Information Search

Instruction for Information Searches

Information searching has a long and diverse history. Libraries, museums, archives, and databases represent familiar facilities in which information has been gathered, codified, organized, stored, and in some cases, preserved. Tablets, manuscripts, and a variety of visual representations have existed for thousands of years as a way to gather and convey important information. For hundreds of years, the book has been a standard method for searching and codifying information, using a linear format with pages organized into chapters, footnotes, index, table of contents, and title page. Increasingly, current theory and research indicate that individuals engage in information searching in order to make sense of their environment. The motivation, which underpins information-searching activities, has traditionally been very strong. Information searching is often facilitated or enhanced by computer technology. Databases and digital libraries can store vast amounts of information, which may be accessible remotely using telecommunication networks like the Internet. In addition, the information can be manipulated in a variety of ways (for example, by using multimedia or a data analysis software program, gif), thus allowing different representations of the information. With the proliferation of computer technology and the ability to store large amounts of information remotely, the development of information-searching skills has become a core competency and a necessary lifelong skill.

The implications for teachers and educators are significant. No longer are teachers exclusively concerned with teaching subject matter and the acquisition of facts and knowledge. It is increasingly important for students to develop the ability to search for, organize, interpret, and evaluate relevant information. They must be able to transfer and apply these skills in an environment that is characterized by rapid change, increasing complexity, time compression, globalization, and exponential growth in information.

We will look at information searching as one of several important classroom activities that teachers and students engage in. It is important to keep in mind that information searching is cyclical and ongoing. While it can be thought of as an important initial activity in a class project, for example, it is likely that students will continue to gather information, as they need to, to refine their understanding of a topic.

We will examine many ideas on information searching from both a conceptual and practical perspective. It is hoped that this will give you a broad and deep understanding of the topic. We will begin with a multi-disciplinary discussion of information searching, provide some practical examples, present guidelines for use in the classroom, and discuss information-search methods. It is hoped that by the end of this lesson, you will have developed a balanced perspective on technology integration and will be ready to contemplate the development of a wide range of information-searching activities in your classroom.

Four Perspectives on Information Searching

Because information searching is inherently a multidisciplinary topic, we will first review contributions from four disciplines: educational technology, library and information science, organization science, and computer science. Like a large jigsaw puzzle, each perspective adds to the whole, providing ideas, concepts, and guidelines that can be implemented in a variety of ways across many subject areas and grade levels.

Judi Harris, an instructional technologist at the University of Texas, has written extensively on Internet use in the classroom. She identifies two broad educational activities: teleresearch and telecollaboration. She defines teleresearch as "using a computer connected to a telecommunications network, like the Internet, to do research at a distance." Her approach is pragmatic. She emphasizes that teachers must first consider two criteria before building teleresearch into the curriculum: first, whether it allows students to do something they couldn't do before, or second, whether they can do it better by using the Internet.

Central to teleresearch is the information-to-knowledge process, in which students actively and purposefully convert information they gather on the Internet into useful knowledge. She notes that developing effective information-seeking skills is an important part of this process. In addition to finding relevant information, students must be able to "manage, analyze, critique, cross-reference, and transform [information] into usable knowledge." Teachers become the guide and architect in developing a curriculum-based approach, which facilitates student learning and the creation of knowledge.

She identifies six purposes for students to use the Internet in their research activities. The first purpose is a prerequisite to the next four. They are: Harris takes a very pragmatic approach and includes many examples of classroom use in her book. A valuable aspect of her book is that these examples are categorized according to their purpose. For a discussion of her most recent book, Virtual Architecture, please refer to the readings in this lesson. You may also wish to visit her Virtual Architecture website, which includes additional classroom examples that are not listed in her book. space space
Information Search Process

