How do we get better at researching online?

This is me, blogging about my Digital Literacy Practitioner course again.  If you’re reading as an ITeC learner – well in the same way as we ask you to reflect about what they’ve learned this is me, doing that!  I’m going to be talking about some of the things we’ve been doing in class lately so feel free to leave your own comments on how you feel the sessions went.

The past two “digital literacy” sessions I’ve delivered were not labelled as such in the class timetable.  Instead they’ve been about current topics in the news with follow-up research online and then a ‘presentation’ about what we’ve found out.

The first was on the Solar Impulse around the world solar-powered flight.  The learners were advised they’d be practising the skills of ‘reading for information’ – this would also cover some of the Literacy tasks and save them having to do the fairly artificial tasks in the Basic Skills software ForSkills which is… shall we say… unpopular… :-/

After 15 minutes of open-ended research we had a group activity to compile information on the board and discussed what new questions this had raised.  For this section I used the teaching model of “Noticing and wondering” which I’d recently read about in a blog post on my RSS feed and which seemed like it would be a good way to structure research a bit more around answering real questions.  I’ve been concerned in the past that the majority of information learners put into project is an edited version of the first link on Google and based around what’s easy to find rather than what’s actually interesting.

This section was a bit hard to get started and there was some giggling and heckling as learners “noticed” and “wondered” things from the complex to the ‘obvious’ and simple.  I will need to stress more that there are no ‘silly’ questions.  I did a bit more of this the next time but we still need to push to change the ‘feel’ of the room to one where there really are no such thing as silly questions and everyone gets a chance to speak.  I’m considering using a shared doc for this next time, but in the past there’s still been a lot of shouting out instead of typing and people writing less-than-appropriate things instead so we’ll need to discuss behavior again first.

We also at this point looked at what range of types of websites learners had looked at and the differences between them.  Some prompts were put on the board:

  • A news article
  • An opinion piece / blog
  • Multimedia information
  • An official website
  • An interactive resource

The learners had found news articles and the official website and most had found videos but the interactive and opinion pieces they hadn’t come across naturally.  A set of question prompts were put on the board and a more structured search was carried out for these alternative sources.

  • What
  • Who
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • (How)

Several learners were familiar with these “W Questions.” already.

Most found this second batch of research more difficult and struggled to see the value of this kind of variety when they “had plenty of info already”.

To show what they had found out they were asked to ‘present’ the information.  This word ‘present’ has become synonymous to them through school and/or previous courses with ‘make and PowerPoint’ but for this task I applied a ‘No Powerpoint, No Word, No Photoshop” rule as the three programs they use the most.

This caused a certain amount of both interest and resistance at first but they soon started looking for alternatives and we had some good apps used including eMaze, Sway, HaikuDeck and Prezi.

With the focus shifted to use of the new apps I noticed that the amount of information they’d found and talked about out loud was not always entirely represented in their finished resource.  Something to work on and probably linked to the fact that all our groups from Entry Level through to Level 3 finding “reading and summarising” the most difficult of the literacy skills even more bring ICT into the mix.

Take 2…

Eclipse Whiteboard

Group flipchart for “noticing and wondering” about the eclipse (click for larger version)

We did a very similar task the following week, this time with a visual prompt about the eclipse happening later in the week.

The ‘noticing and wondering’ was better this second time around but a number of the questions they raised went unanswered in their research and once again the presentations only reflected a small amount of the information discovered and didn’t truly show how much time they’d put in on the research.

The unanswered questions make me think we need to do more structured teaching on how to teach search skills.  We tend to find that learners think they already have good search skills but only, in practice use a very small subset of techniques.  In a way Google has almost gotten too good.  You can slap in almost any woolly search term and get some information back and never know you’re missing the best stuff.

Observing the search terms entered I noticed a number of areas to develop.  Choice of keywords was sometimes not specific enough and a lot of them were in a natural language question format. Only few included narrowing down terms such as a date meaning a lot of the results were descriptions of full eclipses not the partial one we’d actually see.  One or two used the image search, but no one specifically used the news search.  Almost no one looked beyond the first page of results.  Also noticeable was how few read the ‘snippets’ as well as the title of the webpage when deciding what to click on.

For several sites we discussed how we knew they were reliable, noticing that one was created by NASA, and discussing how to doublecheck Wikipedia content, looking at History, Talk and References sections.  Most learners already knew Wikipedia was crowd-sourced but not everyone knew how to check who had altered what or how to check.

One learners had come across the Simple English Wikipedia page on eclipses by including the keywords “layman’s terms” and we discussed the use of this as a resource (It’s like Wikipedia but specifically written in plain language so is often useful).  Spinning off of this was a discussion on Wikipedia in other languages and what biases this might reveal.

Again, once the research was complete (or mostly complete)  they were asked to create a resource based on the information they’d obtained and also given prompts for a blog post.

  • “Present” your information
    • Using a multimedia / interactive / graphical / “Not MS Office” tool present some information about this Friday’s eclipse.
  • Write blog post about your research. Include:
    • Stuff you noticed from the map
    • A link to the map (It’s from the UK Met Office
    • Questions you researched online and the answers
    • Any questions you weren’t able to find answers for
    • How well you think you did at researching online and things you need to improve or practise
    • A link to your presentation
    • A link to your rough notes (you’ll need to upload them somewhere)

The blog posts are online.  We will need to go back through them as while they’ve all produced something many of the specific on the prompts have not been fully covered.  Something we will practise more is checking own work against prompts / marking requirements.  This will be a useful skill when people progress onto the ESW.

Things which went well:

  • Lively discussion.
  • Good levels of interest in the topic.
  • Fairly good understanding shown of the overall reliability of websites.
  • Good use of new tools.

Things which didn’t go so well

  • Lot of shouting out of answers instead of adding to own information and waiting for the feedback session to share.
  • Learners giving up a bit too soon if the information to answer their question wasn’t immediately available
  • Rather brief presentations that didn’t truly reflect the amount of work put in on the research.
  • Blog posts didn’t answer all of the questions they’d been asked.

Things I want to improve

  • Teaching of specific techniques for finding answers to ‘hard’ questions online.
  • Learners skill at turning information found into a resource “summarising”
  • Show some tactics for ‘getting your head round’ new applications.
  • Develop learners’ persistence when problem solving and researching – the ‘growth mindset’ and how you get better at thinking!
  • Help learners get better at checking their own work against the requirements / prompts to check they’ve covered everything.
  • Behaviour when working in groups – to allow sensible use of collaborative tools.
  • More use of sound as well as text and images in learners’ presentations.
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3 Responses to How do we get better at researching online?

  1. Stella says:

    Commenting as a tutor/assessor here, rather than a learner. The “notice and wonder” strategy sounds really interesting and nice and simple in principle. I have also noticed that learners often skimp on presenting the information they have found which is probably a combination of trying to get work done quickly rather than producing a quality product and lack of confidence in own writing abilities. It would be nice if young adult learners had become familiar with producing quality written work whilst in compulsory education rather than a rapid “task and complete” exercise.

    I spotted a small typo in your post – “should” instead of “showed”. 😉

    • Leia says:

      The noticing and wondering worked well as a task with the Level 3 apprentices looked at fault logs / network monitoring.

      • Stella says:

        Yes, it was good to observe that lesson and see how it works. I like how learners were able to infer information from video clips which also raised further questions.

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