What do we do when we want to find something out? We ‘Google it’.

Google is the world’s most popular search engine, holding an 88% share in the worldwide search engine market. In this digital age search engine culture is so engrained in our everyday lives that ‘to Google’ something is now synonymous with research.

Whilst this blog will focus primarily on Google, much of what is said is relevant to other search engines as well.

Search engines instantly gratify our research needs by giving thousands, even millions of answers within seconds of searching. Because of this, we expect all information to be a tap of the keyboard or a click away.

This glut of information at our fingertips has developed a form of so-called infobesity.

Students often rely on search engines because they are quick and easy to search. This has created a shift in their research ‘from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment’ (Pew Research Centre’s study ‘How Teens Do Research in the Digital World).

However, despite offering speedy searches, the quality and relevance of the results can be compromised. This is partly because of the way search engines generate results.

How are results generated?

First the technical bit – Google uses a search algorithm of more than 200 factors to determine the results it generates. (Many other search engines also use their own algorithms.)

Google attempts to evaluate a site’s credibility before including it in its search results. But when reputable sites don’t provide the answer, less trusted sources that offer direct but false responses sneak into the results.

Google’s personalisation tools can also compromise the relevance and reliability of search results. Past searches influence future search results even if they are irrelevant to what we are looking for.

Many students falsely believe that the closer to the top of the results page a result is listed, the more trusted the source. Although sites on the first page of search results get almost 90% of clicks, a recent study found that 58% of relevant search result links are not positioned in the first ten results.

The impact on students’ research skills

This is not to say that Google and other search engines aren’t a useful tool for students. Google hosts an extraordinary amount of information for students to use, it’s easy to search and gives students the chance to be self-directed in their research.

What students need however are the skills to be able to critically evaluate the sources and information they find online, and to be able use it effectively. They need digital literacy skills!

Unfortunately, not all students possess these essential skills, and so not realising that the information they find online may be unreliable they accept it as fact without further evaluation.

A 2018 report, by the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools, found that only 2% of children and young people in the UK have the skills necessary to tell if a news story is real or fake.

With students struggling to identify fake news and evaluate information more than a third of teachers have reported that students have cited false information they have found online in their work.

The ability of students to identify fake news has been a subject of research all over the world. To find out more visit our Padlet where we collate a range of up to date global research.

Librarians are key in helping solve this problem

Librarians are vital in teaching students how to evaluate information and in improving their critical thinking skills. According to Softlink’s whitepaper on The Ongoing Importance of School Librariesat least 70% of school librarian’s provide information literacy instruction’.

This year’s JCS Conference, Digital Literacy in Schools: building capabilities, will feature lightning talks and workshops in which librarians will share their expertise in improving research skills and battling fake news.

In their workshop, Can you navigate the potential pitfalls of the open web?, librarian Emma Wallace and EPQ Coordinator Julie Greenhough will invite participants to position themselves as pupils navigating the potential dangers of the open web.

In his talk, Fighting fake news by teaching neuroscience and social psychology, Librarian Dr Graham Gardner will discuss the pilot programmes he established at Abingdon School to help students become more critical of online disinformation.

Teacher-librarian Susan Merrick and librarian Claire Knight will also address the importance of teaching research skills in their talks, Building robust research skills and perseverance in secondary students (and beyond) and Building foundation in research skills: Y7&8 research projects in the library.

Book your place, view the full programme and keynote’s and lightning speakers’ abstracts.