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One of the big rubs in this brave new world of technology-assisted education is getting students to realise that not everything posted online is true. With young children, even getting them to realise that search engines don’t actually provide you with information – rather, they link to websites that do – is very difficult. This is made easier with the introduction of Wolfram Alpha, which rather than linking to websites that contain the information provides the user with a nicely-formatted cribsheet of information related to the search topic.

Wolfram Alpha

I was recently asked with very little prior notice to run a taster lesson for year 6 children who were in school for a taster day. Because we only had 50 minutes, and couldn’t expect anything like skills with graphics packages, etc, I decided to do a lesson on finding information on the Internet. I divided the class up into three groups: group A had to use Ask Jeeves, group B had to use Google, and group C had to use Wolfram Alpha. I told them they would have to answer some fact-finding questions as quickly and as accurately as possible. The first correct answer would get two win/draw slips (our school’s reward system), the second would get one, then we’d come back together as a class and discuss the answers they found.

Question one: what is the capital city of Guatemala?

Start off easy. Most kids got it, with the majority of the early hands up coming from team Google. Some members of Team Wolfram who used the keywords “guatemala capital” found not only the information they were looking for, but additional information including location, population, which they started avidly reading in preparation for question two.

Question two: what is the currency used in Guatemala?

Another easy question, but it allowed us to discuss the differences between the three search engines – Ask presents its information in a similar way to Google, with no discernible improvements, yet the chatter from Team Wolfram had the other two thirds of the room craning their necks over to have a look. One student in Team Wolfram who had used the keyword “guatemala” already had the information on his screen (along with a great deal more) so won the prize for first correct answer within seconds.

Question three: what is the population of Guatemala?

With this question, you see the penny begin to drop. I started writing answers on the board:

  • 12,300,000
  • 13,000,000
  • 14,400,000
  • 68,000,000,000 (not entirely sure what happened there)
  • 13,400,000

Wolfram's population table

Wolfram’s population section.

When I got to ten different numbers I called a stop to the search.

“So which one’s right?”

A couple of unsure hands went up. “Mine,” said one of the more confident boys. “Why?” “Because it looked right.” “What do you mean by looked right?” “I’m not sure. It just did.”

There were another couple of similar answers, but then I asked where they got their information from. Because this isn’t immediately obvious on the Wolfram Alpha search page, I pointed out to the class that it was down at the bottom of the page under the link “Source information”:

Wolfram source information

I wrote this source information down on the board next to the answers. A handful:

  • Wikipedia
  • nationsencyclopedia.com
  • History Central.com
  • US State Department
  • CIA World Factbook

“Okay, now we’re talking – Sam, come cross out one you don’t believe.” He goes for Wikipedia. “Why did you choose that one?” “My mum told me anyone can edit it.” Someone else chips in about how that’s true, but that most things that are wrong get fixed quickly. I tell my story about a cherub in a previous school editing Nikita Kruschev’s page to say “mmmmm, burgers are yummy” a couple of years back, and that it got put back as it was in less than a minute.

“Do you want to change your answer, Sam?” “No, I still think some of the others are more reliable.”

This post is turning into storytime with Mr Greenwood, so I’ll leave it there, but suffice it to say from such a simple start these children who had come from different primary schools, with inconsistent (sometimes insufficient) ICT teaching were very quickly discussing how to be critical of sources on the Internet. The US State department is a better source of information than HistoryCentral.com because State is the department responsible for dealing with other countries. You’d expect them to have their facts right.

In the last ten minutes, we discussed how populations are measured, and I ended the lesson with the promise of five of my finest win/draw slips for the first person to explain to me what a census is when they arrive as year 7s in September.

This is a potentially dry subject – hardly the kind of thing you’d expect young children to get excited about, yet it is a vital component of information literacy. I decided early in the year that yr 11 students explaining that they got the information for their essay “from Google” was unacceptable. Hopefully, through integrating lessons like these into the curriculum, it won’t happen quite so much.