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Virginia Journal of Education


Your Students and the World of Research

by Karen Work Richardson

Welcome back! I hope you were able to relax and refuel this summer. One of the highlights of my summer was conducting a book study group about Understanding by Design , by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The group met in Second Life (SL), the online virtual community ( The Virginia Society for Technology and Education (VSTE) has created its own "island" in SL where educators meet every Monday evening to learn together. The VSTE island includes a re-creation of historic Jamestown, including the Powhatan village and the three ships. If you're looking for a fun, new way to connect with other educators around the world, you might want to try out Second Life. Once you download the software, you create an avatar, who is your 3-D representative. (Mine looks a little like me but is younger and thinner <grin>.) While Second Life may seem a little daunting, the VSTE SL volunteers are committed to helping what are affectionately referred to as "newbies" get up and running. And you'll find all sorts of professional development opportunities from organizations like Discovery Network and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

I also met with educators in real life this summer. We talked a lot about the challenges of doing research in the 21st century. Certainly, one challenge is getting to know the technological tools that support research. They have changed dramatically since I taught research to high school students 20 years ago. Then, our tools were all analog: 3x5 cards, pencils, highlighters and printed materials. The tools I used to complete my dissertation earlier this year were all digital, and included online databases, bibliographic tools, and text editors.

But, focusing on the tools can distract us from what I think are two more important questions: what do we mean by research, and what does it mean conduct that research in the age of Wikipedia? In answer to the first question, I turn back to Understanding By Design, where Wiggins and McTigue distinguish between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is made up of facts that can be known, and it is gained by asking questions with known answers. Students may engage in research (with a lower case r) to discover those known answers. Understanding, on the other hand, is about seeing how those facts are related to each other, as well as to larger ideas and issues. It is reached by asking questions that may not have known answers, by conducting research with a capital R. Students learn facts, but to really assimilate those facts, they must reach their own understanding. Research geared towards exploring relevant, compelling questions must be an essential part of our students' work as they learn to locate, evaluate, synthesize and analyze information.

As students engage in investigating these relevant compelling questions, much of the research will take place online. So, what about Wikipedia? This online encyclopedia is written by volunteers and I know many educators are skeptical both about the information as well as its writers. It might provide some reassurance to know that a study in 2005 by the journal Nature that compared Wikipedia to online Encyclopedia Britannica concluded that both resources suffered from a few errors as well as some bias. And in the years since the study, Wikipedia has put some safeguards in place that will help ensure more accurate information. Rather than simply banning students from using Wikipedia, we can encourage our students to become part of the community, giving them the opportunity to practice writing and editing skills, including checking facts and updating citations. Wikipedia and our students would be better for it.

In fact, I don't really worry about Wikipedia. What worries me more is the proliferation of biased websites masquerading as news outlets in which the "news" comes with a not-always-clearly-identified political slant. As students turn increasingly to the Internet for research, we must arm them against this hidden bias by teaching them to identify "loaded" words, to investigate the sources they find, and to check multiple sources. They must become proficient in the ability to distinguish between personal opinion and factual research: To ask, "what research?" when someone claims that "the research says." Only then will they be prepared to make effective use of the vast resources available to them. So, this year, consider focusing on research with a capital R to help your students develop both knowledge and understanding of the content while equipping them with the skills needed to navigate the 21st century.

Richardson recently completed her PhD in Curriculum and Educational Technology at the College of William and Mary, where she is also an adjunct instructor. She serves on the board of directors of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.



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