Britannica Vs Google in Class

I started out last month with a class on search engines and what students need to know about content, source verification, plagiarism and copyright. This was a series of classes for 4th and 5th grades.

I called the series “Not Search, Research!” just to make the point that a Google search does not qualify as research. I have picked this up from my own habits, and by listening to adults over the past few years who say things like “I researched this, and found that…” or “You could research this on the Internet if you don’t believe me…”

Believe me, in my previous career, I’ve been teaching grown-ups for many years about authenticity, fact-checking, and the limitations of search engines. I recall an article I once wrote for a business magazine, suggesting that Google does not make a person smarter, and got some push-back from one reader who was offended. She probably did not care about the dead-tree ‘research’ equivalents found in libraries.

Excuse this long preamble. I wanted to discuss the use of encyclopedias, specifically Britannica, which you may know, announced earlier this year that it would stop printing.

This morning, I jumped on a GoToTraining webinar by Britannica on its online school edition that my school has subscribed to. On first glance, it is deep as it is wide, just as how we who grew up in the pre-digital age, knew it from those 29 volumes, in serious black-and-silver binding.

While I mourn the loss of a legendary research tool, I have no problem with finding what want from Britannica, online. I teach students that research involves balance, not just fact and trivia diving. Finding different viewpoints and angles sharpens our ideas, so that one person’s paper on Thomas Jefferson won’t look like a copy of the next. Students are so used to Googling everything, they get frustrated when something doesn’t show up on the first few screens of results. The problem with not having patience with deep diving, transfers to an impatience with long-form content, and even walking a twenty-nine steps to the library to look it up somewhere else. What students will lose with the online-only Britannica, is the ability to dwell on something, and think about what they just read or saw. To be able to spot a gap in knowledge, a factual error, even, and to make that the point of their research.

Instant gratification is a double-edged sword. Students won’t know what they may be giving up when all they have is a link or a favorite tab to click on.

Lest you think I am pro books, and anti digital media, check my other blog, Hopolloi Report. I have interviewed people at Google and Britannica, created wikis, and written *a lot* about the wonders of Wikipedia, real-time communication, and Wikipedia policy. But we do not live in an either-or world, as some who gush about iPads want us to believe. Media snacking is not research. 

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