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Fact or fiction? Four online research techniques for pupils

In a digital-first world, it can be hard for pupils to separate fact from fiction. Help your pupils learn to be better online researchers with these four key tips.

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As a digital-first teacher, no doubt you’re already employing a number of modern learning techniques in the classroom. Whether you’re already using an interactive front-of-class display like an ActivPanel, or using personal tech like tablets and apps with your pupils, you’re aware that there are countless ways of using tech to engage your pupils and boost learning outcomes. Edtech can improve education for pupils of all abilities.

But what about online research? In a recent Pew survey, the majority of teachers said that, despite their students’ affinity with digital media, they still lacked patience and determination when doing difficult research.

As we move further away from traditional textbook learning and gradually towards using more digital resources, are your digitally native pupils fully adept at sorting between credible sources? Can they identify fake news that’s prolific over social media?

Here’s four tips to help your pupils adopt better online research skills using your school’s edtech:

1. Consider the search terms

Your pupils’ first instincts, when faced with a topic to research, will probably be to enter very broad search terms such as ‘World War II’. This will deliver hundreds of potentially irrelevant results, depending on the purpose of the research.

Students should understand that the quality of their search terms helps determine the quality of the information that they find. Why not give groups of pupils a selection of search terms, ranging from the most general to more specific. For example, ‘World War II’, ‘the Battle of Britain’, and ‘dates and duration of the Battle of Britain’.

You could have a group discussion or small group work brainstorming other keywords, taking into account synonyms and generating other questions around the topic. Task your groups for searching for each on their devices or the ActivPanel. Ask the groups to record how many results are returned for each term, and the types of information they find.

Compare the outcomes from each and discuss how changing a few words can generate very different information. Discuss how specificity can narrow their search to the results they need.

2. Don’t rely on Wikipedia

You’ll probably find that most of your pupils will already know not to believe everything they read online. Despite this, the majority don’t always take the time to fully evaluate their sources.

Wikipedia, for example, can be a common red herring. While the site is packed with interesting information, pupils may feel inclined to use it as a one-stop-shop for their subject research.

Why not discuss with your class some key indicators for assessing the credibility of a website? For example, is the information up to date? Does it ask for lots of personal information or prompt warnings? Is the information in-depth and extensive? What is its authority? Does the information come from a trusted expert?

On your front-of-class display, you can show your class examples of trustworthy and questionable information sources and see how many pupils can spot the common red flags.

3. Be patient

Digitally native children are used to on-demand information; they adapt to new tech faster and have been shown to possess different learning preferences to previous generations.

You may find, therefore, that your pupils are so accustomed to switching between short bursts of information as displayed on social media, they have acquired an inability to focus on or analyse lengthy pieces of information. So, when they can’t find the exact answers to their questions after they’ve spent a few minutes searching online, they may quickly become frustrated and give up.

To encourage a more thorough approach to your pupils’ online information, you could challenge small groups to come up with a well-researched answer to a question that isn’t easily searchable. Opinion questions work well, for example, “Who’s the best actor to have played Batman?”

When pulling together their findings from online information, encourage your students to find and cite a wide variety of sources, including online opinions, box office information, and awards. Determine a winner from the most insightful response, based on the most convincing and well-rounded case.

4. Don’t copy and paste

In a more traditional teaching setting, it’s much easier to outline plagiarism from books. When a written book has been purchased, the published content clearly belongs to that author, and the name is visible in black and white.

For online content, the lines are blurrier. Perhaps no one has directly been referenced as an author, and the work is being provided to anyone who finds it, for free. What’s more, young people increasingly see piracy or plagiarism as different to stealing. Even in 2004, a survey found that 86% of teens felt music piracy was ‘morally acceptable’.

Spend time with your pupils outlining that there’s more to research than copying and pasting. Outline the way to check and cite references from online content. There are teaching resources available to help outline the key points; tasking students with practicing summarising, paraphrasing, and quoting.

You could also discuss the idea of piracy with your students from a more emotional perspective. Ask them how they might feel if someone downloaded their music, or stole a book they’d written without paying for it? You might also talk about how it would feel to not get paid for other types of work, such as working in an office or as a teacher.

Overall, as teachers you’re very fortunate that so many classrooms are well equipped with internet-enabled edtech. Accessing the wealth of information online should be easier than ever, and there are new ways to boost learning with online apps and devices.

If you’ve got an opinion about how technology is being used in the classroom, whether it’s being fully optimised or needs more attention, fill in our survey. We’re collecting valuable information from educators for our annual State of Technology in Education report, outlining how the use of tech is evolving in schools across the UK.