– by Tasha Bergson-Michelson
When we consider information quality — teaching students to find and use credible information — educators often feel they must take sides with regard to what type of search tool they prefer. Should students be required to use information in paid databases, such as Facts on File, EBSCO, ProQuest, or Gale? Or is it better to accustom them to the open web, especially via search engines such as Google, Sweet Search, or DuckDuckGo?
In actuality, this debate sets up a false dichotomy.
Certainly, there are times I would prefer one category over the other. In daily life, as well as in the type of “authentic” assignments we strive for these days, there are many information needs that simply require the open web. Furthermore, one of the most insidious pro-fee-database arguments I encounter is that using databases “guarantees” “quality” or “reliable” information, without regard for the fact that the range of sources in databases is often quite broad, and students are as likely to encounter articles from People or Good Housekeeping in some academic databases as they are to find an article from the Journal of Microbiology.
And even our “quality” research sources sometimes retract information due to mistakes, falsification, and so on. Telling our students that there is a clear-cut road to the truth is not the way to nurture a society of critical thinkers. I have even seen certain educators try to assure “quality” by requiring students as young as middle school to use databases of peer-reviewed articles, when I know that it is a struggle to read these articles, even for my upper-grade high school students. Frequently, high caliber, accessible web pages would be vastly more accessible and preferable.
On the flip side, many oft-cited educational websites aimed at elementary students, in their attempts to be accessible to early readers, fail to provide depth of information. Younger students often express frustration and feel talked down to; just because they cannot read at a high level does not mean they cannot think. Students are able to find longer, meatier articles in age-appropriate databases.
Similarly, my high school students may have trouble when they turn to Wikipedia first; it is a research source I love and encourage them to use under the right circumstances, but want them to avoid when it will create more work or confusion. One attribute of the wiki style is forgoing inline definitions of unfamiliar terms in favor of hyperlinking to the wiki page on the topic requiring definition. After several students arrived at my office in tears, with dozens of tabs open to different Wikipedia pages in an attempt to decode the first paragraph of the article on the Qizilbash, our library instituted a practice of starting Islamic empire research in our database encyclopedia collections.
Students also frequently become frustrated trying to get a summary of contemporary revolutions in a crowdsourced format. People are living these events, adding to the articles as history is made, leading to entries that are equivalent in length to 80 or 100 print pages. In an instance like this, we encourage students to start with a few succinct newspaper articles instead, whether from the open web or a paid database.
And this is the crux of the decision, not what search tool you need, but what variety of evidence or information you need, found through what variety of sources? Through my work in a range of information-seeking environments — including school libraries, corporate libraries, and as Google’s Search educator — I’ve come to believe that the choice is not so much about which kind of assignment should use a search engine and which a database. It is more about understanding what kinds of sources each holds and being able to think critically about the variety of sources one hopes students will access in the process of answering a given question. It is not about the single thing you are going to find, but the span of items and the expertise you build in moving among different search tools to get you there.
Let’s look at a specific example. Our world history students wrap up their 9th grade year by analyzing a film for its historical veracity. For example, a student who watches the World War I movie War Horse might analyze the uses and prevalence of barbed wire after seeing a horse in the film get caught on a fence, or a Schindler’s List watcher may learn more about train timetables in Nazi Germany. The classroom teacher asked me to help them get beyond “just Googling something” and “taking whatever is in the first hit as a complete answer.”
Since I do believe in Googling with intentionality (we should not “just” Google), we focused on what happens after that first “fishing” search. I had heard complaints that Downton Abbey is historically inaccurate, and — through background reading — found that one critique posed on the blogosphere was that the men of the early seasons were insufficiently whiskery. I gave students excerpts from the news articles, blog posts, and forum discussions I’d found in preliminary searches and asked them to use them as stepping stones sources: plumbing the language used by the authors for ideas about how to move their research forward. The flip reference in The Guardian to the characters failing the “military mustache test” reminded us, for example, that we could look to military sources to help explain the societal standards for facial hair at the time.
Students brainstormed two lists, inspired by the stepping stone sources and their own experience: search terms that might be helpful and types of sources that might offer appropriate evidence. Next, as a class, we created a web, matching types of sources to terms that might actually be used in those particular sources. [See Figure 1]
Scholarly articles tend to be on very esoteric topics, such as the history of facial hair in Victorian and Edwardian times. Database search terms like:
[victorian OR edwardian], [“facial hair” OR mustaches OR beards OR “clean-shaven”] yielded fantastic articles on the transition from facial hair to physique as a symbol of masculinity in the late 1800s, focusing on the rise of “muscular Christianity” and the modern Olympics, as well as surveys counting the appearance of facial hair in illustrated newspapers over a 100-year period.1 On the other hand, none of the terminology related to facial hair proved helpful when we wanted to find archival photographs of soldiers from WWI. Instead, we had success finding those when we searched the open web with terms like:
[military OR soldier], [wwi], [british] and [museum OR archives OR collection OR library]
Ultimately, the advantage of employing both open web searching and fee databases lies in how we understand the purpose of sources and evidence. Many of us grew up learning about triangulation: proving something is true based on finding it in three places. The practice of triangulation is much harder now, when copying and pasting has become so much easier and hyperlinking so effortless. I prefer that students look to triangulate by providing multiple forms of evidence that suggest something is true. Ideally, they should be asking questions that don’t have simple look-it-up-and-plug-it-in answers, anyway, but ones that require synthetic thought to reach a conclusion. In these cases, having three different sources that say the exact same things is not as desirable an outcome of the search process, anyway. So, knowing how to find a more scholarly piece of writing (be it an encyclopedia entry or a scholarly paper) and also a primary source or two that add up to the answer students are pursuing is a powerful skill, indeed.
Unfortunately, there aren’t easy answers or quick shortcuts to acquiring these skills. It takes lots of practice and lots of support from instructors skilled in these activities. But if we really care — as we should — about students learning to manage a world of half-truths and misinformation, then it is imperative that they learn how make use of a variety of sources, drawn from a variety of tools, to strive for a realistic picture of the world around them. Along with their classroom teachers, students need teacher librarians, the instructors who specialize in information literacy skills, to provide them with access to a rich collection of both open web and fee-based resources and to instruct and support them in how to navigate, evaluate, and use information in a manner that will allow them to engage fully and effectively with the world around them.
1. Robinson, Dwight E. “Fashions in shaving and trimming of the beard: The men of the illustrated london news, 1842-1972.” American Journal of Sociology(1976): 1133-1141.
Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. “The beard movement in Victorian Britain.”Victorian Studies 48.1 (2005): 7-34.
About the author:
Tasha Bergson-Michelson is the Instructional and Programming Librarian for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. Since 1995, Tasha has been exploring what makes for successful information literacy instruction in corporate, non-profit, subscription, and school libraries, and through after school programs and summer camps. Most recently, Tasha was the Search Educator at Google, where she wrote an extensive series of Search education lesson plans, the Power Searching MOOCs, and – most importantly – collaborated with other educators around the world to explore the most effective ways of teaching research skills. Tasha was recently designated a 2014 Mover & Shaker – Tech Leader by Library Journal.