web search. Garcia does double duty as a classroom math teacher and digital leader at her school (meaning she provides curriculum tech support.) Her school of 450 students is a 1-to-1 environment, and, she said, "Our staff, as well as our students, are very tech savvy."

Garcia explained, "As an educator, I search for sample video lessons on teaching a concept, for real-world applications of mathematics problems and for teaching strategies. I create my own videos for a flipped classroom, so I often look for samples of other teaching strategies to support the strategies I might use in my classroom. When students search, I have them look for vocabulary, math applications to real-world situations and sometimes on different ways to solve a certain topic."

Narrowing Students' Searches
Jennifer Roberts, an English teacher at San Diego Unified, asserted that the most important element in Web search is the user's approach, which is something that students can't learn all at once. "When you teach students to search, it's not a one-day lesson; it's not a two-day lesson; it's a year-long process of refining kids' search abilities," Roberts said. She starts teaching to "use particular appropriate keywords. I teach my students to select their keywords carefully, to search for the words they want to find on the page they are looking for." 

Once students have a handle on how to find what they want, they have to learn how to vet search results: Are they accurate? Are they authoritative? Are they credible? Are they objective? And how can you determine any of the above? "I find that I need to teach my students how to assess value and credibility," Roberts explained.

Lynnfield's Judkins agreed. "There are a couple of things to tackle when we're trying to teach kids how to search effectively: not only to choose the right words to get the results that are the most relevant to the topic, but also to help kids be able to evaluate Web sites for accuracy. That can be very difficult," she said.

Tailoring Search for Education
As teachers and students improve their search skills, tech companies are refining their products for education. Judkins pointed out that Google enables students to search by reading level, although their choices are limited to "basic, intermediate and advanced." she said. She also mentioned that search tools such as Sweet Search enable some degree of customization, but noted that "you don't get many results, because it is a filtered search."

In 2013, Microsoft launched Bing in the Classroom, which offers ad-free search as well as digital literacy lessons. K-12 users who sign in to Google can also search in ad-free environment and, according to global communications spokesperson Shannon Newberry, "Materials on the Search Education Web site can help students of all levels become skilled searchers." Resources there include live training sessions and demos. For those who want further instruction, Newberry said, "We also have Googlers who travel and meet with schools and educators to provide training and support around search."

Google also provides SafeSearch to schools, which allows network administrators to prevent adult content from appearing in search results. Newberry commented, "No filter is 100 percent accurate, but SafeSearch should help you avoid most adult images and sites." Educators who want to "learn more about how we keep students safe and their information safe when they use our products" can check out Tools You Can Trust.

That issue of trust is the greatest challenge to next-generation search tools and the people who will use them. Finding sources online is one thing, but trusting them is another. It remains to be seen how well future analytics technologies will do at separating the wheat from the chaff. As Evans put it, "Teaching students and educators critical skills on how to analyze content is very important because anybody can put anything on the Internet, but that doesn't mean that it's valid or that it's true."

Extra Credit
Web Filtering: How Much Is Too Much?

As the Internet has become indispensable in education, every school has to answer the question: How do you balance the mission to provide students access to a range of information with the need to filter out inappropriate content? THE Journal asked Joe Piazza, network administrator for the Lynnfield Public Schools (MA), for his thoughts on how much filtering is appropriate and how teachers in this three-school district view the practice.

THE Journal: What sort of policies does Lynnfield have in place for filtering Web sites and Web search results?

Joe Piazza: The school's policy for filtering content on the Internet is based upon the education guidelines and CIPA compliance, as well as policies established by the principals of each building. Anything that is deemed harmful, pornographic, illegal, violent, profanity ... content along those category lines is blocked. If a Web site is requested by a teacher to be unblocked, the IT department will analyze the site and if it is questionable, it will be forwarded to the building principal for further review and it will either be allowed through or remained blocked based on the findings.

THE Journal: Are teachers able to get around blocks to access resources when appropriate?

Piazza: Teachers are able to circumvent the blocks for resources if they make a request to unblock the site or sites by the IT department. If a teacher has a cell phone that is not attached to our wireless network, then they could use that device to pull up the information. That we have no control over, because they are not using our network services. We have had instances of uses of anonymizers and sites of that type that are developed to purposely circumvent any network security put in place by the workplace. The category of site is tagged to be blocked, but there are new resources emerging weekly and daily to circumvent network security measures put in place."

THE Journal: What sort of feedback do you receive from educators about filtering?

Piazza: Some teachers feel the filtering is excellent and some feel the filtering is too stringent or too open. It spans the spectrum of opinion. It really is all about what the person feels is right and just. Some feel that it is a duty to show the students the dangers on the Web and teach them how to deal with them; and there are others that feel they [students] need to be sheltered from them. It's a really fine line because people can go almost anywhere; Starbucks, libraries, even their own home and most places with free wireless and get unfiltered Internet content with a very simple search or even a legitimate search for research.

THE Journal: Do you believe educators are satisfied with the Web search tools they have?

Piazza: I do feel the educators are satisfied with the Web search tools at their disposal. There are plenty of educator-friendly sites that are emerging at a high rate. Doing Web searches now is not much different than doing research the old-fashioned way of card catalogs and microfiche and periodicals. The person still needs to further filter their findings once the information requested is presented to them. You need to look at the source of the material and the content within, and use your best judgment on its validity and relevance of the topic of search.

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