Search Engines aren’t Enough in the Information Age – Information Literacy as a Civic Competence

Search Engines Aren’t Enough in the Information Age—Information Literacy as a Civic Competence

Roberto Gonzalez-Ibanez, Universidad de Santiago de Chile

Have you ever wondered how good you are at searching for information online? With the widespread use of large-scale search engines, people probably do not think too much about this. Indeed, search engines are particularly good at getting the information “we want,” thus giving people an illusion that they are quite good at that. Unfortunately, these sophisticated tools are far from helping us with information literacy, and without this people are constrained about what they can ask, receive, and learn when searching information online.

As a reader of this article, it is very likely that you know what search engines are. Even if not, you have probably used them for searching information on the vast World Wide Web (WWW). Indeed, names such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, which have been quite popular search engines in the past two decades, may be familiar to you. Although it would be quite difficult to find something on the Web without their support, search engines alone are not enough to fulfill one’s information needs. But, if search engines are not sufficient, what else could be possibly needed?

Search engines like the above mentioned are perhaps the most visible example of information retrieval systems, a technology that has been being developed for almost 70 years until now. During all this time, the evolution of technology, along with the combined efforts of scientists and professionals from various domains, have made possible what we know today as modern search engines. Currently, one can search through text, voice, images, music, video, and even thoughts. Thus, whether you are looking for a nice restaurant in your neighborhood, the name of a song you are listening to, or tomorrow’s weather forecast, it is very likely that you turn to your preferred device and search for it—or perhaps what many say these days: “google it.”

—Despite the widespread use and continuous improvements of search engines, these are not perfect tools by any means—

Despite the widespread use and continuous improvements of search engines, these are not perfect tools by any means. On the one hand, search engines have become quite good in providing factual information to meet users’ immediate needs. For instance, looking for currency exchange, a weather forecast, or the capital of a given country can be rather simple tasks with existing search technology. On the other hand, when users’ problems are complex, search engines may be rather limited to meet their needs. Examples of such scenarios include: searching for a health treatment, the evidence for a legal case, the literature for a research project, or advice for a personal matter. In all these cases, search engines may not be as effective and efficient as in the previous scenarios. Here, searchers may struggle formulating queries that could lead them to relevant information. In doing so, searchers must deal with unwanted content retrieved by search engines (e.g., advertisements, unreliable sources, and information already known), and they also need to make sense of all the information gathered in order to solve their problems.

Search Engine BarWhile modern search engines do what is technically possible these days to help users in the information search process of rather complex tasks, it is also necessary that users themselves are well equipped with a set of competences that let them face the various challenges involved in online inquiry. Still, some may argue that they can find almost anything they want to find with a little help from search engines, yet this is not necessarily a good thing. For example, an individual who believes that the Earth is flat could search online for evidence to support his/her beliefs through the following query: “evidence that earth is flat.” Not surprisingly, a modern search engine like Google and Bing will return an extensive list of results (i.e., web pages, news, videos) with supporting arguments about this topic. More importantly, these results will be on the very first positions of the list (i.e., high ranking), making it more suitable for the user to click them. What we find in this particular example is what is known as confirmation bias, where search engines are quite good. Unfortunately, this is just one example of many other biases from which search engines are not exempt, which tells us that search technologies are not neutral at all. The most worrying thing about this is that most users are not conscious about that.

Knowing that search engines, even the most popular ones, are not perfect at all is the very first step to realize that online search should be taken seriously. Search companies and researchers are constantly dealing with ways to improve search systems. Some proposals may look like science fiction and others may be considered unethical; in any case, the path to solve the various problems of search engines is a very long one. Meanwhile, it is crucial to educate people so that they face their information problems in a proper manner and with a conscious use of search technology when the process is carried out online; in other words, they should become information literate. Although there is not total agreement about what information literacy means, most include the following component skills: being able to search for information, critically assess the material found, identify key ideas, and synthesize/integrate information to solve problems. Some refer to this as online inquiry competences (OIC).

From the users’ perspective, information literacy is one possible approach to face current limitations of search technology. Yet, information literacy is a major challenge itself. As a matter of fact, educators, information scientists, and librarians, among others, have been dealing for decades with ways to effectively make people information-literate. Over the years, with the widespread use of the Web, the popularity of search engines, and ever-growing uncurated content (e.g., fake news, personal blogs, social media, misinformation), information literacy development has become quite challenging. Today it is not clear what methods are the most appropriate to develop OIC, how to effectively assess OIC, and when OIC should start being developed (in preschool, primary school, high school, college, etc.). Despite all these open questions, countries like Finland have taken information literacy very seriously to the point of considering it a civic competence that must be developed from an early age.

Even big search companies such as Google have taken a stance regarding educating their users on information literacy aspects. In particular, Google Search Education offers a variety of free online resources through what they call Search Literacy plans. This consists of a list of lessons organized in modules and skill levels that covers topics from how to pick search terms to how to evaluate the credibility of sources. The content is provided through a mixture of slides, documents, and videos. It also includes guidelines for educators and an interactive platform based on a trivia game where search skills can be put into practice. Coming from a recognized search company, this single example signals that search technologies alone are insufficient and that educating users is fundamental. 

Despite the various efforts in designing and implementing information literacy development approaches, it is not clear which ones are the most effective ones yet. From a research perspective, several scholars have tackled the problem of information literacy development and evaluation. For instance, between 2016 and 2019 we conducted the iFuCo project as part of a joint collaboration between Chile and Finland (ifuco.interaction-lab.info). Among the goals of this large project, we focused on designing an OIC development program for sixth graders of both countries and methods to test its effectiveness. On the one hand, the development program involved materials, teacher training, and a class intervention where teachers taught their students how to search for information online, how to assess information, how to identify key ideas, and how to synthesise the information gathered. On the other hand, for testing the effects of this intervention, we created NEURONE (www.neurone.info), an online platform that offers a constrained but realistic version of the Web, a search engine that mimics popular ones, and tools to gather Web documents, evaluate them, collect key ideas, and synthesise the information found during the search process. Results from this project showed a modest impact of the intervention on students’ OIC when applied in science and social science research tasks.

Along the same lines of the iFuCo project, we are currently conducting the TUTELAGE project (tutelage.interaction-lab.info). Here we aim to develop (1) interactive diagnostic tools of OIC for K-12 and (2) artificial-intelligence-based methods to support students’ OIC development. We expect that our novel approach can bring a significant leap from traditional instruction methods and that eventually, it becomes a complementary resource for teachers in the challenges involved in developing and evaluating OIC at school level.

These two projects are just a very small sample of the various efforts taken worldwide to develop OIC. Only in the scientific literature, it is possible to find thousands of articles about information literacy development involving kids and adults. Studies are spread around the globe with a high number of them from Europe, North America, and Asia. This illustrates how important information literacy is, especially today in a society that operates around information. Unfortunately, as we have mentioned above, content (not necessarily information) is abundant, search technology is imperfect, but it empowers people to access information, giving them an illusion that overestimates their actual OIC, especially those related to information search, identification of key ideas, and critical evaluation. Even if search technologies improve over time, information literacy should be formally developed as a civic competence given its crucial role for society growth.

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