Of course, it’s unrealistic to keep children and teenagers away from search engines such as Google and Bing. Those search engines are their gateway to everything the world has to offer, from social media, to playing games, to watching videos, to buying nice clothes, gadgets or whatever they need or want. But do they need all that stuff during school hours, or when they’re doing their homework? Most likely, they don’t. That’s why, in this blog, I would like to share why I think you shouldn’t just say “Google it” to your classroom students when they require information for their school work. An official report from 2015, shows that 60% of the Dutch students at secondary school used Google to search for information for their school work . In a research report from the US, this percentage is even much higher. 94% of the teachers surveyed in this study say their students are “very likely” to use Google or other online search engines in a typical research assignment .
The dark side of Google
I don’t want to talk about the “horrors” of Youtube too much, but I also can’t leave it unattended. The internet has grown enormously in the last couple of years, and not just by human efforts alone anymore. On Youtube, a huge number of videos are created by bots, viewed by bots and even commented on by bots. James Bridle does a deep dive in the dark side of Google and Youtube and shows the reader that there is something terribly wrong on the internet . Bridle’s article makes it very clear why YouTube will have to increase content moderation staff to 10.000 people in 2018 . You need that many people to beat the bots and keep your customers, especially your young customers, safe from inappropriate content.
Reliability of content
But let’s say (or let’s hope), we can protect them (at least young children) from all the inappropriate stuff on the internet by using safety filters or software such as Google Family Link or by other parental controls. All the information that does come through those filters or white lists of ‘appropriate’ content is not trustworthy by default. The biggest problem with this is that the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not . It’s very human to just take for granted everything you see or read, especially on the internet. And this problem is even larger with children and teenagers.
When they don’t really see the importance of judging reliability of content, imagine how hard it is to try and teach them how to evaluate information online. In his article “How to Teach Children to Critically Evaluate Information Online”, W. Ian O’Byrne makes an attempt to explain how to educate children about evaluating information online . But to me it mostly shows how hard this task is for children and teenagers. Of course, they need to learn how to evaluate online information and they need to be prepared for what’s coming in High School, in College and in life. But we can’t expect them to be able to judge reliability of websites all the time when browsing on the internet.
Readability of content
When you think about it, when we did not have the internet, children just got their information from text books from which the reliability was already evaluated by educators or publishers. And furthermore, the text in the books was written for their specific reading level. But then the internet came in to classroom, and all of a sudden, it is normal to leave the evaluation of information to the students themselves. Moreover, it seems normal these days to allow students to read and comprehend content that may not have been written with their age and reading level in mind. On the internet, the vast majority of online content is written for reading levels of students at the end of Key Stages 3 and 4 . It’s like giving the book “Moby-Dick” to read to a ten year old.
How Google distracts students from their research
Another reason why “googling” is not the best solution for searching for information in the classroom is shown by a report from the Pew Research Center about “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World” . According to a survey of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers, “research” for today’s students means “Googling,” and as a result, doing research “has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.” Teachers in this research said that “new search technology does more to distract students than to help them academically.”
This distraction already starts at a very young age when children start using Google to search for information for their schoolwork. Within 5 minutes after you give an informational task to a classroom, they are all watching a YouTube video (hopefully) related to the topic of the task.
What’s the alternative?
There’s probably no better place to start your search on the internet for transactional search tasks (to buy stuff online) or navigational search tasks (to visit specific websites or web pages of named entities, such as Facebook, Minecraft, Zalando, Amazon, etc.) than on one of the large search engines such as Google, Bing or Yahoo.
But this is not the case for the informational search for student’s schoolwork or research projects. Students get distracted by all the commercial stuff and their skills to evaluate relevance or reliability of web content are not good enough yet. Or worse, they just don’t care about it. And on top of that, most of the content is far too difficult to read and understand for most students.
Therefore, teaching information literacy skills need to be prioritized in the lesson programs and curricula at primary and secondary schools. But besides that, you can’t just say “Google it” every time a student needs to search for information online. Students need to be taught to use other in-depth resources like online databases and academic journals as well. Or they should be supported by using manually curated online collections, such as The Web for Classrooms, in which only reliable, informational web sources are selected and presented at the reading level of the students.