New tools help students find and evaluate sources in a sea of online information

Woman smiles and leans on a bookshelf

Over the years, high school teacher Kristen Popescu has seen a troubling trend among her younger students doing online research: They don’t know how to find reliable sources in the sea of information surrounding them. They often only click on their first search result. When she asks about sourcing, many vaguely attribute information to a search engine — an answer that dismays her.

“We’re in a world where information is at our fingertips and we have to be able to navigate what’s credible and what’s not,” says Popescu, who teaches biology and marine science at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, a suburb east of Seattle.

To improve her students’ information literacy, Popescu began using Search Coach, a new tool that helps students form effective search queries and evaluate the reliability of information. Now generally available in Microsoft Teams for Education, the tab app guides students on filters, operators and credibility ratings in a secure, ad-free environment.

To further enhance information literacy, educators will also soon be able to use a companion app called Search Progress. The tool gives educators insights on student progress and a streamlined way to create and review assignments where students show their work. Instead of seeing an opaque, static bibliography, educators will have transparency into the research process itself — how students are finding sources, why they choose particular sources — to help teach critical thinking skills.

Popescu is one of hundreds of teachers, librarians and media literacy experts from around the world who helped shape the educational Search apps with their feedback. Many expressed the need for improved literacy tools during a time of information overload.

Search Coach and Search Progress empower students to think critically, search with confidence and build stronger information literacy skills,” says Paige Johnson, Microsoft vice president of Education Marketing. “The tools are part of our commitment to help all students develop skills that prepare them for their future.”

Search Coach and Search Progress are part of Microsoft’s Learning Accelerators, a new category of tools to support learning in information literacy, math, reading, speaking and other essential academic skills. The tools enable personalized instruction, self-directed learning opportunities, real-time coaching and actionable insights in a single, efficient platform.

Popescu finds Search Coach’s filters helpful for integrating research concepts like domains and parameters in lessons on marine organisms and climate change. The app, which blocks adult content, provides a secure place for her students to practice skills applicable to any research project. Integration of ratings by NewsGuard — a tool created by journalists to rate the credibility and transparency of thousands of websites — helps students learn how to evaluate information.

Popescu is looking forward to using Search Coach’s insights, which include being able to see how many searches a student did and which filters they used. She sees value in insights for spot-checking and supporting students who are struggling to find credible information.

“Taking the time to ask, ‘Where was the source generated? Can I find other articles that corroborate it?’ and critically thinking about what you’re reading is a basic life skill,” she says.

For Amber Peterson, a teacher and librarian at the nearby International Community School in Kirkland, Search Coach is an efficient way to scaffold lessons on information literacy. The app’s guided tools and educator controls dovetail nicely with her lessons on search queries, fact-checking and assessing for bias.

With her beginning researchers, she recently used a custom filter in the app to create a list of preferred archival sites for a history assignment. An immigration project prompted her to show students how to use country domain filters so they could see the difference in results from South Korea and the U.S. in a search about Korean migration.

The app’s NewsGuard ratings often prompt lively discussions about the credibility of academic sites, crowd-sourced sites and an 11th grade book report that happens to be published online. If she wanted to add another credibility assessment tool, she could enable a filter that limits results to articles from and other fact-checking sites.

“There is so much information available to students that a lot of my job is teaching them how to filter the information and know what to do with it, whether it’s being aware of bias, the scholarly nature of it, or the lack thereof,” says Peterson, whose school serves middle and high school students.

“Search Coach is a piece of that in helping students skillfully search for information and assess its credibility.”

Like Peterson, John Stapley, head of Digital Technology at the Napier Boys’ High School in New Zealand, appreciates the app as a tool for teaching research skills and a place for students to work independently. Real-time coaching tips are often personalized based on a student’s query, so if a student types “are cats better than dogs,” the app will suggest using less biased language for better results.

“Before students start with us on Search Coach, they generally have no research skills,” says Stapley, who designed and teaches a required information literacy course using the app. “By the time they’re done with the course, they know how to focus a query so they don’t get a complete snowstorm of information.”

For Sergio Ruiz, a school psychologist who works with students with disabilities in Hermosillo, Mexico, the inclusive design of Search Coach has been significant. The app minimizes distractions by excluding images, videos and ads from search results. Clear language and checkboxes make search concepts easier for his students to use and understand. His students recently used Search Coach on an assignment to research their disability and present information to their class.

“We have students who lose their attention and concentration easily, but with Search Coach, they are better focused on the information they obtain,” says Ruiz. “It has helped them develop search skills and information literacy skills they will need for their future.”

Lead image: Amber Peterson, a teacher and librarian at the International Community School in Kirkland, Washington (photo by Dan DeLong)