Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Processing information vs. Ctrl + F, Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

The most that many of today's students do in terms of processing information is searching the Internet by key words, searching within a site by key words, and then cutting and pasting the search results. This, as I discussed earlier, is far more mindless than other types of copying. Copying things word-for-word forces you to focus in closely on actual content; Ctrl + C Ctrl + V allows you to ignore most of the details. Instead of internalizing what little you pay attention to, you quickly forget it.

Internalizing information is the first step in processing it. By internalizing something, you extract its gist and integrate it into your long-term knowledge base, thus deepening its significance and making it your own. This, in turn, enables you to extract that information later on and process it in new ways--depending on the task at hand. Perhaps you are zeroing in on just part of it in order to answer a question, or integrating part or all of it into a brand new schema as your knowledge base broadens. Perhaps you are reanalyzing it in light of new or contradictory information. All these examples of information processing are several cognitive milestones beyond Ctrl + C Ctrl + V.

But in the Age of Information, when experts tell us repeatedly that there's no need to internalize anything because we can always look it up, we are less and less able to process the glut of information before us. Here are some symptoms that appear even in graduate level classes:

1. Extracting excerpts of "Internet research" out of context, not noticing, for example, when it is something that the author is presenting only to later assail with counter-arguments.

2. Pasting excerpts of "Internet research" into an essay without integrate it into the rest of the text.

3. Failing to recast the cut and pasted "research" so that it directly answers the question at hand.

4. Failing to integrate similar or related findings into a single sentence or paragraph.

5. Relatedly, organizing essays around articles and websites rather than around ideas. That is, devoting a separate paragraph to each article or website rather than to each idea--creating a repetitive disorganization of often disjoint ideas.

6. In discussion boards, preferring to start a whole new thread rather than recasting one's cut and pasted "research" so that it responds to previous posts within the thread.

7. In conversations more generally, restating opinions and findings rather than recasting or elaborating them in light of what someone else has just pointed out.

8. Failing to accurately summarize the research, let alone coherently outline it, let alone analyze it, let alone integrate it into other related or contradictory information, let alone make revisions on those rare occasions when teachers ask you to do so.

9. Asking teachers to answer questions that could be answered by internalizing and processing the information in the assigned readings.

The teachers showcased in a recent Edweek article (entitled Teaching Students Better Online Research Skills) recognize that there's a problem:

"They [students]  will go on Google and type a word, and that is the extent of their research skills," said Ms. Shaw, who taught 5th grade for 10 years and now teaches special education at Ralph D. Butler Elementary School. "There is so much more to doing research on the Internet."
But this "more" is all about how to search among websites:
She [Ms. Shaw] is one of many teachers and librarians who are explicitly teaching online research skills, such as how to evaluate a website's credibility, how to use precise keywords, and how to better mine search engines and databases.
Teaching students to be savvy online researchers starts with knowing how to use key words. That is something 6th grader Katie Lacey has worked hard to master.
"You need precise words," said Katie, a student at Albuquerque Academy, a private school for grades 6-12 in New Mexico. "If I'm looking up the John F. Kennedy assassination, I have to use those words. If I type in just Kennedy assassination, I could get information on Robert Kennedy."
But wait: beyond using precise search terms, there's predicting search results, changing search terms, and including unfamiliar words so as to land on more "academic" websites:
Another important skill to teach students is how to predict the results they expect to see when they type in search terms, said Tasha Bergson-Michelson, a librarian who works for the Google Search Education team at the technology company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Doing that can help them know when they may need to change their terms, she said. In addition, Ms. Bergson-Michelson advises students to skim search results for words that pop up, especially unfamiliar words. People have a tendency to skip over words they don't know, she said. But those words, when added to search terms, can lead to more meaningful results. For instance, if a student wanted to find information on immigrants who send money back to their home countries, the term "remittances" comes up on search results.
"When you change the search to include the word "remittance," immediately the type of sources are qualitatively different and more suited for an academic or scholarly pursuit," Ms. Bergson-Michelson said.
Then there are the search operators:
Using search operators, words, or symbols that join key words to form a more complex query can make searching more focused. Students can put quotation marks around their search terms to get results that include the exact wording. A minus sign eliminates something from a search. For instance, if students wanted to find information about the planet Saturn, but not the car of that name, they could type "Saturn-car" to narrow their results. Using "and" between search terms can give results that focus on two subjects, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Right up there with finding the right search terms is choosing among search engines, a topic deserving of its own special section and header:
Choosing Search Engines
Finding the right search engine or database is also an important step in conducting online research, said Frances Jacobson Harris, a librarian at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill.
She encourages students to use Google Scholar, which includes academic and scholarly sources of information. Google Books allows searchers to read pages from books, and if the information is useful, a searcher can then find the book in a library collection.
No matter if many of these academic articles are way above the reading levels of many high school students: after all, Ctrl F + key word followed by Ctrl + C Ctrl + V does not require comprehension--or even much reading. Neither does "evaluating websites," which also gets a special section and header:
Evaluating Websites
Just as critical as smart searching is evaluating the information on the Web. Students can take specific steps to dissect a website, such as checking whether its URL ends in a .com, .org, .gov, or .edu.
In any case, students should approach websites with a critical eye.
"They should ask themselves while searching on sites: Who wrote this? What is the perspective of the person who wrote this?" said Rebecca Randall, the vice president of education programs for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that studies the effects of media and technology on young people.
"Or else while searching for information on African-American history, they could wind up on the site for the Ku Klux Klan."
In other words, evaluating a website means examining just about everything except for the details of its actual content:
To help students scrutinize websites, Ms. Harris uses a lesson called "Whodunit," which takes students to various sites and has them answer questions about who wrote the information, what their credentials are, and who is sponsoring the site.
Ms. Shaw provides a checklist to help students decide whether sites are credible. It includes questions such as: Are there dead links? Do images support the stated facts? Are there links and references to other websites, and resources and experts that corroborate the information?
Of course, judging a website's credibility by the rigor of its argumentation and the quality of its evidence would involve returning to pre-21st century skills--skills that some people think no longer matter in the Age of Information.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

While I'm in agreement with you that students do too much blind copying and not enough thinking about content, I think you are being a bit harsh on the website evaluation lessons. It has always been an important part of scholarship to evaluate the authority of one's sources. Internal consistency (which you seem to be arguing for) is not a sufficient test.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Internal consistency is not sufficient, but it certainly is necessary - and I'll wager that precious few students are even doing that much.

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