Librarians and information scientists have a long history of research and practice in information searching. Brenda Dervin, for example, bases her information-search research on sense-making from communication theory, in which "a person constructs information through a series of steps to bridge gaps". Carol Kuhlthau takes a different approach, studying the psychology of information-searching behavior in high school students, college students, academic library and public library users. She has identified six stages of information searching, which correspond with three affective states: thoughts, feelings, and actions. The six stages are as follows: Kuhlthau provides several guidelines for assisting students through the information search process. First, she says, the information search process should be initiated by "open-ended problems, questions, or topics that need to be addressed by using a number of [information] sources over a period of time". This problem-directed focus should arise directly from the curriculum; that is, it is closely integrated with course content and not an artificially imposed research assignment. To initiate this process, some basic knowledge or construct is necessary, such as a guest speaker, video, or work of fiction. This will motivate the students and also help them to identify issues, questions, and problems. Brainstorming occurs early in this process and "provides opportunities for generating, clarifying and sharing ideas". It is important, she says, to keep the focus on the topic, ideas, and issues, not the mechanics. Keeping a journal is a useful way for students to take notes and record thoughts.

Throughout the six stages, Kuhlthau emphasizes a process approach to information searching. She says that:

Knowledge Creation

From an organizational science perspective, Nonaka (1994) theorizes that knowledge is created through a conversion process between two types of knowledge: tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. In this way, he says, existing knowledge is converted into new knowledge. Fundamental to this conversion is the process of information searching. The individual must be action-oriented and purposeful in acquiring, maintaining, interpreting, and evaluating information. The cycle is ongoing and continuous. Throughout this process, which he describes as a spiral, the individual constructs meaning from the environment.

According to Nonaka, the four patterns of knowledge conversion are: Nonaka's model provides an interesting perspective into the different kinds of knowledge that an individual may construct from information searching. In particular, his ideas can provide a useful framework for teachers as you begin to develop different information-searching activities for your students. In addition, he is interested in knowledge creation as a social activity. He says that knowledge is formed in the minds of individuals, developed through social interactions, and supported by organizations. His work has important implications in the area of collaborative learning, social learning, and group work.
Information Retrieval

Information retrieval, which refers to computerized information searches, is the most technical of all of the four perspectives, which have previously focused on the human factors in information searching. We will begin with a brief review of the history of information retrieval.

In the early days of information retrieval, a human intermediary, often a librarian conducted an interview with the individual who was searching the information. The intermediary then developed a search strategy, involving the formulation of specific search queries, and searched selected information databases, which were often password protected and proprietary. While the intermediary had highly specialized skills, which were required to effectively search these early databases, the search process was somewhat time consuming and often expensive. More recently, information technology, and in particular the search interface, has evolved to a point where the end user may directly query a database, either one locally available on the desktop or remotely, via a telecommunications network like the Internet.

Although end-user searching is now the norm, there are still difficulties. In the context of distributed information via the Internet, Haversham and Gauch (1998) note that typically the end user has three outcomes: the user is overwhelmed with information, the user does not find enough (or any) information, or the user retrieves what he/she needs in about the right amount. Emphasizing the importance of searching effectively for information, Haversham and Gauch say that computer technology, in the form of intelligent search agents, is an important enabler with the potential to greatly enhance end-user searching. This also means less reliance on a human intermediary. They note that: Susan Gauch has written extensively in this area. In general, she identifies the following types of search-user interfaces: It is clear that current technology provides powerful new tools, involving both opportunities and constraints, for information-searching activities. Examples include the popular Internet search engines, Yahoo, Google, and ProFusion. While technology has made great strides in facilitating information-searching activities, and will continue to do so, the role of the human intermediary and/or facilitator continues to be important. In particular, it should be noted that the role of the teacher is critical in guiding and facilitating student use of information retrieval in information-searching activities.

Components of Information Searches

While all four perspectives on information searching are very different in approach, each discusses important components of information searching, which we hope will assist you in developing learning activities for the classroom. Let's review several of them:

Types of Information

Let's now look at the different types of information you or your students may want to gather and then provide some practical examples for each. You will note that there are several ways in which to categorize information: qualitative or quantitative, primary or secondary source, print or electronic information. The information you gather can be a combination of the three, such as qualitative primary source information in electronic format. Or, you may want to gather both qualitative and quantitative data on your topic. Once we've looked at each of these categories, we will then discuss methods of information searching.

