Smart Searching Just Got Smarter with instaGrok

Content used to be difficult to find, behind closed doors, and very proprietary. Those days are long over. Now it’s just the opposite. We now have so much content, we don’t know where or even how to start. We went from trying to find a needle in a haystack to trying to find a needle in a needle stack.
This all happened in a fairly short time, so short that some instructors are still teaching like most of the world’s knowledge is not just seconds away. Our whole approach to knowledge management and what we do with knowledge has to change. The major search engines, obviously, figured this out years ago, and their software engineers have constantly been trying to improve searching by making their search engines smarter.
One complaint about smart searches is that they don’t let you totally explore all of the possibilities on the web. They filter out some information that might be the exact information you need. That’s valid, but not necessarily a concern for K12 searches. When the student reaches higher academia or becomes a research assistant, we can worry about that then. Otherwise, most students and teachers are swimming in a sea of information that’s capable of pulling them under. Unless the lesson’s objective is “The Art of Searching” or “Rewriting Finnegan’s Wake with Google Search Results,” instructors might not want students to spend 90 percent of their time poring through search results.

Search Strategy

So how do teachers provide safe, targeted searches that result in content-appropriate results for their students? Do we have search strategies, and do we share that with students? They know what you mean when you say “google it,” but we have a chance for a real teachable moment in the search phase of any project. Here are some things we want in our search strategies:

  • Filter out non-educational material (shopping sites, dangerous sites, etc.)
  • Build 21st-century research skills
  • Show connections to related content
  • Encourage searching beyond the initial search with refined searching
  • Find age-appropriate content
  • Locate differentiated content and reading levels
  • Develop advanced search skills: date ranges, languages, regions, exclusions
  • Locate specific media types: video, PPT. PDFs, images,
  • Catalog the material
  • Curate the material
  • Share search results, cataloging, and curation with the instructor
  • Teach proper attribution, usage, and copyright; and
  • Encouraging digital citizenship with safe searching.

Google’s Custom Search Engine is a place to start if you really want to control the content students see. When you set up your custom search engine, you will determine exactly what sites will be searched. This was a good breakthrough for educators seven or eight years ago, but the web has really developed way beyond this with smart searching. It’s worth reviewing Google search tips with students before you turn them loose.
Google made a big announcement about their Knowledge Graph last week. You may have already noticed Google’s search evolution:

“We can use the Knowledge Graph to answer questions you never thought to ask and help you discover more.”  -Google

Here it is in action:


Google’s Knowledge Graph is great and intriguing, but it’s still not quite the K12 search engine that we are looking for. instaGrok has an incredible solution, though, and the Google engineers are going to have to up it a notch to provide K12 students with a better tool than this.

Check out their video here:

I’m not sure that I can describe with accuracy and justice with what’s going on at instaGrok. You really need to take it for a spin here.  Search for anything. See the connections. Be sure to adjust the difficulty level with the slider between the chalkboard and Einstein. insaGrok has free accounts. Once you have an account, you can keep and curate journals of your searches and discoveries. You can print or email the journals to an instructor or students. The concept maps, annotated results, key terms, practice quizzes, and key facts turns this into way more than an ordinary search engine. Impressive indeed, and I can’t wait to see what they bring us next.
If you want to discover more on search engines, grok it here.

Adding to the Graph

Don’t forget, of course, that there are sources of information that are not on the net. You can still find microfiche newspaper records at libraries and at newspaper archives.  It’s worth letting students search for and find that. It might be the closest that they ever come to archaeology. And if you ever want to get a feeling for a time period, look at an newspaper, not just the stories, but at what’s revealed in the advertisements, want ads, and opinion pieces. Journalists have been trained to write a certain way, but those items reflect the culture.
Lastly, don’t forget the personal interview as a source of information. Students can interview content experts in their region and upload those interviews to the net and become a producer of content, as well, adding their own discoveries and knowledge to search engine results. That’s pretty cool.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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