Learning from Home: Three Ways to Improve Students’ Online Research Skills

Learning from home: At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures meant that over 90% of learners globally had to study virtually or from home. The Internet, already an invaluable educational tool, has therefore become even more important for students. One of the most common Internet activities of students, both in schools and in homeschooling, is online research.

This means that teachers and parents who currently replace teachers need to help students develop skills to conduct research online. So what can parents do to help their children when tasks sent home after school require them to search for information online? And what can they do to prolong such work for gifted students or when the work sent home runs out?

Teachers and parents can influence a child’s Internet skills. Indeed, the success of their search is linked to the amount of adult advice and explicit instructions they receive.

Unfortunately, research suggests that some teachers do not provide such explicit instruction. Some also struggle to structure (and provide support for) students’ online research tasks that go beyond lower-level skills. There is even evidence of a lack of research skills among teachers and parents themselves.

The following three tips can help you.

Focus on “learning to research” as well as “research to learn”

Making the “invisible” processes behind searches more visible improves online information seeking for teachers and students. In this way, educators (whether temporary or professional) should design activities that highlight the research process itself. This makes students more aware of what happens ‘behind the scenes’ of research and their ability to influence these processes.

How could you do this? In a Queensland study, students were asked to sort 12 picture cards. The maps have been designed so that three “categories” – animals, modes of transport and countries – are obvious at the outset.

The students easily sorted the cards into these categories. But then they were challenged to recognize all the other sorting options, much like Google does every second of every day. When “kangaroo” was removed from the “animals” pile and placed next to “Australia” instead, for example, students quickly assembled the remaining cards in the same way.

This activity encouraged discussions about the number of different ways to sort not 12 but 200 million maps – or websites. It’s a reminder of how important it is to clearly specify what you want from Google, helping it sort through its 200 million websites.

Become more critical web users

Educators sometimes set tasks that are too broad for students and likely to return millions of search results. Many will likely be irrelevant or inaccurate. Teachers can also set tasks that encourage students to use Google as a simple encyclopedia, which only requires low-order passive learning.

If we want students to engage in higher-order thinking instead, more structuring of inquiry tasks is needed.

Educators can start this by setting specific requirements for the outcomes students are working with. Perhaps ask them to find a website from Australia (try adding “site:.au” to the end of queries) and one from England – this could be particularly interesting by the time The Ashes is played. Perhaps students are encouraged to find sources from before the year 2000 and some from the previous 12 months (select “Tools” then “Anytime” from the drop-down menu).

Photo credit: idiva.com

Asking students to deliberately find websites with conflicting information and to describe how they decided which to believe requires them to compare, evaluate, and analyze.

The number of results returned by a search engine can help indicate the quality of your query and make finding reliable information more efficient. At school, students report that they generally do not take into account the number of results obtained and that they have little experience in limiting or increasing these results. In Australian homeschooling too, parent-educators and students rank ‘limiting/expanding research’ as ​​one of the most difficult stages of research.

Now that students know a bit more about how Google should sort websites, have them modify their query to reorder the top five or ten results returned. Challenge them to reduce the (probably millions of) returned results to just 10,000, 1,000 or even ten.

Students explain that when it is only the end product or outcome of the research that ‘counts’ or is graded, they focus on that and never on the research process itself. This changes when tasks are more structured and specific requirements and guidance are given. Students then focus more on collecting quality information.

Change the way you think about research

Attitudes have proven to be more important than available resources or even teacher skills when it comes to increasing authentic student learning through technology. Many restrictive attitudes toward search need to be reversed to ensure students get the most out of Google.

We can begin to change our attitude about what to look for and how by using the tips above. But what if your child does not want to listen to you during the search? This is commonly reported.

Students don’t always see their teachers as good sources of information when researching either. And it’s true, some teachers and parents still have a lot to learn about using Google.

However, my study, which tested the concept of a ‘generational digital divide’ among Australian home learners, found that parent-educators (the older generation) were stronger seekers than their children, the so-called ‘ digital natives. Students may be able to learn more about research from their parents.

The answer is unlikely to be to force your children to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Instead, changing young people’s attitude towards research and encouraging them to realize that it is sometimes difficult and frustrating can help.

When it comes to school work, data from over 45,000 students in 12 countries tells us that searching the Internet is “by far the most frequently recorded use of ICT”. Educators who focus on “learning to research” as well as “research to learn,” who encourage critical use and begin to challenge attitudes toward Google will be in a better position to help students take advantage of unprecedented educational opportunities that online research can provide.

Renee Morrison, Lecturer in Curriculum Studies at the University of Tasmania, first published this article on The Conversation. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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