Search engines as research tools, yay or nay?

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Search engines are handy to find information, but is that really learning?

Photo: Bigstock.

To search for information on the Internet is something so familiar now that we have a verb for it: Google it. Every time we don’t know something, the immediate reaction is so obvious we don’t even think about it anymore, we google whatever it is so we can get a fast answer.

The immediacy that search engines offer is an invaluable resource, but we have to ask ourselves: How does this affect students’ research skills and the production of knowledge in general?

The key to understanding the current crisis of critical thinking and research skills lies in a cognitive flaw: We don’t discern between researching to obtain data and researching to gain knowledge.

Search engines have learned how to be better tools for every user and have advanced in some aspects that facilitate academic research, but a serious analysis is needed to understand the influence of these resources over the way we train our minds to learn based on the information we receive.

A needle in a digital haystack

The net is full of valuable information, but do we know where and how to find it? The most significant disadvantage of the Internet as a source for educational material is that it doesn’t have the same kind of system we would have on a library.

The library’s bibliographic system is one that favors the formation of structure for learning and research. The content is organized by themes, authors, titles, and keywords. The student learns to search by subjects, as well as authors that have written relevant content on them. This is how they get the bases of content hierarchy and construction of knowledge.

The information available on the web is not organized by the themes, titles, or authors that prioritize academic knowledge. Their organization responds to a different structure: SEO and SEM.

How SEO and SEM impact digital research?

Positioning in search engines is a process through which you can improve the visibility of a website in the organic results of a search engine. This process is named SEO, that stands for Search Engine Optimization. On the other hand, Search Engine Marketing or SEM comprehends all the paid ads and campaigns strategies to position a website in the first places in the result list.

These two mechanisms determine what the user will see in the results page, and it favors brands positioning, not the construction of knowledge. Does this mean that all the content on the Internet is brand-related and we shouldn’t trust them? Not exactly.

There’s excellent content on the Internet that can help with school homework, college essays, and even postgraduate research, but to take advantage of it, we need to have search protocols and criteria to navigate the Internet with academic purposes.

Digital content and knowledge

The principles of effective learning are the best guide to build up skills that help students research to learn and not just to extract information.

Prior knowledge is the most fundamental of these principals. If students already have a background on the subject they meant to research, they are more likely to know better ways to address it, as well as to look for more trustworthy sources. Maybe they would even have a preferred author to go to; nonetheless, this knowledge must be paired with a right level of critical thinking. What students know (or think they know) should be part of a flexible cognitive platform that doesn’t hinder their reading or their openness from learning something new that might change their previous vision of the subject.

Now that digital content is the most sought resource for research, teachers need to take special care in the way they teach students to associate and connect different pieces of information and to learn to create knowledge. This will determine not only how they do their research but how they learn all together.

Feedback and orientation from teachers are essential for the student to develop criteria for source selection, as well as learning research techniques that prioritize academic sources over the hierarchy established by SEO and SEM.

Resources for academic research available now

Educational philosophies like open access and life-long learning have raised interest to open more accessible routes to the content that help people learn.

Thanks to this, now we have specialized databases and search engines like Google Scholar, Core, and base Base, which manage content exclusively for research and education.

Under this context, even with the presence of SEO and SEM, would only be applied to results that are already depurated and only include studies, research papers, and educational materials.

Technology to access information has improved hugely in the last decade. To take advantage of it, we require a change in the way we teach how to use it and help students attain skills to structure knowledge, to be curious and critical in the search for information as well as sensible and open minded to give context to said information. That is the best way to use search engines as a tool and not as an obstacle to the construction of meaning and knowledge through data.