Beth Holland

Food for thought…

An Evolution of Research

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Image credit: Ed Magazine, illustrator Matt Cooney

Image credit: Ed Magazine, illustrator Matt Cooney

Last spring, Lory Hough and I swapped emails for several weeks regarding the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. Her final product, Truce Be Told, appeared in last month’s Harvard Ed Magazine. Throughout the process, I really started thinking about how I have not only changed the way that I think about finding information for research, but also how I actually work through the process. I also need to formalize and collect my thoughts into an article for the EdTechTeacher blog, so any feedback would be most appreciated…

In junior high and high school, my English and history teachers instructed me on the research process – a convoluted system involving note cards, encyclopedias, card catalogs, more note cards, and multi colored paper clips. First, we learned to begin with an encyclopedia. Then, a trip to the card catalog with a list of topic words. Finally, one main idea, with no more than two to three supporting details, was inscribed on a note card with a reference to the matching source card. This tedious system served me well even when college professors added the requirements to use Lexus Nexus, microfilm, and one source from the World Wide Web.

During the spring of 2000, I taught my first research project to a group of ninth grade English students. Before beginning the assignment, I asked the librarian to review my plans.

“Make sure you use Google.” She told me.

“What’s a Google?” I asked.

And so, at that moment, I entered the world of 21st century research.

By the time I finished graduate school in 2002, I had taught myself to replace notecards with PowerPoint slides and use the text tools in Word to make annotations on digital documents. When teaching research to fifth graders in 2005, I confronted Wikipedia, embraced, and grew to loathe Google. Now, in the fall of 2011, my iPhone provides me with encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, newspapers, translators, note taking tools, graphic organizers, and millions of books, magazines, and primary source documents all with the launch of an app.

Given the ubiquity of devices that students possess, how does this impact the traditional research process? Essentially, every student could possess a complete library in their pocket, so is a trip to the library necessary any more?

When students embark on research, what is the learning goal? In an elementary classroom, the goal could be as simple as to identify a fact that supports a topic, or locate a fact after having used an index. Middle school students might need to synthesize the information from multiple sources to draw a conclusion, and high school seniors could have to analyze primary source materials to hypothesize an alternate outcome or propose a new solution. Regardless of the medium or the media being used to access the information, these core cognitive requirements still apply.

So what has changed? Let’s take a look Letterman Style with a Top 10 List:

  1. Students now begin with encyclopedia-type information. This could include the hardback copy in the library, Wikipedia,, on maybe a library database like Grolier. In RI, thanks to the public library, you can even access the complete Worldbook web system.
  2. Once those “key words” have been gathered, students can search their school library, or the Library of Congress, or the National Archives, or a university library, or the entire public domain to find information. If a student finds a book, they may not even have to get it through inter-library loan. Google Books may have already digitized it!
  3. Forget microfilm! Students can now search the archives of most major publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine from their chairs.
  4. You know the saying that “a picture’s worth 1,000 words”? How about video? Between SnagFilms, Discovery Education, National Geographic, iTunes, NetFlix, PBS Nova, and countless others, students can watch, listen, and even incorporate photos, videos, and audio into the process.
  5. Older students should be able to use a web-annotation tool, such as Diigo, to take notes on web sources. They can include their citation information in the Bookmark comments, plus the teacher can review and comment on their notes.
  6. Who needs an MLA handbook when you have NoodleTools? There are even apps for your phone to generate those pesky citations. For 99-cents, students can purchase QuickCite and have their citations emailed to them. Don’t believe me? Check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  7. Rather than cart index cards around, students could use Google Presentations, Evernote, or even LiveBinders to keep track of their notes.
  8. Time to start organizing? Use or mindmeister to get started. Working from an iPad or iPhone? No problem! You could map out your project with IdeaSketch or Popplet. Hey, use a web based tool and you can even share with your classmates for help!
  9. By the time students get around to actually writing the paper, they could use Word, Pages, Text Edit, Google Docs, Zoho, Dragon Dictation, SoundNote… You get the idea. Depending on the tool, students can incorporate track changes, use text-to-speech to facilitate the editing process, share their work with classmates or teachers to get feedback, and even publish the final project for the world to see.
Hmmm. So, what’s the BIGGEST thing that’s changed? #10: A student could actually do this entire process from their phone.

Author: brholland

Researcher, Writer, and Speaker

One thought on “An Evolution of Research

  1. Great Blog and Excellent Information!

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