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Do Millennials Need Formal Search Engine Education?

Posted on Thursday, January 24th, 2013 by Print This Post Print This Post

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Researching. Googling. Same thing. At least in the minds of most U.S. college students that is. There is no doubt that search engines have become an integral part of our academic world.

However, rather than resorting to UCLA’s online library and the hundreds of databases and journals that the school pays thousands of dollars to subscribe to, I (like probably most of my university peers) am guilty of resorting to Google. Honestly, I go there first and foremost when conducting my initial, general sweep for online information when trying to generate a research paper.

Even though people my age have indeed grown up in the “Age of Google,” this doesn’t necessarily mean most of us truly understand the way it functions. Before working for a digital marketing agency, I was completely naïve to the concept that “Googlebots” crawl the web’s millions of sites to generate an index it thinks is most applicable to your search request.

Though the clean, simple interface of Google is indeed enticing to students who don’t want to put in effort to get results, the fact of the matter is that what’s going on behind the scenes of a Google search is anything but simple. Even in our modern, tech-savvy age, very few students have a clear conception of how search operates.

The main issue seems to be that students do not know how to build a search that will return good sources and refine their search accordingly. While the advanced search options available

on databases like JSTOR are intended to allow students to narrow their search results and thus deliver more relevant information, it seems that many treat any database or search engine in a “Google-like” way.

In a study conducted at Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University, Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois’s Chicago and Springfield campuses, it was found that 27 out of 30 students failed to narrow their search criteria at all when doing so would have helped the database return more relevant results. Furthermore, it was found that students were basically clueless about the logic underlying how search engines organize and display results.

There is no doubt that Google’s simplistic white homepage is appealing to students often forced to use scholarly databases with an overwhelming array of check boxes asking to specify date range, source type, document type, research category, sorting prevalence, and even if all they want to do is have a search engine to look for keywords. However, the fact of the matter is that Google too offers advanced options.

While Google may have increased students’ expectations that finding information  should be easy, all must be aware that taking the time to refine one’s search will deliver not only more relevant and usable information, but also decrease the time one takes trying to sift through results trying to hunt down an appropriate source.  Using Google’s options to limit a search to news articles or querying only specific databases via Google Scholar are elements with which all students should be comfortable.

It seems that students are confused. Though we may have grown up in the “digital age,” most of us are overwhelmed by the constellation of library databases and do not know which to turn to in order to hone in on usable sources for a particular research topic. For example, the aforementioned study found that though JSTOR does not provide access to the most recently published information and usually takes 3-5 years to publish articles, most students regularly use this database when trying to find current research on a topic.

Overall, students must be formally educated in the search realm; a place we all think we know. Just as most native English speakers don’t understand all the rules of grammar, using search engines everyday doesn’t make you an expert in research.

Even if there isn’t a class at your local community college, here’s a good place to start.

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3 Responses to “Do Millennials Need Formal Search Engine Education?”

  1. Well done Jenna.

    The Internet is definitely both a blessing and a “challenge” for the latest generation. The accessibility of it is a miraculous thing, but it also easily allows for someone to expend little thought using it.

  2. Ted Ives says:

    I think you’re right – maybe it could be combined it with the set theory stuff in math (and/or/not, intersecting circles, Union and Intersection).

    How about typing as well? Highest ROI class I took, ever!


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