Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Finding the Black Box

Homing in on information online is similar to locating a downed aircraft's black box in one respect: both send out signals. In the case of the black box, the signal gets stronger as you approach. In the case of information online, the contextual evidence (think clues) gets stronger.

Detecting those clues and interpreting them can be very difficult.

Homing in on information online depends on browsing for keyword evidence. Some people have a distinct advantage in this regard. Masterful browsers tend to have fairly developed language skills. This, coupled with a disposition to read carefully, puts them far ahead of otherwise skilled computer users. I know adults often feel inadequate when working with kids with lightning fast computer abilities. But adults, despite their technological shortcomings, tend to outperform prodigious children and teens when it comes to homing in on information.

I witnessed an example of this last evening when my wife pilot tested an assessment that Information Fluency is preparing to use with Center for Talent Development students at Northwestern University. Pat, not a computer user from birth, took about an hour to complete the 10 item pretest, most of which depends on careful reading and browsing--after all, investigative searching relies on being thorough and examining lots of clues. She only missed 2 items, which is typical of an adult who has mastered searching and evaluation. Middle school and high school students will take about half that time and miss the majority of the items.

The major difference boils down to reading and browsing carefully. Sure, there are other techniques in a skilled online investigator's toolkit, but careful reading and browsing can be used to solve most search challenges.

1. See every word as a clue It's really easy to overlook important keywords when skimming. The words and terms that matter most are typically nouns and numbers. Adjectives become important in detecting bias. Spotting these is easier by slowing down. If you have the attitude that words are clues--not just the specific keyword(s) you are looking for--you will probably have to adjust your speed.

2. Recognize and follow possible connections Here is where terms you weren't looking for become important and why it helps to have a good vocabulary. Synonyms and words used in the context of what you are looking for are all possible connections. It may help to think about what some of these other words are before reading. In terms of the Digital Information Fluency Model, this is known as finding better keywords as you search. You can't predict with 100% accuracy what keywords are necessary before you search. You have to pay attention and find them as you search.

An example may help Let's say you're looking for the publisher of this site: http://www.spacetoday.net. First steps are usually to read the header and footer for the name of an organization or copyright information. Not seeing those, what stands out is the About Us link. Let the browsing begin. The name of the publisher is in the text of this page. In this case, it's an individual: "Spacetoday.net was founded by Jeff Foust." This wasn't a particularly difficult challenge, but many students will miss it because the name is embedded in the text. Moreover, Mr. Foust's role is represented with the word "founded" rather than "published." You have to know what these words mean, how they are used and related. Is the founder always the publisher? Not always. To make sure we've got the publisher, another source of information is required.

Here's your Challenge: Can you find another source of information that confirms that Jeff Foust is actually the publisher? It might take another technique in addition to careful reading and browsing.

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