When and how students should use Google for research

Ah, Google. We love you, trade our privacy for you, and use you. We wonder what life was like before you. We warn our students about your dangers and your ultimate corporate ambitions even if your stated wish is “to do no harm”. And while we often admonish our students to only use reputable sources, in reality our go-to is almost always you.

What is the place of Google in the classroom?

I run an after school ICT club for Grade 4 students. As I was reviewing with the students the myriad services and entities that Google owns and operates, one student asked, “Is Google still alive.”

My son has asked if Google is God?

And many other teachers have had similar types of experiences.

Teachers see students use Google ineffectively all the time. Google is treated as a resource: “Where did you get that information?”


Students can bypass the web results to click on images and get returned all kinds of out of context memes algorithmically connected to the topic at hand.

Students may click on the first delivered response, not recognizing it’s an Ad.

And the crown jewel of errors* is where students click on the Wikipedia article which usually makes it to the first few search results.

The thing is, adults use Google or Google related services like YouTube all the time. Many, but unfortunately not all of us, have some skill at parsing through the mounds of data to get what we want. Trying to fix something at home? Look for a video on YouTube. Checking for restaurants around a subway stop? Check Google Maps. Figuring out the population of a city? Get an accurate response using Google Assistant.

We may tell our students to use books to do research, but very few adults do that in everyday life. And it’s now possible to complete entire degrees without ever opening a paper book!

No, the principle our students need to be guided by is whether the information they are after is trustworthy or not. It’s not always easy, but it’s not an impossible task. Motivated students given appropriate opportunities to practice, can develop the skills needed to navigate the torrents of information served up via Google.

Here’s an example.

Pokemon cards come and go every few years at my school. Of course there are many kinds and some cards are much rarer, and therefore more valuable, than others. But there are also a lot of fake cards. My students can identify these fake cards, some more obvious than others. And they can do it without adult help. Perhaps a YouTube video was produced that showed how to do it, and soon the knowledge spread. If kids are capable of detecting this kind of nuance, then what’s to say they can’t develop the skills to identify credible information online?

Recently, I was working with a student who was being asked to find evidence to answer a question he had. His question? How many cars are there in Canada?

I knew ahead of time that this is the type of question where a Google search is more likely to yield useful information than some book in the library or a pre-approved research resource such as World Book. But I made him work his way through the school resources first. A Canada search gave some info about transportation in Canada, but not specifically cars. A car search made no mention of Canada. It was tempting to get him to ask a simpler question, but operating on the philosophy that a student is entitled to their questions we pushed through. He finally got to do what most students instinctively do now when doing a Google search. He literally typed his question in.

The answer was revealed in a table that Google had gleaned from this Statistics Canada website. He clicked on it and then I assisted him in figuring out what he meant by “cars” and which data on the chart would help him answer his question. We Googled the average weight of cars, which yielded an average in pounds, and then another one to convert the pounds into kilograms. This showed that the line on the table he should look at was for vehicles weighing less than 4500 KG. The answer to his question for the year 2017: 22,678,328. With a little bit of teacher assistance interpreting some data, he answered the question authoritatively.

This whole exercise was done “through Google”. But it yielded a true result to his actual question. And the first one at that. He would not have been able to parse through books, online encyclopedias (apart from Wikipedia), and find a more accurate answer. Nor would it have been effective for him to browse Canadian government websites. Nope. Google did it. He knew it. I knew it. But I felt obliged to go through the rigamarole, if anything to remind him of some good resources he can use first for general introduction to a topic that is not terribly recent.

Google’s own algorithms do a fairly good job at delivering search requests accurately. Think about it. How often have you had to go to the second or third pages of results to find what you’re looking for. Or how often have you taken what Wikipedia has offered up on the topic at face value? For many topics, Wikipedia does a good enough job of providing information. (I’ll save my Wikipedia article for later.) All that being said, I’m still surprised by how rarely adults will confirm a stat or fact mid conversation using Google.

Google’s strength comes from its precision. Online encyclopedias do a very poor job of responding to question-like requests. If I want to find out who a top skateboarder is in Worldbook, I first need to type in “skateboarder”, not certain that this will give me what I want, especially if I misspell the word. I might be given a response that may or may not contain what I’m looking for. And what if the article doesn’t mention top skateboarders? Should a student trudge across to the library and locate an encyclopedia or, if possible, an up-to-date book on skateboarding when they have quicker access to more information than any other human has ever had via a Google search?

No. I could just ask Google, “Who is a top skateboarder?” As the results in this link indicate, Google has conveniently scraped some data from a website and presented it for my quick perusal. It is true that students might quickly look at that information and conclude it’s trustworthy without further investigation. In this particular case, the website is a little bare-bones with perhaps the intention of getting to the top of the page rank. However, on average that information is likely to be both useful and accurate, especially when a quick cross-check with other websites reveals similar names of skateboarders.

Kids want their own questions answered

Now, if adults are using Google in the way I described, and if Google can deliver websites with considerable relevance and accuracy, it goes to follow that our students may benefit from this approach as well. Google excels at identifying specific answers to specific questions. So why not allow our students to use it. Why not train them to identify reliable online sources. We can remind them that in spite of the apparent ease in accessing the information, they will still need to infer and evaluate the relevance of their research. They need to be able to justify their response. It’s what we expect in peer-reviewed journals. Why can’t we expect it from our kids.

But crucially, kids want their questions answered. That’s what makes school interesting. That’s what’s led to great scientific discoveries. And perhaps if kids start out young enough sifting through reliable and unreliable information, they’ll one day become less gullible than those of us in older generations who can fall for a Facebook post.

*Is it an error if most teachers have relied on Wikipedia for something or other?


    • I agree. Within schools, the simplistic rule that Wikipedia should not be used because anybody can change it is often ingrained. It’s not as simple as that. Your summary of its usefulness is good: “a good resource for established facts, and a good intro to a subject to provide search terms”.

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