Qualitative and Quantitative Information

Quantitative information generally refers to information that can be readily measured, counted, or quantified. This type of information may be found in databases and spreadsheets, such as the class roster and grade sheets for your class, where large amounts of information can be gathered, tagged, stored, and manipulated. Or, your students may gather survey or field data, which can then be entered into the database or spreadsheet program. There are simpler methods for using quantitative information, however. With a word processor, for example, you can use the word count function to determine the number of words on a page or the number of pages in a document. You may use this as one measure in setting criteria for paper length for a classroom assignment.
Qualitative information generally refers to information that is not easily quantified. Qualitative information may be very specific in context, not easily obtainable, or not readily generalizable. It also may be more difficult, time consuming, expensive, or less efficient to gather. Qualitative information searching may be used to probe for more specific information or to clarify information already gathered. An example may be an interview with a subject matter expert, such as a computer scientist or a president of a local company, to extend, reinforce, or enhance the information you have already gathered.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Information can also be categorized into primary or secondary sources, although it is important to keep in mind that there is often some overlap between the two categories. Secondary sources are useful in developing background knowledge of a topic. They are typically secondhand accounts, summaries, or overviews, which are not the result of direct evidence or direct observation. Examples of secondary sources include many items in your library, literature reviews, textbooks, encyclopedias, and handbooks.

Primary sources result from direct evidence, firsthand testimony, or direct observation. These may include survey, interview, and field data. Historically, primary sources are firsthand accounts of a current event, such as newspaper articles, personal journals or diaries and interview transcripts. It is important to note that many U.S. government documents are considered primary sources since the government, in the form of its various agencies, conducts its own research and then compiles and publishes the raw data and summary findings.

A note on your library: While many materials in your library will be secondary sources, the library also includes primary source documents, such as interview transcripts or audiophiles, government documents, newspapers, or other firsthand accounts. In addition, don't overlook digital libraries and the Internet for both primary and secondary source information.
Print and Electronic Information

A third category is print and electronic information. While this refers primarily to the information format, it also is linked to type and amount of information that is available. In the introduction, we briefly looked at the history of information searching, which spans thousands of years. It is important to remember that most recorded information is still available only in print format. While the growth in electronic information has dramatically increased in recent years, print sources still contain the lion's share of recorded information. This will vary across disciplines and subjects, but the general rule holds. For this reason, at least for the foreseeable future, be sure to include print sources, whenever possible, in your search activities.
We have also discussed several examples of electronic information, such as databases and digital libraries, as well as key features, such as the ability to manipulate electronic data. As we have noted, information is increasingly available electronically, and in some instances only available electronically. A case in point is the U.S. government, which, in an effort to reduce paper production costs, is posting more information such as datasets, fact sheets and reports on the Internet and/or on CD-ROM. The U.S. Census site, for example, includes census, social, and economic data, as well as links to statistical agencies worldwide. To help consumers in locating the information they need, the government has compiled a number of index pages, such as FedStats Online, which links to statistics for more than 70 U. S. agencies. This broad initiative by the U.S. government is an example of the quality, quantity, currency, and type of information that is now available on the Internet and in other forms of electronic format, such as CD-ROMs.

Search Methods

Let's now discuss the range and diversity of search methods. In doing so, we will try to give you some ideas on how you may integrate technology into your learning activities. Also, keep in mind that information searching is activated by the presentation of a problem. Many of the methods presented below can be used in an integrated manner or used sequentially when searching for information. A key challenge for teachers is determining how these different methods may best be utilized to engage students in course content and to facilitate the development of critical analysis.

