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Advanced Research on the Internet

by Suzanne Marcus

Introduction
Basic Research
Test Your Ability to Search the Internet
Conclusion
Bibliography
Links


INTRODUCTION

I would like to draw a comparison between the Internet and the microwave oven. Many of you might remember seeing or purchasing your first microwave oven. I remember when my family got ours. It was my mother's idea. She was a woman who was incredibly ahead of her time, and we were one of the first families on the block to get the newest technology. I remember hearing tales of being able to cook a chicken—a whole chicken!—in a matter of minutes by using the microwave. My mother tried it once…it didn't work…and my family all agreed that the microwave was best used for boiling water or reheating certain foods. Years later, after almost all of America had purchased one, we agreed that the microwave might also be used for making popcorn.

The Internet seems to have followed in the microwave's footsteps; both technologies share a similar history in terms of acceptance and use. Everyone has heard tales that information can be found out there in cyberspace. But most users can only retrieve their e-mail or click on links that have been sent to them or on "favorites" that have been set up for them.

Teachers need to be aware that, although the Internet is widely available and in most homes, its pervasiveness does not necessarily mean that students know how to use it properly or to its fullest capabilities. In fact, I find that students who are able to program their computers or create mini-networks often have trouble finding information on the Web.

BASIC RESEARCH

Start at the Beginning

Before teaching students how to find information on the Internet, you must teach them how to find information, period. Ask your students questions such as these: "Where would you find a definition for a word if you had no access to a computer?" "Where can you find basic information about the beginning of World War I?" "What kind of book would you look in to find out about a person's life?" Surprisingly, it takes a few seconds for a student to come up with answers to these questions. Unfortunately, students are not used to using the easiest tools first! Once they come up with the answers to these kinds of questions, ask them how they might find these resources on the Internet. Sites such as Dictionary.com, Encyclopedia.com, or Biography.com are quick resources for locating information (no search engine needed!), and they are easier to justify using than a site that was put up by someone on a personal site. Once you remind students that they already know how to begin to do research, either on the Internet or through print resources, you can move on to finding other kinds of sites.

Steps at the Library

If you've ever really watched a library lesson given by your library media specialist regarding research on a specific topic, you will notice that he/she will usually re-introduce students to the basic resources they need to use to complete an assignment; he/she will talk about where to locate these resources and perhaps offer a quick lesson on the most effective use of them. Next, he/she will move on to specific resources about the topic, as well as where to find them and how to use them effectively. Finally, there might be a quick statement regarding the Dewey Decimal System: "Books on the same subject will be shelved next to each other, so do not forget to scan the shelves." Once students have been given these pointers, off they go!

Steps on the Internet

  1. Key Words to a Wealth of Information
    Well, Internet users need to go about doing research in the same way. First, they need to use basic resources. Why? Because researchers need to know the language of the tool(s) that they are using. Suppose a student is doing research on colonial life in America. In the encyclopedia, the student knows to look up the words colonies or America. But how do you find information on that subject on the Internet? Go to Yahoo!; then type in America or type in colonies, and see how many sites are retrieved. Unfortunately, many sites must be clicked on before one is found that covers the topic, and once a student wading through all the sites gets frustrated, it is very hard to get him/her motivated to continue the search. Basic information from reliable sites provides the necessary means for students to discover synonyms. Ask students what other "key words" they could use to get information from the Internet. Elicit responses such as United States history, colonial, colony, the names of specific colonies, or specific time periods. Have students try using these words in a variety of combinations when using a search engine. They will be shocked to see the variety of results and order of appearance in a listing that is based on the words chosen.

  2. Tools: Databases and Search Engines
    The next best tool is free online databases, targeted search engines, or subscription databases. Free online databases include national archives such as Ellis Island, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Library of Congress, FindLaw, and Derechos (the Internet human rights organization).

    If you don't know what might be available through a university Web site, you can just browse. However, this method of guess searching can prove to be frustrating and unproductive. I would suggest finding out (if you do not already know) about those subscription databases to which your library or school subscribes. These databases provide online access to newspaper articles, magazine articles, and radio/TV transcripts; some also have photographs or primary source documents or even full motion video of historic events.

TEST YOUR ABILITY TO SEARCH THE INTERNET

Questions

Finally, the last hurdle (and the most frustrating!) when doing online research is a regular search on the Internet. There are a few questions you should be able to answer BEFORE you start searching the Internet. See how many you can get right.

  1. What is the difference between a search engine and a search directory?

  2. Which do you prefer to use? Why?

  3. Is one search engine better than another?

  4. What is a Boolean operator?

  5. What is the difference between Yahoo! and Google?

Answers

If you cannot answer many of these questions, do not despair. Most people cannot, and I can guarantee that your students cannot either.

