Friday, January 6, 2012

Browsing Practice

Browsing takes practice.

Browsing, or surfing, is easy to do: just click a link. Using browsing to find information efficiently is not easy. Querying is almost always quicker. That being said, most searches end with browsing, homing in on desired information by clicking links and scanning.

The Zeus Bunnycam is a challenge that can be used to demonstrate the difference between querying and browsing. I've recently updated the Bunnycam challenge because Google no longer supports its subject directory, which was the basis for the browsing experience. Subject Directories make excellent (safe) playgrounds for browsing practice. The challenge now uses the subject directory instead.

Becoming a proficient browser involves making increasingly 'educated' guesses. The breadth of one's vocabulary directly impacts one's success, but chance also plays a large part. Much of the time it is impossible accurately to predict what link points to the desired information: an author uses a different word than you would use or the information simply isn't available.

Rather than frustrate learners with challenges for lack of information, browsing challenges that use subject directories focus on word choices: what link is most likely to get me closer to the information I need?  Additionally, subject directories expose the differences between querying and searching.

Try it.

Open, the open directory project. Look for information on the Zeus Bunnycam.
  1. There are two ways to search: click on the categorical links provided or enter a query in the database's search engine. Querying is by far the quicker method. This can be experienced by dividing a class in two groups: Query and Browse. The Query group only uses the search engine. The Browse group only clicks on words (no typing).
  2. Another group experience is to make everyone browse. Stop the action after 1 minute. Find out where members of the group are. In what section are they browsing? There is bound to be a wide variety of responses. This demonstrates the difficulty in making educated guesses as to where someone else 'filed' the information. Two people are not likely to put the information in the same place. Why?  This question would be good to explore with middle school students and older in the context of language arts.
  3. Browsing is deeply connected to scanning: looking at the results for clues that suggest one is getting closer to the desired information. It is often enlightening to ask students why they click one link rather than another. Ask them to explain their choices to the group. Hearing others' explanations is a learning experience.
Browsing is also a heuristic strategy. Many find it an enjoyable activity that leads to surprising results. You start looking for one thing and find something new. This is a good application of browsing that requires little practice: you see something interesting and follow it. Since browsing is the final step in most queries, getting better at accurate guessing takes practice.

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