Google-Fu
Joseph Ugoretz | March 13, 2010 | 9:34 am | Learning to Ask | No comments

Just Google it

I was watching a news-oriented talk show, and one of the guests made a claim about healthcare in this country.  It was a factual claim, and a controversial one, and she made it very authoritatively, but the host did not believe her.  “Come on,” he said.  “That can’t be right.”

“You can Google it yourself!” she told him.  “I’m sure there are people with their iPhones right here in the audience googling it right now.”  The camera didn’t show the studio audience, but I imagined dozens of little screens lighting up and dozens of (tens of dozens?) or fingers rapidly tapping out search terms.

But would those fingers find and those screens show?  Try googling any even somewhat controversial claim (global warming, immigration reform, pick your topic), and you’ll find thousands and thousands of bits of information–some accurate, some objective, some factual, some polemic, some funny, some dishonest–the whole wide range.

“To google” is a verb (and, sure, it includes Bing and all the other search engines), and talk-show guests aren’t the only ones who will tell you to “just google it” (or they may even throw another word in there–like in the page that the picture of Bart Simpson above links to–sorry about that link.  I didn’t choose the language!).  But there’s more than just googling involved.

If Google is the massive collective brain, with all the information of the universe stored in it (and I’m not sure that’s exactly what it is), then it also includes all the junk and garbage that we all keep (maybe longer than we should) in our own individual brains.  Lyrics to songs you used to like in third grade, the best way to unwrap a Tootsie Roll, the hate-letter you wrote to someone who annoyed you on the subway–it’s all there, along with the exact population of Tallahassee, Florida and the military expenditures of Zimbabwe and the complete works of Jane Austen and a very good recipe for paella.

“Google-Fu” (like “Kung-Fu,” right?) is a skill of self-defense and even of attack–it’s the true power today.  Just entering a search term like “global warming” isn’t a skill, it’s not even really something that should be called searching.  And taking that first link on the results page is even less of a skill.  Setting up a search, refining the results.  If your google-fu is truly strong, you can get the real result, the right result, quickly and efficiently.  And you can know the result you’ve got is the best one and be able to explain why.

But how do we teach people these skills? There aren’t google-fu academies, and while some schools (particularly libraries) do their best to help students with these skills, others just try to prevent or limit what students do with that massive collective brain.  It seems that the secrets of searching, of learning how to ask, are too often shared just by word-of-mouth.  Or not shared at all.  Can we change that? Should we?

Rating the Raters
Joseph Ugoretz | March 13, 2010 | 3:50 pm | Learning to Ask | No comments

Sometimes I like to ask students whether they use RateMyProfessors in deciding what classes to take.  Most faculty I know think it’s just a completely unreliable resource…but all of them know their own ratings. and many of them, if they’re in a position to check out a professor they don’t know, do take a look at it.

I think most students do check it out, or at least discuss similar kinds of “ratings” with their friends, but I’ve also had students tell me something else that matches nicely with a subject I wanted to bring up for this unit (it’s covered in my “Three Stars and a Chili Pepper” essay which is one of the readings, too).

One student last year told me that she looks at the RateMyProfessors ratings, and puts them through a kind of filter–if they’re all caps and full of misspellings, she figures they’re not very reliable and probably just the work of a student who gave a bad review because he did badly in the course.

A big part of google-fu and learning to ask is not just finding information, it’s evaluating it.  It’s essential, if you’re going to use search as a powerful act, to know when to trust a wikipedia article, or an Amazon rating, or a TripAdvisor review…or a class evaluation on RateMyProfessors.com.

We all have our filters, and the best google-fu masters use the best, most finely-tuned, filters.  It’s possible that this is (another) area where we need to do better with teaching college students (or younger).  It’s certainly not enough to say “oh, you can’t trust those at all.” And it’s probably not enough to say “just take the average rating and accept that.”

We need to think about, and teach about, the criteria we use and need to use when rating the raters.

We Are Wikipedians
Joseph Ugoretz | March 13, 2010 | 3:25 pm | Learning to Ask | No comments

General Lithuanian EncyclopediaThere’s a story about a college freshman who walks into the university library for the first time and sees a long row of books, all with the same binding, on a shelf.  “What’s this?” he asks the librarian.  “What are all these books that all look the same?”

“That’s the encyclopedia,” the librarian tells him.

“Really? Cool! Somebody printed the whole thing out?” the student responds.

For students today, for the most part, “encyclopedia” means wikipedia. I don’t think there’s a college student in this country (maybe not even an elementary student) who has not used wikipedia.  Some colleges have tried to ban it, some professors say they won’t allow it as a source for research, but it is still the first reference, the go-to source, for almost any topic.  It’s comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate (maybe not so sure about that last–at least not on every topic).  Wikipedia has several advantages over the “traditional” encyclopedia.  It can be updated quickly and frequently.  It has no real limit on size (it doesn’t have to fit on a shelf), so it can include all kinds of information, particularly about popular culture, that there would be no room for in a printed encyclopedia.  It’s searchable and most of all hyper-linked, so connections and cross-references and serendipitous discovery are at the center of the experience.  But like any tool (as you’ll read from me in the one of the readings for this unit), if it’s not used as what it is, it will be inefficient or ineffective, or even harmful.  Which is (partly) why some colleges and professors want to ban it.

For most students, other than just searching and finding an article, the bulk of wikipedia might just as well not even exist.  I hear people all the time, not just students saying things about “them” at wikipedia.  But the point of wikipedia is that there really is no “them.”  It’s US.  I know all of you have read articles on wikipedia.  But have you written any? Or even edited any?  When you read an article, do you check the talk page for that article? That’s where the action is!  I’ve been in a few editing struggles (I won’t say wars) on wikipedia myself, and I have to say that that’s where I’ve learned the most–not just about the subject, but about wikipedia, too.  When you realize that there is no “them,” that we are all editors, all wikipedians, it becomes a much more interesting and useful tool.  I would like to see college classes (maybe even this one!) instead of forbidding wikipedia, requiring it.  But requiring that students write articles, or edit existing articles.

The point of learning to ask, of google-fu and searching as a powerful act is that we get to create the information as we consume it.  That’s a concept that is new, and one that is somewhat explored in some of your readings.  When I used to use the World Book Encyclopedia as a kid, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would sometimes find things that I didn’t like or agree with.  But there wasn’t much I could do about that, and I had no idea about how an encyclopedia was written or assembled.  But now I do–and now I’ve done it myself.

The title of this post (“we are wikipedians”) sounds in my head like the little girl saying “we are wine bottles!” in this video

That video (apart from being one of the cutest things ever) gives a somewhat indirect example of what’s going on in the world of information right now.  “Kittens,” inspired by Kittens, could be a shorthand for the world of remixing and mashing up–where you get to create your own communities and your own publications.