In this post, I will elaborate on a concept that I believe everyone who has ever touched a computer is familiar with… I am talking about web search engines. These engines are used in order to find information on the World Wide Web on any given subject. The most known are Google (of course!), Bing and Yahoo!.
How they work
How the search engines work is a very complex procedure, but here is a simplified way of understanding how it is done. Most of the search engines are similarly constructed, but I have based my research on Google, since it is the one that is used the most in the entire world. First, a “robot” navigates the web by following links from page to page. The World Wide Web is constantly changing and expanding, so the search (which is called crawling) is infinite. Then, the “robot” gathers information. He analyses the pages and sorts them by subjects, into an enormous database, which is over 100 petabytes (100 million gigabytes)! When a user writes what he wants to search in the search box, the complicated algorithms come into play. Before searching, Google (a.k.a. the different algorithms) verifies if he is on the same page with what you are looking for. For example, he corrects or suggests the right spelling, he autocompletes what you start to write, he looks for synonyms that could be pertinent, etc. Then, Google extracts the most relevant documents from the Database mentioned previously (which is called The Index). The algorithms rank the results according to different factors like the page quality, the popularity of the websites, how recent the pages are, your location, your language, how often the words you typed appear in the article, etc. For example, imagine you wrote part of a sentence in the search box. Google will rank in priority the links in which all of the words appear in the same order and next to each other. The pages that have the words, but only scattered everywhere in the page will also be extracted, but not in the higher ranks. If you only wrote a keyword, the pages in which this keyword is repeated the most often will be ranked first. All of this procedure happens in 1/8th of a second!
Before the internet was so common and advanced, the only way to gather information for projects and assignments was to search in a library. The process was very long and hard. First you had to leave the comfort of your home to go to the library. Then, find the right key words in order to find books or periodicals that were listed relevant to your subject. Then, you had to find these books scattered in the tremendous amount of book aisles. After finding the books, you had to actually read big parts of the books to find out if the sources could be relevant and where in the books could you use a passage that was related to the topic. Now, thanks to the proximity and accessibility to computers and internet, and thanks to the algorithms used by the engines, researching is much easier and especially faster than traditional library research.
What is very effective, is that search engines have access to the content of the sources. It is not the case for traditional library search, where the books are listed under certain keywords, the content is not necessarily always relevant to the exact subject that you are looking for. The more keywords you put in the search box, the more the engine narrows down the results for you. That way, you do not need to read over a thousand pages before finding something interesting and relevant to your subject.
- As much as useful and fast they can be, web search engines have many disadvantages. For one thing, the information found through the engines is not necessarily true. Internet is a vast technology, and anyone from anywhere can write anything they want on sites or blogs. For instance, let’s take Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a nice tool when you want to get some information about a subject you are unfamiliar with. For the most part, useful information can be found on that site, but it is important to remember that it is people like you and me who can modify or add facts. If you believe you know something pertinent on a subject, you just edit the article and bam! It is there for everyone to see. This is just one example of site which could give mistaken information, therefore, you have to be very attentive to the reliability of the sources you use.
- A great danger that comes with the web search engines is plagiarism. It is very easy, with a simple click to “copy & paste” information found on the internet and include it in a school paper. It can be quite easy to find in a student text, when the quality of a paragraph does not follow the rest of the whole text. But sometimes, it can be trickier. There are some tools that are available to the teachers, in order to track down the originality of work and ideas of papers. An existing one is called Turnitin.com. The teacher enters the paper in the tool and
- Another problem with the web search engines is the bias of the titles that come out. A study from Stanford University states that these engines are not neutral. In fact, they manipulate the results that come out by favoring certain kinds of websites. There are also advertising strategies from companies that pay in order to position their sites higher in the lists. Some other big companies are able to modify their pages to fit in the algorithms used by the search engines, so that their site will be a result more often than it really should.
My opinion about Search Engines for ESL classroom purposes
I believe that search engines can be very useful for students. It allows them to save time, but it can also trigger their curiosity and expand their knowledge over various new subjects. In fact, English teachers can give projects on either given subjects, or leave the subject to the student’s choice. The students will inevitably have to search info on the net. From browsing from links to links, they are bound to discover facts that they did not know about. If they are curious, they can always look further and further to learn more about subjects that interest them. Because they do not have to search for hours in the library, it can be a source of motivation for lower achievers, who dislike schools in general (Books!!) and are more attracted to technology.
However, I believe that it is very important to teach how to quote appropriately and cite the sources (i.e. where the ideas come from). Plagiarism is a big problem and it is very easy to copy and paste information that says exactly what you want to say. It is very important for the teacher to explain that even if you paraphrase, you have to cite your references. It is very easy to be a victim of plagiarism, even if you did not want to.
Other tools offered by web search engines that comes in handy for ESL classes are the translators. (Google translator and Bing translator). It can be a very fast and useful tool to translate words you do not know in the other language. Still, students need to be careful, because those translators do not replace dictionaries. These tools do not always provide the definitions of words. Sometimes, what you wish to translate does not mean the exact same thing that you want to convey. There are also the speaker pronunciation and the vocal recognition features that are interesting. The voice recognition allows you to record the word you heard. If the translator recognises the word (good pronunciation), it will then be translated. Also, when you ask for a new word in your new language, you can click on the speaker icon so an automated voice pronounces the word aloud. This is a great way to practice and correct your accent, and localize the stress patterns of the language.
The web search engines are great tools for teachers as well. They can quickly access to blogs or websites from other teachers of the same discipline from all around the world. They can discuss in forums or discover new ideas of activities or materials used.