Saturday, 9 May 2015

Information retrieval in the Digital Age

I've just presented at the excellent +DEEP Learning conference at Nexus International School, Putrajaya on internet searching and why it is an such an important skill. This blogpost is a summary of the presentation. As usual, most of my ideas are taken from other places, such as Google Search Education, Research on Transactive memory and books such as The Tipping Point and Daniel J. Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Evidence suggests that in the ‘information age’ that we now live in, we now have much more information bombarded at us than ever before - more than 5 times as much per day than in 1986. This means that children, when faced with the internet, have a lot of difficult choices to make when finding information online.

In this information age, with the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the internet and our always connected devices, it is very easy to assume that the amount of information constantly at our fingertips is dumbing-down our children. In fact, research indicates that when students expect to have access to information in the future (such as by allowing access to a search engine such as Google), they remember it less well. Later on, we will see the flipside of this and why it is not such an issue. However, the question many people might ask is, have humans always had access to larger amounts of information than we can actually store? The short answer is yes - through transactive memory.

Transactive memory

The term ‘transactive memory’ was proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985. The basic principle of this is that our memory is a mixture of the knowledge we have acquired over time combined with ‘metamemory’ that contains information about the knowledge of different people we are acquainted with. A good example of this is In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”, where he discusses how families have very pronounced memory sharing - for example, he talks about how the 13-year old might be the family expert on the computer. How many of you rely on your children to be your tech-experts?

Therefore, our memory often works on remembering who to see about fixing the computer - how to find the information we need - rather than on how to fix the computer. In the case of books, think about the time when you cannot recall a piece of information - often you remember the book or place you read it in and can then go and look for it. Increasing amounts of research suggest that the advent of search engines have placed a new external transactive memory source at our fingertips. We now have the knowledge of hundreds and thousands of people at our disposal. This is where the flipside comes back into play - the students who are shown to remember facts less well when presented with a search engine are much more likely to know where to find it again.

Why does this matter?

It turns out that our brain is generally poor at remembering things, and to get around this we developed the ability to write to record information. According to Daniel J Levitin, in his book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, the reason writing was originally developed back in 5000 BC was “not for art, literature or love...but for business - all literature could be said to originate from sales receipts”. This enabled the traders back in those times to keep track of more sales, have more customers and therefore make more money. As an example of this, think about that shopping trip you make every week - how well might you do without that shopping list?

As our society has developed, we have produced more and more information and we have needed to develop information retrieval strategies to help us find it. This has led, over time, to indexes in books and systems to find books in our libraries: things we take for granted. However, with the advent of the internet, we have had to develop an ability to find information using text-based searches.

How can we help our children to be effective at information retrieval?

According to Sugatra Mitra, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, one of the three fundamental skills of his curriculum for the future is “information search and retrieval skills”. Internet searching and having access to search engines is enough to allow students to develop rudimentary search and retrieval skills, but there is much more that can be done to help them.

At Nexus International School, Putrajaya, we have a few ground rules that we try to follow with all of our learners when finding information online or accessing electronic materials:
  • Don’t start too early - young children struggle to comprehend huge amounts of information that search engines provide them. Children as young as 8 or 9 can be ready to search, but with a lot of supervision. Younger children can be given web quests where they can try and find information on some pre-selected websites. 
  • Know what they are likely to find. Our teachers are encouraged to ensure that they have done searches themselves. If they haven’t been able to find an answer, why would their learners? 
  • Never trust resources. Many online educational resources and websites targeted at children are simply aimed too high in terms of language. We try to encourage our teachers to check the reading age of all of their resources using sites such as

  • Teach learners them how to find or employ effective keywords or ‘parse’. This is a means to pick out the effective terms from a question they need an answer to. 
  • Show them what the search results mean. Google searches can give useful hints as to how useful a site will be in the title, url and snippets given in each result. 
  • Tell them it’s ok to try again. Research of internet searching in adults suggests that 67% of internet traffic goes to the first 3 hits in a search. If adults don’t look to the next page, why should the kids? 
  • Use different strategies. Other research suggests that kids simply dislike searching the net (i.e. using keywords and then selecting appropriate responses) but quite like browsing (i.e. reading about a topic and then exploring different aspects of it, or finding out related information). Google is developing a ‘Knowledge Graph’ search engine which gives contextual information when we search, which relates to how our brain stores information. If you do a search for Petronas Towers in Google, you will now receive an information card, which also gives contextually linked information about other locations of interest such as tourist sites (Batu Caves, Mt. Kinabalu) and other tall buildings (e.g Burj Khalifa).