How to Teach Internet Research Skills

Here’s what librarians need to know to work with—not against—the online information-seeking behavior of youth and achieve the best results.
With mobile connectivity so pervasive, it’s not surprising that app-based interfaces and searching strategies are dominating research methods, especially for always-connected youth. “They are most likely to begin searching on the most accessible device using a search engine like Google,” says Crystle Martin, postdoctoral research fellow at the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California, Irvine. “Mobile connectivity and mobile platforms have made search more ubiquitous. The more access to mobile technology youth have, the greater their likelihood to search for information at the time of need.” Amy Atkinson, librarian at University Laboratory High School Library at the University of Illinois, says  “I consistently observe students begin—and think they’ve ended—with Google. When I ask them where to begin searching, their answer is, inevitably, Google, with Wikipedia coming in at a close second.” In her ethnographic work examining the information seeking habits of teens, Rachel Randall documented the use of “Wikipedia” as a verb among the young people she observed in New Zealand, emphasizing its near-constant consultation.

The Passive Information Consumer

Young people are encountering an unprecedented amount of media content via social networks and app-based sharing. Many students haven’t developed mechanisms for managing the rapid flows of information through independent curation, and it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of endless scrolls. Students might see something but not remember where or when, which leads to reference queries regarding information encountered passively. Most school librarians have spent time looking for more scholarly versions of information students first encountered on Tumblr and Instagram. Added to the mix are limitations inherent in mobile-only access that punctuates digital equity issues. Danah Boyd writes, “A teen who uses a library computer with filtered access for an hour a day has a very different experience with the Internet than one who has a smartphone, laptop, and unrestricted connectivity.” Students who have only shared access to networks may find it a challenge to develop the fluency required to become successful searchers. “My research proved to me that while reading, seeing films, and listening to music may certainly be social activities for young adults, their information-searching process is still done solitarily.” It is helpful to draw a distinction between young people’s personal information needs and those associated with an assigned academic task, what Melissa Gross identified as “the imposed query.” “A difference in search strategies has been seen in imposed versus naturalistic queries, with imposed searching not being as effective because of the lack of motivation and interest in the initial query,” says Martin. That distinction between self-generated needs and assignment-specific queries recurs when talking about how young people search.

Today’s Information Environment

Many school librarians are grappling with teaching online research skills in a 1:1 environment with dedicated student devices. That can be a challenge when search results are so tailored and targeted by marketing forces that, as Eli Pariser so compellingly demonstrated, two searchers with the same generalized query can retrieve very different results. “If you know the filter bubble exists then you recognize the limitations and can create searches to work around the bubble,” says Martin. The rise of persistent targeted advertising is often something many young people clue in to intuitively, and librarians can model using sites, such as DuckDuckGo or incognito windows, as a minimally anonymizing tactic, with more involved tactics to cloud data collection as an advanced option. For social issues and current event topics, many searchers on the open web will be steered towards infotainment sites such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, and it can be a challenge to redirect students back to subscription databases. I have also seen an increased confusion over web address navigation and search execution on desktops. An increasing number of students use Google as a mediator to navigate to sites rather than typing a site's name into the address bar, a habit many carry over from searching via a mobile device to access websites or apps. Amy Atkinson describes how librarians can serve as searching coaches: “As for those teachable moments, staying vigilant and being an active presence in your library and the wider school is key. Circling around the library space as kids work, not hesitating to jump in and ask what they’re working on—have they found the information they hoped to discover, do they have two seconds for you to show them a different way—those are all important opportunities to bolster students’ searching skills.” Atkinson’s just-in-time interventions reveal that her students’ academic research is “task-oriented, at least while at school, getting from point A to B with a quick search for what they need before turning to whatever is next on the list.”

Going beyond the bare minimum

The much-publicized 2012 Pew Report on Student Research used a combination of survey respondents and focus groups to generalize about student research: “What was once a slow process that ideally included intellectual curiosity and discovery is becoming a faster-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment. Teachers noted that this trend is driven not only by the immediacy and ease of the online search process, but also the time constraints today’s students face in their lives more generally.” (Purcell, 2012). New from Pew: How Teens do Research in the Digital World More than 90 percent of teachers surveyed by Pew reported assigning term papers or multimedia projects involving accessing a range of resources. Despite the poor rating of students’ information evaluation, the majority of teachers surveyed nonetheless sanctioned the tools they felt have created this problematic research climate. Even among the Pew group’s relatively conservative groups of teachers, fewer than 30 percent deliberately disallowed online resources for research projects. Evaluating information is necessarily a more time intensive and complicated process than retrieving information in a networked environment, but teens have demonstrated shifting notions about what makes a source valuable. Pickard, Shenton, and Johnson (2014) found that the young people they surveyed at an English secondary school, when presented with a list of particular evaluative criteria for online research, were not interested in traditional authority of information. Those students instead prioritized currency and topicality, lack of mechanical errors, and verifiability. The last item in particular suggests that young people find recurring information, shared in a variety of places, to be a hallmark of authenticity at odds with earlier notions of authorial attributions. “Search is a garbage in, garbage out process,” says Tasha Bergson-Michelson, instructional and programming librarian at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. “Choosing search terms is hard. If you have the right words, you can find the data.”

Motivation rules the day

Perhaps the distinction demonstrated between research for self-generated topics and those assigned by the teachers in the Pew study should be linked entirely to student motivation. For those active in a particular subculture or fandom, more casual googling is usually supplanted by immersion in a range of more familiar networking mechanisms, providing access to information sources regardless of geography. This engagement results in teenagers with subreddits as homepages who interact regularly with an international social circle around a specific and obscure topic. “Librarians can support youth in becoming better online searchers by understanding their interests and helping them find information around those topics. Learning and improving online searching skills in context creates a more motivating and memorable experience,” says Martin. Bergson-Michelson coaches researchers to imagine the perfect source to answer their query, down to typical online attributes likely to appear on a site with that information, saying “What a good result looks like varies based on your information need.” The topics may differ and the sources might look different, but online research still points to many of the hallmarks of an established process. Contextualizing the acquisition of search skills, as Martin suggests, and refining search terms as Bergson-Michelson advocates, reiterate principles of bibliographic instruction grounded in print research. But the necessary authenticity of the research task will remain integral, and this is where librarians are key in championing and supporting inquiry projects of students’ own devising, helping young people connect to a range of resources to inform their particular passions.   Wendy Stephens worked as a high school librarian in Alabama for 15 years before becoming library media program chair at Jacksonville (AL) State University. She is a past president of the Alabama Library Association and was recently elected AASL Region V director.

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