Yesterday, one of my staff invited me in to talk to her junior Honors United States History II students about how to be more efficient and effective with their internet searching, and with their time in front of a computer screen in general. To begin the discussion, I showed them this quick clip:

I wanted to help them see that there are other options than Google and Wikipedia, but also how to work within those two frequent web destinations for students. Among the alternates to Google I showed them was something called Sweet Search. This site uses a system of web guides around various topics to help students narrow the web to the areas they need instead of searching the entire web. They have guides on everything from Family Travel to High School Geometry. Additionally, we looked at some history specific sites like George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the State Department’s Background Notes, University of Houston’s Digital History, and news aggregators like 10×10.


However, as great as some of the students thought these sites were, the techniques we use to find information once there, and then determine the credibility of that information are most important. We discussed some basic tips on how to streamline and focus your search so that the likelihood that relevant results appear is increased. We used these two guides:

By using limiters like putting search phrases in “quotes,” or limiting results only to .edu sites (site:edu “search term”) students began to see that the results they got were of high quality than just regular searching.


We also showed them some of the guiding principles behind Wikipedia. As a resource, Wikipedia has often been vilified by educators at both the university and high school level because of the supposed unreliability of the information. Because of how search engines work, the links into and out of a Wikipedia entry cause it to be at or near the top of a typical Google search. What I tried to stress with the students was the value of Wikipedia stems from the basic rule of editing an entry: you have to validate your information with credible sources, and then list those sources at the bottom of the entry. By beginning with the “works cited” list in a Wikipedia entry, you gain access to a pre-made bibliography to begin your research on a particular topic. Don’t end your research with Wikipedia, start there.

Evaluating Research

While we didn’t have time to dive deeply into how to interrogate the web to figure out if information is credible, we did explore a few sites that help decipher which media outlet is telling the truth., and offer some compelling research into what Congress, the mainstream media, and even some celebrity pundits claim. By checking in on those sites and attempting verify claims, students can begin to build a better radar when it comes to the verity of a source.

Eliminating Distractions

One element that students often claim gets in their way is the amount of distractions they have in their lives in the way of social media–things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or BBM. Even adults are beginning to see how distracted these elements of our lives can cause us to be. To combat it, I showed the students how to use browser plug-ins like Readability to strip the extra content like ads and videos from a page they are reading on the internet. We also looked at things like quietube and Turn the Lights Out to eliminate distractions while they watch video on their computers. I also referenced this article, which has helped me reclaim my attention span.


Stupid is an ugly word.

Tuesday marked the first meeting of a group of teachers that signed up for the “School.  Different.” sessions I am leading.  To prepare for the day, I asked them to examine the following list of materials:

Minds on Fire
Reading v. Reading (see comments that follow it too)

Sir Ken Robinson
Kaplan University
Learning to Change, Changing to Learn
Did You Know, 2.0

To course them through the discussion, I used this slidedeck.

One of the slides, the one I used to get them split into their first cooperative group, featured the question that so many have debated this year: Is Google Making Us Stupid.  What I noticed in gathering the material for this class is the vehemence with which people responded to Nicholas Carr’s July article.  Google, what people referred to lightly only a few years ago as a project by some college kids, has truly changed how we find things, and how we expect our information delivered.  In reading this post from Trent Batson, I dug down into the comments and found this gem from John Vieth from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville:

To say that Google and the Web make us stupid because we don’t have to work as hard to do research and find information is like saying books make us stupid because we no longer have to arrange an interview with an expert to gain some of their knowledge–we only need to read the information in a book. Nicholas Carr’s article is just more negative sensationalism a la John C. Dvorak. It’s noise. Ignore it. Come on people. Let’s put our critical thinking hats on. Google and the Web are equalizers. They give information access to people who never would have had it otherwise, and they free our time to focus on problem solving and thinking instead of information gathering.

The equalizing affect of something as simple as a search engine, coupled with increases in internet access via smaller and cheaper devices, is no small matter.  The unsettling fact for many is that information is no longer the property of a select few.  It’s like the Gutenberg effect on HGH.  Jon Becker dropped these three coincidences into the knowledge base the other day:

Newspapers fold as readers defect and economy sours

(CNN) — The Rocky Mountain News, gone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, gone…At least 120 newspapers in the U.S. have shut down since January 2008, according to Paper Cuts, a Web site tracking the newspaper industry. More than 21,000 jobs at 67 newspapers have vaporized in that time, according to the site.