Background Information

Once a problem is presented, an early step in searching is to explore secondary sources, which provide topical summaries or overviews. These will help students in developing background knowledge on the topic and also help them to activate prior knowledge. A standard, and efficient, starting point is to go to a reference source, such as a handbook or an encyclopedia. Be sure to consider both print and electronic secondary sources, including the Internet and digital libraries. Students may then want to extend their knowledge in a variety of ways. An example is conducting a literature review, such as compiling a list of articles, books, and websites on the topic. Some scavenger hunts and WebQuests also provide sources for background knowledge prior to exploration and experimentation. Whenever possible, include a wide and diverse range of information sources when gathering background information.

Searching interview data can be time consuming and inconvenient, but can also yield valuable and very specific information on the topic. It also helps to build valuable skill sets, including planning, analytical, and social/interpersonal skills. While the interviewing activity is ideally conducted synchronously (i.e. real time) and face-to-face, you may also consider using technology, such as teleconferencing, if the individual you wish to interview is at a distance. Another possibility is to consider asynchronous interviewing, such as e-mail or threaded discussion, as a way of overcoming temporal and geographic constraints. A useful way of incorporating the interview method is to invite an expert to your classroom and allow the students to conduct the interview using questions they have formulated in advance. Or, if you wish to invite a guest who resides in another state, an alternative is to conduct the interview asynchronously via threaded discussion or e-mail.

Surveys are an efficient way of collecting data that can be quantified. Surveys provide a great deal of flexibility in searching for information. For example, large numbers of individuals or organizations can be surveyed in a consistent manner. Surveys can be sent by mail to individuals at both local and remote geographic locations and need not be administered in person. On the other hand, surveys may also be administered in person to small groups in a local setting.

The survey instrument is constructed in advance, refined, and then distributed, which may occur face-to-face, by mail, by e-mail or other forms of technology. In recent years, surveys administered by e-mail have become increasingly popular. One example of this may be to survey an electronic discussion list composed of a specialized group of individuals, such as a list for elementary music teachers.

Observation is useful when the information that is being gathered is context specific, such as an individual's behavior in a particular setting. In this regard, observation can yield an especially rich form of information that is not easily obtainable using other information-searching methods. You may wish to observe an individual, a group of individuals, or conduct a site visit to an outside organization. Job shadowing, role modeling, and site visits are examples of this type of observation.

Observation data can also, in some cases, be quantified and entered into a database or spreadsheet program. This application of observation data is closely related to fieldwork raw data, explained below.
Fieldwork Raw Data

Experimentation is an important part of many searching activities. Fieldwork offers the opportunity to explore a topic and add to the current knowledge base in the subject area. Some of these are based on observation data, which can be then stored in a database or spreadsheet. Many Webquests are designed around the activity of collecting raw data in the field. These are also often collaborative in design. An example is the KanCRN Collaborative Research Network, accessible on the Internet, which informs, coordinates, and facilitates student fieldwork. As part of the KanCRN project, students monitor chemical levels in local streams or ozone levels in plants and plant leaves. space space
Existing Documentation, Forms, and Databases

Another form of searching has to do with sampling or reconfiguring existing information sources. If the information is in electronic format, students can enter it into a spreadsheet, database, or word processing program. They can then manipulate and process the information in a variety of ways. For example, students may want to view historical transcripts that are available on the Internet, such as the primary source documents on slavery at the Library of Congress Website. Or, they may wish to retrieve census data from the U.S Census website and download it to a software program on their desktop. This method of searching provides a great deal of flexibility and can be easily integrated with other methods. space space


When we began this lesson, we identified searching as a core competency and an important lifelong skill in the Information Age. In taking a multidisciplinary approach, we've identified several important components of searches. Teachers and educators have a unique role in facilitating the development of search skills. We hope that you are now ready to think about the types of search activities you can develop for your classroom to enhance your curriculum, facilitate technology integration, and guide your students in critical analysis and the construction of knowledge.

ELPS 760 Integration of Educational Technology | KU Ed Tech Programs