By putting the world’s library at our fingertips, search engines have revolutionised our lives, and both changed and challenged the nature and purpose of education.
Why should I clutter my brain with information that is readily available from reference sources? – Albert Einstein.
But the search companies have scarcely scratched the surface of what search technology can do. Google, in particular, has a programme called Google Labs which turns out a constant stream of mind-boggling innovations.
One consequence of this is that our teaching of how to use search engines is permanently out of date. This isn’t just a matter of being ignorant of a few new features; the whole paradigm of how we gather and manipulate information is changing as we watch.
The closest parallel I can think of is the introduction of calculators. At first, schools banned them. When they unbanned them, they threw out paper-and-pencil arithmetic and became utterly disempowered by them. Finally (and thirty years on) we have gained an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the calculator and can now teach them in their proper context.
My contribution to avoiding that same lost-generation syndrome hitting web search is this little project:
Not only does it introduce students to geographical search, it also provides the stimulus for a discussion about the strengths and limitations of search technology generally.
Suppose you were starting at a new school? How would you learn how to get there? Look up your own school on both Google Local and Multimap. Get directions from home to school, using each. Screenshot the map thus generated in each case.
- Are they the same or different?
- Is either the journey you actually take to school?
- If not, why not?
Class discussion should not focus on which service is better, but rather
- How can a machine work this out at all?
- When it’s gone wrong, how did it go wrong?
- What does it seem to find easy/difficult?
For reference, here’s my journey from the Chalkface base in central Cambridge to Netherhall School, using
Both routes take me through bollarded roads accessible only to buses and taxis. More profoundly, neither engine appears to know that no-one in their right mind uses a car in Cambridge, we all cycle and go by the most direct route.