November 7, 2011

The Mobilization of Research
Image credit: Ed Magazine, illustrator Matt Coon
Image credit: Ed Magazine, illustrator Matt Coon

Last spring, Lory Hough from Harvard’s Ed Magazine and I swapped emails for several weeks regarding the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. Her final product, Truce Be Told, appeared last month. Throughout the process, I started thinking about how I have not only changed the way that I approach finding information for research, but also how I actually work through the process itself.

In middle and high school, I first learned the research process – a rigid system involving note cards, encyclopedias, card catalogs, more note cards, and multi-colored paper clips. Begin with an encyclopedia to generate a list of topic words, potential authors, and potential book titles to carry to the card catalog. For note taking, write one main idea, with no more than two to three supporting details, on each note card and include a reference to the matching source card. Organize the cards into concepts, create an outline, and then type up the paper. This 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, however, I taught my first research project to a group of ninth grade English students. Before beginning the assignment, I met with the librarian to review my plans and see if I had missed anything.

“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 replaced notecards with PowerPoint slides and used 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 (read Truce Be Told for more on that topic).

Now, in the fall of 2011, my phone 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 then impact the traditional research process? Essentially, every student could possess a complete library in their pocket, so is a trip to the stacks even necessary any more?

The learning goals associated with research projects may not have changed very much. 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 information from multiple sources to draw a conclusion, and high school students 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 at the mechanical process itself.

  1. Students now begin with encyclopedia-type information. This could include the hardback copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica in the library, or it could refer to, or maybe a library database such as Grolier. In the state of Rhode Island, thanks to the public library, you can even access the complete Worldbook web system.
  2. Once those “key words” have been gathered from the initial discovery stage, 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. Instead of scanning through microfilm, students can now go online to search the archives of most major publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or Time Magazine.
  4. Beyond text and static images, students can now leverage audio and video to support their research process. SnagFilms, Discovery Streaming, National Geographic, iTunesU, PBS Nova and countless others provide students with millions of media resources.
  5. Older students can incorporate a web-annotation tool, such as Diigo, to take notes on web sources rather than transcribe them onto a note card or type them into a PowerPoint slide. They can include their citation information in the Bookmark comments, plus the teacher can review and comment on their notes as they can easily be shared.
  6. Rather than sifting through an MLA handbook, students can use online annotation web sites such as NoodleTools. There are even phone apps to generate  citations. For 99-cents, students can purchase QuickCite for their iPhone and have their citations emailed to them as described in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  7. Students no longer need to carry boxes of index cards as they could use Google PresentationsEvernote, or LiveBinders to organize their notes.
  8. Instead of a traditional outline, students can leverage a mindmapping tool such as or mindmeister to get started. If working from a mobile device such as an iPad or iPhone, students could map out their project with IdeaSketch or Popplet. By using a web based tool, students can share their work with each other, or their teacher, to gather feedback at this formative stage.
  9. By the time students get around to actually writing the paper, they could use Word, Pages, Text Edit, Google Docs, Dragon Dictation, SoundNote, or Piratepad. 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.
However the BIGGEST difference in the mechanics of the research process may just be #10: A student could do this entire process from their phone.