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The Search and Education

I’ve just finished reading The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture - a book by John Battelle. As the title promises, the author presents the (hi)story behind search engines (where Google is of course a major player) and the impact the search technology is having on our lives.

While reading the book I of course started to wonder how search is affecting our learning. I already blogged about the importance for educators to be present on Google (read post) and the same of course applies to schools/universities as well. I think that a lot of students choose and value educational institutions based on their web presence and being on the first page of Google results will become increasingly important.

So, it is clear that both educational professionals and institutions need to be “hot” on a search engines, but leaving the institutional aspect behind - what role does search play in formal and informal learning? Well, I admit that whenever I want to learn something new (or remember something I forgot about), I go to Google or Wikipedia and search. And the same process applies to my research work - Googling a term is almost always the first step when trying to learn something. And what does that mean? Does it mean that the web or the search can replace traditional study materials? That we no longer need books because we can search for almost everything on the web?

I still love to read printed books, flip through pages, feel the paper - but on the other hand I would love the ability to do an easy search through all the books I have to be able to find just that information I once read about and I need to quote it in this paper I’m writing about or I want to use it as an example there… Yes, the fact that it is much harder to find specific information by “physical” book search is a problem, because we’re isolating all those great resources from our daily life. The new way to learn is to search, to search with a few keywords through a digital user-interface. And that is also changing our thought patterns. For example - I got so used to Spotlight that I sometimes really wonder why I still organize files in folders. With a few simple keystrokes I type the keyword I’m looking for and bam! here’s the file I’m looking for and I don’t care where it is saved anymore.

Though, the thing I am really starting to miss is the ability to apply tags to my files (both documents I produce and documents I use as a resource) and consequently to browse files by tags, not folders - just as I do with my mail at Gmail. And I think the same principle could (and actually should) be applied to learning materials in all forms (digital, printed, text, visual, audio…). We need to start thinking about how we can tag study materials and make them easily found - or better said, be easily searched for and then used. I think that is something that current learning management systems lack - their search is usually just one of the many features that are there, but that people usually just ignore. I think that it’d be really useful if students could for example add their own tags to the study material they have in their LMS - why shouldn’t we let students decide which words best fit our material?

I really am wondering - why are we ignoring the power of search in education? Why don’t for example institutions offer their students powerful search engines for ALL study materials (including printed) that is made by their faculty or students? Why don’t LMS have the possibility to tag materials? As it often happens, educational institutions are in my opinion a bit too slow to catch up with the search phenomena, and I can only hope that is about to change in the near future. So I hope that we’ll all start thinking a bit more intensively about how we can use search in formal education. In our personal lives and in informal education we’ve already embraced search, so why is formal education lagging behind? What can we - you, I - do about it?

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2006/12/search-and-education.html