Online Research in the Age of Google

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Nicholaus Gutierrez, Rhetoric

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

Students in R1B classes are asked to engage in research that involves acquiring relevant information through reliable sources, and to use those sources to produce new knowledge on a given topic. This can be a challenge in the age of Google, which presents information in very specific ways: It produces results based on popularity, focusing less on quality than on quantity of links or page visits; it can also seem miraculously intuitive, completing our search queries before we’ve even finished typing them; and it fetishizes speed by telling users how many results it found and in what fraction of a second. I have found that the way students in R1B courses tend to conceptualize their relationship to information and research is along these lines: that what is worth knowing is already available, that what is available should be easy to articulate as a search query, and that queries should produce relevant results instantly. When this fails to apply to academic research, I have noticed that frustration can set in and students can sometimes feel discouraged from pursuing the thoughtful, interesting research questions they formulate but can’t immediately find sources on. I have realized that, in the same way that I ask students to reflect on the quality and range of sources they find for bibliographies, it is important to ask them to reflect on the difference between commercial search engines like Google and academic search engines, in order to put all of them to use as effective tools for research.

To address this, I foreground the problem in a few ways. First, I discuss the history of Google’s PageRank algorithm, using examples drawn from assigned readings to have students conduct searches that show differences between the first page of Google and results available through academic databases like JSTOR. For instance, searching Google for “virtual reality” leads to results featuring advertisements for popular virtual reality gaming devices, but it doesn’t include much on the longer history of virtual reality or on scientific research in the field. This is a good opportunity to contrast Google with other search options available through the library, which has discipline-specific databases that could yield more relevant results. Second, I hand out an advanced Google search operators key and assign in-class exercises in which students are given search terms relevant to the course theme (in my case, digital media), but that require advanced search options to find relevant sources. This gives them an opportunity to practice using advanced search operators, to search for results within specific websites, and to see that even with Google, finding strong sources takes time, patience, and an awareness of the tools you are using. Third, as students begin to prepare for their final research assignment, I assign a “research narrative,” which requires them to brainstorm potential topics, formulate a research question, find relevant sources, build a bibliography, and—most importantly—to actively reflect upon the process of doing research. By consciously reflecting on those moments when they struggled to find the right search terms or the most effective search engine, students have the opportunity to consider whether that difficulty lies in a problem with the search tool itself, or in the challenging nature of research in general (it’s usually a bit of both!).

Using this approach, I have noticed a clear change in the way students conduct research. In their research narratives, many students describe initially experiencing some level of frustration at not being able to find sources right away, but—once equipped with advanced search options and a clearer sense of when an academic search engine might yield better results—they then consistently describe finding sources that are both relevant and useful. This is evident in their final research papers, where the research questions being pursued are more nuanced and reflective, and move beyond simple keyword searches. By making Google feel less natural, students have the opportunity to re-conceptualize what it means to do research in the first place, and to develop a more productive relationship with their search tools.