Farewell to the Printed Monograph

The University of Michigan Press is announcing today that it will shift its scholarly publishing from being primarily a traditional print operation to one that is primarily digital…Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it’s time to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. “I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken,” said Phil Pochoda, director of the Michigan press. “Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?”

MIT makes research available on the web

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty voted unanimously March 18 to make the school’s scholarly research available for free on the internet, joining other noted universities that hope to encourage more scholarship and expand researchers’ audiences…The open-access movement aims to put peer-reviewed research and literature on the internet for free and remove most copyright restrictions. Advocates believe this will invigorate more research across academia.

We are likely to see more of these types of shifts as the nature of how we read continues to change.  This point of Google being a double-edged sword was brought up in the Moodle discussion that has gone on since Tuesday morning’s class.  One teacher has likened the nature of Google and the internet at large to that of the rainforest.  While it contains secrets both known and unknown, it also hides potential dangers in its richness.  How we leverage its offerings is going to make all of the difference.  That’s true whether we are talking bits or bark.

Ad Revenue Matters to You

I’ll admit that my inner geek drives the direction of my reading lately; I tend to read Techmeme as often as I read Edutopia. However, one of my all time favorite reading topics has always been the direction and drama associated with mainstream media and its delivery to consumers. Odd, I know. Most people would say they love to read trashy novels, or scan baseball scores (which I often do), but not this guy. Give me an opinion piece about the future of participatory media, the changing of the guard in the newsroom, or something like this one from the New York Times:

For newspapers, the news has swiftly gone from bad to worse. This year
is taking shape as their worst on record, with a double-digit drop in
advertising revenue, raising serious questions about the survival of
some papers and the solvency of their parent companies.

and I am like the proverbial pig in…well, understood.

I don’t know if this story piques my interest for the usual reasons, but I know that it makes me begin thinking about the world that I am helping teachers prepare students for. It’s topics conjure up all kinds of reminiscences from last summer when we were all struggling to shrug off Andrew Keen’s attacks on connective writing and citizen publishing, and it calls to light the profound changes in literacy many of us have been discussing for several years.

Connection to Teaching and Learning

Often, I’ll find myself looking out at the vast expanse of my RSS reader and see similar topics being bandied about, and articles debated back and forth between individuals much smarter than me, and I’ll wonder where my connection back to the classroom teacher is–where is the correlation between George Siemens and the work he does, and the elementary teacher I work with who wants to differentiate instruction? Many times I find myself at a crossroads wondering how to find common ground for the theoretical applications I see, and the practical situations that teachers live through.

This article in the Times, amazingly, though obscurely, shows me a connection. When we look at the trends, just in the last two years (ad revenue dropped 8% last year, and is already down 12% from that number), that tells me that the sellers/advertisers are following their buyers/consumers eyes.  With that, come so many negative consequences:

  • assimilation of major newspapers or ownership groups perhaps taking away a decidedly local flavor
  • massive job losses in the printing industry
  • ink-stained elbows on Sunday mornings

The last bullet above, while in jest, does reflect some sentiment that, if you dig on Nicholas Carr, you might agree with.  We aren’t interacting with print media as often as we used to, and what effect will this have on our ability to read deeply?  Moreover, the real impetus behind my writing this tonight was to truly ask myself what are we preparing our students to consume?  Is literacy solely the manipulation of a texted page, or does it involve, as the article hinted at, the ability to decipher and decode the “vastly more choices” that online advertising offers to sellers?

So, I look at the classrooms I’ve been in this year and wonder, are we doing all that we can to prepare our students for a world with decidedly less printed paper than our own?

Positive Consequences:

Here’s another discerning thought that rises from this: how can we pull positives out of this development?  As with any technology, it’s social ramifications are natural offspring.  In this case, I see a lot of good coming out of the move to online news consumption:

  • smaller ecological footprint: fewer papers, fewer trees, fewer inks, fewer distribution trucks
  • more opportunities for connective writing
  • greater opportunity for dialogue between writer/publisher and reader through comments and forums

Erica had just reminded me of Pink’s book yesterday as she wrote about being able to finish it on her way out to San Jose for the Google Teacher Academy.  What this exemplifies is the shift away from one mode of production, to another that will involve some creative thought processes and a distinct need to train people in how to produce this new product.  It’s examples like this one that really make me analyze what we are asking our students to do in our classrooms;  are we preparing them for the classified ads of the future?