At a recent keynote we were a part of for the ARF Conference, a great question came up near the end of our time online. The question centered around the work in research and classrooms that looks at what is currently happening online, and how students/teachers can work within or mimic those behaviors. The question was...Why do we look at what the Internet is, and not what it could be? Those of us on the panel were stumped.
To help clarify this question in my mind, I'll bring up the aspect of critical evaluation of information online and "hoax" websites. In our work in the TICA grant, and subsequent talks and professional development sessions we've had trouble in finding a foolproof way to help users judge the usefulness and truthfulness of what is found online. Many times the only way to do this is to show the student multiple "hoax" websites and ask them to judge the usefulness and truthfulness of the websites. Usually the assembled crowd doesn't see anything wrong with the websites, until one lonely participant begins to employ the "healthy skepticism" needed to sift through online content. As the presenter, it's fun to sit back and watch as this knowledge sweeps across the classroom/presentation hall. One by one, the students/participants feverishly double check their results, and then find bogus sites of their own. I bring this up because it helps shed light on the question posed at ARF. Through trial and error, we found that this was a particularly powerful way of fully testing an individual's healthy skepticism while sifting through online content. But...why do we have to do this? (I just felt like Carrie Bradshaw typing that last line...)
In the work for the TICA grant over the last year and a half, we looked at strategies and skills we could use to help adolescents search and sift for information online. We focused on building their online reading comprehension skills. Having a student fully understand their question, or the inquiry that brings them to the Internet. Being able to identify keywords of their search topic, and being flexible enough to adapt to the results they get. But, the nature of literacy in light of information and communication technologies, such as the Internet is deictic. It is changing all the time. I believe that what we are teaching them about how to operate, and how to survive online will soon be outdated. Even writing and communicating online is quickly growing, melding and transforming into new forms and variants. Blogging, wikis, video, podcasts...everything is quickly molding into one stream.
So, our work looking at working and learning online may soon be outdated. The users of the Internet didn't evolve fast enough, so the developers of the interface adapted the browser to the needs of the user. Evidence of this can be seen in the evolution of the browser. Not too long ago, if you typed a question into your address bar, the browser would reject your query quizzically. Now, you are quickly redirected to a search results page for what the browser "thinks" you are looking for. This advancement continues as Google and others prepare for the Semantic Web that awaits us.
A recent tour of Google will show the adaptations that have been made for the average user. If you use any of the Google Accounts, the search engine will remember what your interests are, and present you with information that they think suits you. For example, when I search for "twine"...my results are headed off with the online, social web service. Whereas, my step-mother, who has knit christmas stockings for about ten people in our family, will find the "World's Largest Ball of Sisal Twine". Google is also starting to sneak in semantic web results. So, if you simply type in a question into the search window of Google, it will try to answer it. At our talks, my advisor Dr. Leu likes to bring up the question of the height of Mount Fuji, and have students find an answer and double check it with 2 or 3 other sites. The newer results page just spits out the answer of 3,776 meters from the NationMaster.com website. Where is the fun in that?
As literacy and online technologies converge, educators are left to deduce the impact this will have on students and their futures. Because of the nature of this race, I feel as a researcher as if I'm playing catch-up. As I study and unpack what is happening online, and what my students are doing in all of the "spaces" in which they interact...the rules of the game constantly are changing. The affordances of the technologies and interfaces change even as I write this blog entry. The user experience of working online, at least in this context is changing...because it is easier to change the interface than the user. Aside from obvious questions about the accuracy of the "answer" that is being given...one issue is the accuracy of what the interface has determined your preferences and likes to be.
Is this a good thing?