iSchool's New Interest Group Explores Advancements in Search Mastery and Education

Hayleigh Moore
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Providing an accessible environment for those interested in search mastery, search education, and search behavior. 

search engine

Whether it’s to land a job, navigate the legal system, raise children, identify fake news, or anything in between, we often consult our search engine of choice to find reliable answers. Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, the ability to search for information is a necessary task to solve problems and make decisions, but oftentimes our search behaviors produce less than effective results. In many cases, the first two or three search results provided are taken at face value without additional evaluation on their accuracy or relevance by the individual conducting the search. This is a behavior typically learned through informal means, such as adopting the search behaviors of family, friends, peers, and others within our inner social circles. 

To address these growing concerns, a new Search Mastery Interest Group, consisting of faculty and staff from the University of Maryland (UMD) College of Information Studies (iSchool), College of Education, and Philip Merrill College of Journalism, officially launched during Summer 2020. The interest group came to fruition after being awarded a 2020 Teaching Innovation Grant after years of coordination among its founding members. Additional participants included other UMD faculty, PhD students, and industry leaders with expertise in search education and mastery skills, including long-standing UMD affiliate, Dan Russell, Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality & User Happiness at Google, and current UMD Dean of Libraries, Dr. Adriene Lim. 

The group aims to provide a collective and accessible environment for those interested in search mastery, search education, and search behavior. Additionally, it will serve as a platform for researching applicable ways to embed these skills into university curriculum, public library systems, and ultimately to the general public. 

Brian Butler, iSchool Professor and Senior Associate Dean, a founding member of the group, believes it’s imperative to study and teach search skills because “being able to search critically and effectively has wide ranging implications for individuals, groups, and communities.” 

“Search is a new Digital Divide - having internet access doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find the information needed to solve your problem.”

One of the first initiatives implemented by the Search Mastery Interest Group in Fall 2020 was a set of four pilot modules, primarily developed by Sarah McGrew, Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the iSchool, which were embedded into courses already offered to students in the iSchool and College of Journalism. Composed of both external and original materials, the virtual modules enabled students to better understand how to use search engines effectively, evaluate information for reliability, and debunk misconceptions about many of our ingrained search behaviors.

McGrew remarks that as the internet quickly evolves, “it can be difficult to keep up with the changes at an instructional level, so educators may inadvertently teach something that is outdated and no longer accurate.” 

“Especially in college classrooms, there's a lot of emphasis on teaching students to do really high quality academic research, and there's not always as much space for teaching them how to do the kinds of research on the open internet that they employ outside their classes - I think that's just as critical as learning how to do academic research [to prepare] them for civic life.”

Ira Chinoy, Associate Professor at the UMD Philip Merrill College of Journalism and Director of the Future of Information Alliance, is currently piloting these modules in the journalism courses he instructs. Through the implementation of these modules, Chinoy has seen firsthand that students can drastically improve their search skills using these modules, and is pursuing ways to get more people interested in learning more effective search skills, as well as conceptualizing potential models for peer-to-peer training in search. 

“We have this perfect opportunity to see if we can make it work in an online world, and so the trick is, does it work, how long does it work, what does it take - what are potential module models going forward.” 

The Search Mastery Interest Group’s Public Library Outreach initiative, co-facilitated by Ryan O’Grady, a member of the Search Mastery Interest Group and Lecturer at the iSchool, has introduced modified versions of these modules developed by McGrew for testing by public librarians. Ryan and his team held a focus group with public librarians this winter to understand the most practical ways to educate library staff so they may improve their own search skills and better serve patrons who come to the library for assistance. 

“Patrons may have some basic questions like, ’How do I sign up for an email?’ or ‘What other search engines are out there that I can use, because I don't trust Google?’ So these are some of those preliminary questions that we want to start to address as well.”

The Public Library Outreach initiative aims to reach library patrons and provide them with skills to improve search results. The feedback received from public librarians during the initial focus group revealed a need for an intermediate step that involves co-designing with library staff. These co-design sessions will be used to develop new methods for library staff to help them become more comfortable with search, improve their information literacy, find practical ways to apply these skills in their workflow, and ultimately “meet patrons where they are.” The Public Library Outreach team is currently modifying these materials in preparation for an additional pilot group tentatively set to launch in Spring 2021 with public libraries across Maryland.

Throughout the year, the Search Mastery Interest Group hosts a speaker series highlighting leaders in search behavior and search mastery who bring provocative and unique ideas for tackling how to teach search skills to individuals of varying tech and information literacy levels. Upcoming speakers include Ana Ndumu, Assistant Professor at the iSchool, who will provide a critical perspective on how thinking carefully about what search engines do and how they shape our behavior when reporting biases, and Jason Yip, a UMD alumni and assistant professor of digital youth at the Information School at the University of Washington. 

A recent paper put together by the interest group, Advancing Search Mastery Education, Sharing Experiences, and Exploring Possibilities, was accepted to the 2021 iConference, reported on these initiatives, and discussed the challenges of assessing search skills and applying them at different levels.

Along with Butler, O’Grady, Chinoy, and McGrew, the Search Mastery Interest Group includes Beth St. Jean, Associate Professor at the iSchool and Affiliate Faculty Member at the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy, and Beth Bonsignore, Assistant Research Scientist at the iSchool, who work with McGrew to develop educational materials and study how younger children develop search skills and information literacy. 

Ursula Gorham, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Master of Information and Library Science (MLIS) program at the iSchool, and Mary Ann Francis, Adjunct Lecturer at the iSchool also participate in all aspects of the Program. 

To explore and get involved with the Search Mastery Interest Group, visit ischool.umd.edu/interest-groups/search-mastery.

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