A THOROUGH, MULTI-STEP APPROACH. Research is not a one-step process. It has distinct phases, each with its own requirements. The first stage is inquiry, the free exploration of a broad topic to discover an interesting avenue for further research, based on the student's curiosity. Web search, with its rich cross-linking and the simplicity of renewing a search with a single click, is ideally suited to this first open-ended stage. When students move on to a literature review, they seek the key points of authority on their topic, and pursue and identify the range of theories and perspectives on their subject. Bibliographies, blog posts, and various traditional and new sources help here. Finally, with evidence-gathering, students look for both primary- and secondary-source materials that build the evidence for new conclusions. The Web actually makes access to many --
but not all -- types of primary sources substantially easier than it's been in the past, and knowing which are available online and which must be sought in other collections is critical to students’ success. For example, a high school student studying Mohandas Gandhi may do background reading in Wikipedia and discover that Gandhi's worldview was influenced by Leo Tolstoy; use scholarly secondary sources to identify key analyses of their acquaintance; and then delve into online or print books to read their actual correspondence to draw an independent conclusion. At each step of the way, what the Web has to offer changes subtly.
TOOLS FOR UNDERSTANDING SOURCES. Some educators take on this difficult topic, but it's often framed as a simple black-and-white approach: “These types of sources are good. These types of sources are bad.” Such lessons often reject newer formats, such as blogs and wikis, and privilege older formats, such as books and newspaper articles. In truth, there are good and bad specimens of each, and each has its appropriate uses. What students need to be competent at is identifying the kind of source they're finding, decoding what types of evidence it can appropriately provide, and making an educated choice about whether it matches their task.
DEVELOPING THE SKILLS TO PREDICT, ASSESS, PROBLEM-SOLVE, AND ITERATE. It's important for students to ask themselves early on in their search, “When I type in these words, what do I expect to see in my results?” and then evaluate whether the results that appear match those expectations. Identifying problems or patterns in results is one of the most important skills educators can help students develop, along with evaluating credibility. When students understand that doing research requires more than a single search and a single result, they learn to leverage the information they find to construct tighter or deeper searches. Say a student learns that workers coming from other countries may send some of their earnings back to family members. An empowered searcher may look for information on [immigrants send money home], and notice that the term remittances appears in many results. An unskilled searcher would skip over words he doesn't recognize know, but the educated student can confirm the definition of remittance, then do another search, [remittances immigrants], which brings back more scholarly results.
TECHNICAL SKILLS FOR ADVANCED SEARCH. Knowing what tools and filters are available and how they work allows students to find what they seek, such as searching by color, domain, filetype, or date. Innovations in technology also provide opportunities to visualize data in new ways. But most fundamentally, good researchers remember that it takes a variety of sources to carry out scholarly research. They have the technical skills to access Web pages, but also books, journal articles, and people as they move through their research process.
Centuries ago, the teacher Socrates famously argued against the idea that the written word could be used to transmit knowledge. This has been disproved over the years, as authors have developed conventions for communicating through the written word and educators have effectively taught students to extract that knowledge and make it their own. To prepare our students for the future, it's time for another such transition in the way we educate. When we don’t teach students how to manage their online research effectively, we create a self-perpetuating cycle of poor-quality results. To break that cycle, educators can engage students in an ongoing conversation about how to carry out excellent research online. In the long term, students with stronger critical thinking skills will be more effective at school, and in their lives.
What do you think it is most important for students to know about online research? Please share in the comments section below.