Education Opinion

Search People, Not the Internet

By Justin Reich — November 12, 2012 3 min read
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When teaching teachers to tweet, my EdTechTeacher colleague Greg Kulowiec begins with this framing idea: “Search people, not the Internet.”

What he means by this (and what I mean when I brazenly steal his line) is that if you are an educator with an established social network, it’s often considerably easier to find information from your colleagues than from the open Web.

If you are looking for “ideas for a unit on the history of Vietnam with a special focus on the evolving relationship between media and armed conflict,” I wouldn’t recommend starting by Googling that quoted phrase as a search string. There might be some stuff under “Vietnam AND lesson AND media OR media literacy,” but it’ll be a long Sunday afternoon of sifting and sorting.

For a networked teacher, it’s often much more effective to reach out to your network of fellow history teachers and search their brains before you try your luck with Google’s algorithms. Google’s probably a faster way to get the date of the My Lai massacre, but a carefully cultivated Twitter network is a faster way to get ideas and resources for putting My Lai in the broader context of history and social psychology. (I suppose that is an empirical question that could be tested in lab settings—randomly assigning teachers to solve lesson design tasks using Google or Twitter.)

Greg’s words, which I find intuitively wise, now come with some interesting empirical support from a new study by the Project Information Literacy group, run by fellow Berkman Fellow Alison Head. Alison studies how college-age students find and use information, and she has recently extended her research into studying recent college graduates. She’s just released the first report from The Passage Studies, her new line of inquiry.

Alison and her team interviewed a group of employers and their recently-matriculated employees about the workers’ information-seeking expectations and practices, qualitative research designed to inform larger quantitative studies. Alison’s findings about the primary information-seeking habits of college graduates will surprise no one who has taught teenagers of late: “Most college hires were prone to deliver the quickest answer they could find using a search engine, entering a few keywords, and scanning the first couple of pages of results, employers said, even though they needed newcomers to apply patience and persistence when solving information problems in the workplace.”

Employers also noted that college graduates were often not very good at taking advantage of information resources that existed within their work community or field. Employers were often surprised that new hires rarely asked a colleague for help with questions, or picked up the phone to give someone a call. As one employer said, “Here’s something we’re targeting in interviews now—the big thing is they believe the computer is their workspace, so basic interactions between people are lost. They won’t get up and walk over and ask someone a question. They are less comfortable and have some lack of willingness to use people as sources and also have a lack of awareness that people are a valid source of information. Those hires that are the most successful are the ones who can find that balance between the computing workplace and the person-to-person workplace.”

In other words, Alison’s early findings in this line of inquiry suggest that Greg was really on to something: we need high school and college graduates who can search the Internet and search people. Helping students cultivate networks of peers and experts in their areas of interest is one way to foster these skills. Helping students practice information-gathering techniques, like cold calls and personal interviews, is another.

One of the great challenges of our increasingly complex times is that old skills do not become obsolete at the same rate that new competencies emerge. Searching the Internet needs to add and complement the skills of searching people, and I suspect that both skill sets will be important competencies for students for many years to come.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.