OK…in order…the answers are…

  1. A search engine takes the word or phrase you use as your query and searches for Web pages and/or sites that have been linked to the search engine with those or similar words. A search engine that does this well is Google. Google's robot searches for all the words the user chooses for the query, in the same site. This means that if a user chooses specific enough keywords, the engine should retrieve relevant Web pages that contain those specific words.

    A search directory categorizes Web pages and/or Web sites by topic. People, who work for a company such as About.com, choose these sites for the listing. Subject specialists create the about.com directory and only sites listed by the researchers are retrievable through the database. In this instance, the directory can be a real asset.

    Yahoo! is both a search engine and a directory. If you do a search on Yahoo!, the first set of hits is by category. In order to access the search engine, you have to click on GO TO WEB PAGE MATCHES on the bottom of the first page.

  2. Even though I am a librarian, I still prefer a search engine to a directory when researching online. I believe that I can still tell a good site from a bad one, and I do not like to limit the amount of information I retrieve. I always wonder how often the people who are doing the categorizing are mining the Internet. However, if I were in need of a list of primary source documents and had no idea where to turn, I'd certainly try going to About.com and doing a quick search. For current information or something more obscure, I'd be more apt to use a regular search engine like Google. It truly is a matter of preference.

    For more information about how to judge an Internet site, see Using the Internet in the Classroom in the eTeach Archive.

  3. I believe that different search engines target different kinds of information. Yahoo! does a wonderful job with pop culture information, current events, and general reference. Google does a superior job for educational material. So I believe the answer to be yes. (I am sure there are those out there who will tend to disagree.)

    What search engine should you use? Well, that depends on what kind of information you need.

  4. There are many Boolean operators, but I will only share the two most common: AND and OR. The best way to show how each of these searches work is with Venn diagrams. Consider a search on the topic "the Irish in America" using the "or" Boolean operator:
    Venn Diagram
    Above is an example of such an "or" search: either Irish or America. When doing this type of search, the user will bring back information on both topics—separately. In this case, the person searching will find information on both the Irish and America, but the results might have nothing to do with the Irish IN America. Searching in this manner will surely result in more hits, but not necessarily on the desired topic.
    Venn Diagram
    In this search, only the small subsection in the middle, the sites that contain information on both Irish AND America, should be retrieved. The rest of the information should be ignored.

  5. The big difference between Yahoo! and Google is how each conducts its internal search strategy. Yahoo! uses an assumed "or" search, and Google uses an assumed "and" search. What this means is that the search engine software "interprets" what it thinks you want. Yahoo! thinks you want more information, and so it wants to show you how large its database is. Google tries to interpret the search by tying all the words together and retrieving only sites that have ALL the words you queried. Both ways have their downsides.

CONCLUSION

Remember that research by its very nature is a long process and can be very frustrating. Search, and then redo the search! Subtle changes in your query will make a difference. For example, when doing research on New York, first decide if the desired information is on New York City or New York State. Then, pick a time period. Let us say that the information desired is on New York City in the 1960s. Look at how many different ways this particular query might be formed.

New York City 1960's
New York City 1960s
New York City Nineteen sixties
New York City 1960
New York City 60's
New York City 60s
New York City sixties
NYC 1960
NYC 1960's
NYC sixties

Keep this in mind: Once you learn which search engine works best for you, I am sure they will change it.

Good luck and keep searching!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Google Help Central. Google, Inc. 9 November 2001 <http://www.google.com/help/index.html>.

Sullivan, Danny. How Search Engines Work. INT Media Group, Inc. 9 November 2001 <http://searchenginewatch.com/webmasters/article.php/2168031>.

Yahoo! Search Help. Yahoo!, Inc. 9 November 2001 <http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/ysearch/>.

LINKS

EuroDocs
Try visiting this treasure trove of primary source documents from Western Europe.

Improbable Research
How can you tell if information being provided is reliable? After all that we tell students to look for, the bottom line is that they have to use what they know and read ALL the information provided. This humorous site may provide research that is "real," but of questionable value. An example of this type of scientific research is a paper dealing with feline reaction to beards. It also might be worth your while to check out the HotAIR Teachers' Guide.

HyperHistory
"HyperHistory presents 3,000 years of world history with a combination of colorful graphics, lifelines, time lines, and maps."

Primary Sources on the Web
These sites are sorted into two categories: sites relating to United States history and sites relating to world history.

The World War I Document Archive
In search of World War I primary source documents? Look no further than this site!