“Just Google it.”
This phrase has become so common that “Google” is now a popular verb that is included as part of our standard vocabulary. The act of online searching is embedded so deeply into our life fabric that is has infiltrated our language in such a way that we don’t even really realize it happening. But it makes sense. Search engines like Google are appealing to a time-crunched society because they make finding information fast and convenient. We rely on them for such a wide range of everyday tasks that it only seems appropriate to utilize them for academic purposes as well. I know that many of my students at the community college find comfort in the Google search; it is a familiar space for many of them, and one which seemingly does not require advanced computer skills to navigate. Halavais addresses this tendency for student reliance on sites like Google when he mentions that, “It does not take much notice that college students today are likely to turn to a large search engine to make initial inquiries on academic topics, rather than to the library catalog or databases”(35). While this may be the trend, Halavais also cautions that “students may have more confidence in their ability to find and evaluate information than is warranted”(36). The familiarity that my students have developed with performing common web searches may lend itself to the kind of confidence to which Halavais refers. But a general Google search is certainly not the most suitable way for my students to retrieve relevant and credible source material for their research projects, despite (or perhaps even due to) its apparent ease of use.
Every semester when I introduce the first research assignment to my ENG 131 (College Writing) students, we spend a couple of class periods discussing and analyzing online search techniques and results. While two or three hours may not be sufficient to ingrain critical searching skills into students’ research repertoires, I am convinced it is better than not addressing the issue at all. The first time I taught College Writing, I made assumptions about my students as “digital natives”, which meant I did not feel particularly obliged to teach them how to navigate search engines. However, I quickly realized that the ability to distinguish between reliable and inaccurate search returns is not “part of the average seeker’s collection of skills” (Halavais 35). I know that even after sitting through a library orientation, in which the head reference librarian teaches students about the library databases and walks them through the process of performing keyword and subject searches, many of my students will still persist in using the worldwide web for their research due to its relative familiarity and possible database intimidation. Instead of trying to strictly prohibit this practice, I now design lessons around assessing credibility of information found on the internet. I ask students to bring some of their own web-based research materials to class and we examine external and internal evidence, writer credentials, web address extension (.com, .edu, .org, etc), links to other websites, date of publication, along with other factors to determine the reputability of their online materials. Since I’ve incorporated these lessons into my College Writing classes, students appear to be more discerning consumers of online information, at least as far as I can see from the sources they use in their research projects.