May 7, 2012

Making Sense of Search

What we know about online search and helping kids access and evaluate information

As we’ve seen, judging information quality is a critical aspect of media literacy. It's also a running theme in education today. That’s because online information and resources rarely come with a credibility guarantee. It’s up to individual users to make judgments about a site’s value, often with little more than a cursory glance at its content. This may seem intuitive as an adult. But kids also need to make judgments about what they’re seeing when they make Internet searches, whether for homework or personal interests.

A team from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is exploring this issue in detail. Led by Executive Director Urs Gasser, researchers at The Berkman Center are taking a close look at kids’ online behaviors. The results so far? An extensive (albeit dense) research paper that highlights what’s been learned about how kids search for and evaluate information, how they create and share information, and—importantly—how they develop the behaviors that enable all that. The paper includes a framework for understanding information quality that is intended to support policymakers, educators, and parents. The framework emphasizes the value of context and process for kids using online search for entertainment, information, and more.

Why is that important? Because kids don't always turn to parents and peers with their questions, they go to the Internet. Not surprisingly, the web has become the primary source for kids seeking information and help. And because digital media is so pervasive, so easily produced and distributed, the ability to evaluate information is becoming its own critical skill. Trusted resources like books, newspapers, and broadcast television—led by editorial boards, publishers, and other authorities and experts—don't exist like they did in years past. In the very least, there's now competition from a variety of credible and not-so-credible sources. As the folks from The Berkman Center put it, the process of interacting with information matters in a way it didn’t before.

But evaluating information quality is one thing. How a student arrives at that information is something quite different. Standing in their way are issues like:

  1. Information overload—when the amount of information on the web or even a given site is overwhelming;
  2. Distraction that results from chasing links or even when a kid feels inundated with irrelevant information; and
  3. Overly complex sources and sites.

But challenges like these don’t develop across all settings. For instance, kids with school assignments that are too broad might be easily distracted or overloaded. Whereas kids searching based on their personal interests won't be. That’s to say that a child's motivation and reasons for making a search might further influence how they approach their search needs.

Kids also have a hard time evaluating a source’s credibility, its accuracy and authority. The report highlights that kids too easily separate a message from its source and don’t often distinguish the commercial intent behind it.

So what’s the takeaway for parents in all of this?

One recommendation is to make a family media plan, use media together, and discuss media content with your kids. In the past, studies have clearly shown that parents can positively impact reading, writing, and school readiness when they're engaged with their kids’ literacy development. Now that literacy encompasses a range of new media skills, from search and evaluation to creation and dissemination, the extent of involvement might need to change.

Start by involving your kids in your own search efforts. Talk to them about how you do what you do online. If they have an issue they want to explore, work with them to find the answer. But give them ownership over the search questions—that’s something “central to motivation, perseverance, as well as the quality of subsequent problem-solving and evaluation.”

One of the paper’s key findings is that the skills kids develop through personal and social search activities can benefit their learning. That’s a search outcome you can trust.

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