Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The artistry of tagging

One of the things that captured my attention at the Googleplex was the screens in the foyers of the buildings displaying search terms live as they occur around the world. I stood and watched the scrolling screens in fascination. The teacher in me was in two minds about it. On the one hand I was imagining the possibilities for creative writing as the words rolled relentlessly before me. On the other hand the same teacher instinct was apalled by how little progress we have made teaching people how to search in a way that will return the information they are seeking. Particularly using appropriate key words to refine our searches.

Back in the day when I started out teaching we conducted lessons with our students teaching them how to use keywords to search in Encyclopaedias. Very tricky sharing one set of Encyclopaedias amongst a class and trying to make the lessons meaningful without resorting to endless worksheets with pictures of volume spines and multi choice questions. Times changed in the mid 90s when we 'got the internet' and used search engines like AltaVista and my favourite, Dogpile. We had to start teaching kids how to do Boolean searches to narrow their search and get to the information they wanted quickly.

I guess what I was seeing at the Googleplex was a testimony to the failure of this approach. When Google came along with their user-friendly search engine they not only made it simple to do an advanced search (just click the Advanced Search button!) but they seem to make intuitive sense of our paltry efforts. Whether it is poor spelling and grammar or people who simply type in a question, Google seems to be able to to supply a list of intelligent results.

So where does this leave us as teachers and our quest for information literacy? Should we even be bothering to try and teach kids how to use key words any more? Well I think there is value in this and am relieved that we have the opportunity to approach this whole thing from a completely different angle.

Since RSS and tagging has become part of our online lives we have a wonderful opportunity to rethink how we use keywords. Our 21st century kids are looking for an audience whether it is YouTube, Reality TV or Bebo. It is not by coincidence that YouTube's by-line is "Broadcast Yourself", Flickr uses "Share yourself with the world", Bebo has "friends share their lives" and so it goes on.

If our kids want to be seen/heard/found then they need to be searchable. They can raise their profile if they use keywords that people are looking for in their posts and titles and as their tags. They are ripe for teaching the inverse of searching. Teach them how to be found. What an opportunity to use higher order thinking skills as Andrew Church proposes in his Bloom's Digital Taxonomy.

A quick look at Google Trends or tracking back through the Feedjit information on their own blog or those they follow will give them an idea of the kinds of words people are currently searching for. Then intentionly writing about topics that are of interest to others as well as themselves is sure to attract readers to their pages or viewers to their photos or videos. A good example of this is a 9 year old student at Pt England School who has discovered his 'voice' during the Olympics. Every day he wrote a blog post about the athletes and events and his Cluster Map shows that he attracted viewers from around the world because he was using words people were searching for in August.

And if the audience doesn't motivate them, there are a number of tools online that may do the trick and show them in a funky way how tagging works. Tag Galaxy is a great example of this. I am very interested to hear how other people are using this 'inverse' opportunity with their students to teach some basic information literacy skills.


  1. @ nix - Thanks very much for the links in your post. We are not alone in these musings. Vicki B has taken time off this year to do post grad study in the area of information Literacy and is working part-time in the Pt England library. We often stop and chat in the corridor about how she is doing and commiserate together about the disappearance of info lit as even a conversation piece in NZ schools over recent years.
    It is almost as if we have decided we can all do that stuff (as you say, because we can all 'use' Google) and don't need to be intentional with kids about it anymore.
    I think there is even confusion between that and cyber safety, with some thinking they are one and the same....