finding information online

The internet has made researching and information sourcing a lot quicker and easier for our kids than trawling through library books, but there are still some things you need to know to help them make the most of it.

beyond text

Gone are the days when information was words. In the early era of the internet, having access to the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, all 30-plus volumes, at the click of your mouse, was mind-boggling. Nowadays, text is so last-decade. Graphs, photos and videos are fast becoming the prime sources of knowledge.

youtube and facebook

Just a few years ago, Google was the answer to everything. If you weren’t a Google fan, you would have used Bing or Yahoo, but back then, search engines were pretty much the one-stop-shop for anybody who wanted to find information online. Today, we have the option of searching for a video clip directly in YouTube, receiving directions from Google Maps, and finding nearby places to eat using an app instead of a web browser. If you want to buy something, going straight to TradeMe or Amazon usually works better than asking Mr Google. If you want news, you visit the online version of your local or national newspaper, or even your social media. Yes, there are indeed people out there who only know what’s happening if it’s on Facebook or Twitter – but you know what? Provided they have the right friends and they follow the right people, they will get all the news that’s relevant to them.

directories

If you have a broad idea of what topic you’re interested in, but aren’t really sure what precise information you’re after, a directory is a good place to start. Directories like Yahoo are like card catalogues that offer broad categories (finance, sports, or travel). Click on those and move down though subcategories until you stumble upon the details you need.

how to search

If you already know what you’re looking for, a search engine is your friend. So what’s the best way of wording your search phrase in order to maximise your chances of getting a hit?
  1. Start simple. If you’re searching for something current and popular, the search box will often autocomplete your search for you. Go on, try it now: type “school holidays” or “Olympics 2016” and see what happens.
  2. Sometimes simple may be too simple, though. Your search may be too broad, one of those motherhood or apple pie phrases that can mean different things to different people. Try using synonyms for your search words. Try to narrow down the search from “school holidays” to “Christmas school holidays Auckland”. Try to be more specific: if “bond” didn’t give you the result you expected, perhaps “James Bond newest book” will work.
  3. Identify something unique about your search. The other day, I was looking for a YouTube relaxation video to help the children fall asleep. Typing “relaxation” gave me more hits than I knew what to do with, but I quickly realised the voiceover would be distracting. No, what I needed was relaxing music with no speech, more Zen than Beethoven, and no sounds of splashing water in case that made the children want to use the toilet instead of go to sleep. I refined my search to “zen meditation music -instruction -words -water”, and while I still got more hits than I knew what to do with, at least any one of them was able to do the job perfectly.
  4. This brings me to the minus signs in the previous point. a. In general, search engines will look for all the words in your query. If you don’t want your search results to contain certain words, simply put a minus sign (a dash) in front of them.
  5. If you’re happy with the results to only contain one of the words, use the word “or” to separate them. For example, “Vikings pirates cowboys” will return pages that contain all three words, but “Vikings or pirates or cowboys” will also find pages on which only Vikings, only pirates, or only cowboys are mentioned.
  6. When you put a word or phrase in quotes, the results will only include pages with the same words in the same order as the ones inside the quotes.
  7. Include a tilde ~ in front of a word if you want the search to include the synonyms of that word (it doesn’t always work but is worth a try).
  8. Use Google’s Advanced Search to refine your results by date, country, language, or other criteria.
  9. If you include site:.nz in your search, only New Zealand sites will be considered.
  10. Find similar or related sites. For example, related:wikipedia.com helps you find sites similar to Wikipedia, such as Britannica.com.

whom to trust?

There is a lot of information on the internet, some very good, but some incorrect. Because the internet content is not regulated, anyone can publish what they want. Even Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for school projects, because members of the public can edit its entries. Open Polytechnic Library advises us to use the ABC checklist for online material: A is for author
  • Who is the author?
  • Why is the author an expert on this topic?
B is for bias
  • Is the goal of the article to inform or to persuade?
  • Is the information fact or opinion?
  • Is there evidence quoted?
  • Is the language emotional or objective?
C is for currency
  • When was the information published?
  • Is the information itself up to date?
D is for domain
  • Is the domain a private page, a sensationalist newspaper, or a university press?

when the internet is not enough

When your children get older, some of their school projects may be too specialist for even Google’s power. Sometimes all that’s necessary is a trip to the library where your friendly librarian will direct you to the right shelf. Sometimes even that fails. For example, one of my daughter’s Year 7 projects involved the New Zealand Common Cushion Sea Star, also known as Patiriella regularis. Although internet searches revealed many interesting facts about star fish in general, my daughter needed to know how this particular star fish was unique among all the other species of starfish. She tried the library: no luck. What she needed was an expert in the field. But how does one find an expert? Science Media Centre (http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/) specialises in connecting the public with New Zealand scientists. Although their chief role is to help the media, we’ve approached them successfully for many school projects. View full article
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