fancy search everywhere

Not quite on the heels of why I don’t like Ebsco’s new visual search, parts one and two, there are suddenly all kinds of different ways to search for news and information to try. I’ll admit, I don’t totally get any of these yet. I’ve barely played with them, which is part of the reason for that. I think that they’re not fully ready to be gotten yet, though as well.

What’s interesting to me is this common thread running through all of these attempts — the idea that people searching want to see how their results connect to each other. They want to see connections and context. I think this is true, and I think that it’s something we have a hard time doing when we research, especially keyword-research, online. I’m liking the trend, though I’m still a little unclear on the execution to date.

First, from Google Labs

Google Experimental Search. If you have a Google account, and you choose to “join” this experiment, you get some additional options for your results. (A note – all of these images are to screenshots. You have to be logged in and part of the experimental search to see what I’m seeing)

search results page

At the top, you can choose to look at these results in info view, timeline view or map view.

The “info view” seems to be about refining your results. You can choose to focus on a particular location, or a particular period in time. Here’s the WGA strike search, refined by “Vancouver.”

screenshot

I’m not sure exactly what the cool factor is with the timeline refining feature – it seems to pull out results about a particular time, not so much results that were from a particular time. So things like Wikipedia articles, which include lots and lots of dates tend to appear pretty high on those results, no matter which timeframe you try to limit to. I appreciate the concept behind these options, but really, I didn’t find nearly as much to play with as I did in the next two options, at least not yet.

Silobreaker

Next, we have Silobreaker. From the site:

More than a news aggregator, Silobreaker provides relevance by looking at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises people, companies, topics, places and keywords; understands how they relate to each other in the news flow, and puts them in context for the user.

As you can probably imagine, the idea that it’s looking at things just like a person would is a little bit suspect. And from what I can see, it does better recognizing fairly concrete things like people and places than more abstract concepts or (especially) keywords that can mean more than one thing.

The default search is called the 360 search and it brings back a big bunch of different ways of looking at results. At the top is the expected list of articles and other resources, with things like photographs and YouTube videos in the right-hand sidebar. Below the fold, you’ll find the additional options:

screenshot from below the fold

On the right, you can choose to look at a network view of your results, or a “hotspot” map. You can also choose to just do your initial search in any of these views.

Of these, I found the network view to be the most fun. It was really more fun for me to see the people and places that Silobreaker included in the network than it was for me to drill down to the articles and webpages associated with those people and places, but I can see where this would be valuable for certain searches. There’s also the “trends” view at the bottom, but I haven’t figured out why that’s cool yet. I don’t think I’ve been doing the right kinds of searches.

TextMap

Finally, TextMap. From the site:

s a search engine for entities: the important (and not so important)people, places, and things in the news. Our news analysis system automatically identifies and monitors these entities, and identifies meaningful relationships between them.

Time and place are some factors TextMap uses to contextualize results, but its main point of organization is the “entity.” Do a search, and your results come back listed by “entities” – which can be people, places, companies and more. From the main TextMap page, you can also browse by predefined entities. Click on an entity – and your results come back clustered around that entity.

(And at this point, the word “entity” has started to look really weird to me)

screenshot of different visualizations -

Like Silobuster, TextMap’s options include a network view and a heatmap view. There is also a “reference time” view and juxtapositions between your entity and others.

There’s some awkwardness and “not quite getting it” pieces to all of these options for me. Part of this, of course, is from the fact that I just haven’t played with them very much. Part of it is probably that the underlying metadata won’t really support the types of visualizations they’re trying to provide well enough – or that the sites they’re drawing data from are uneven in their metadata, so the existence of the metadata is skewing what you see in the results. Still, the idea that the user needs and wants to see the contextualization, and the relationships between the information sources they’re using, is exciting.

Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.

more metathinking

Continuing from yesterday….. as I said then, I was really taken by the discussion of the connection between reading and thinking.  Then I was on YouTube the other day looking for something very serious and work-related when I thought "Hey! I bet they have debate videos on youtube now.  I will go look for some." 

Weirdly, they really don’t.  I mean there are some videos up there but really hardly any and even those that are there are very rarely showing actual competitive debates.  Which is interesting – why would that be?  It’s a pretty visual thing, and the people engaged in it are pretty much standing in one place and indoors so it would be easy to film.  Are there concerns about cheating?  About giving your opponent an unfair advantage?  Is the idea that debate is somewhat ephemeral or in the moment – that what you say in a round will to some extent stay in the round an inherent part of the culture?  I mean, the idea of instant replays in debate sounds pretty horrible to me – debaters’ capacity to relive the same round over and over again without video is pretty frightening.  I can’t imagine that any round would ever feel truly over if you had the capacity to let armchair critics revisit and re-judge it over and over again. 

But those aren’t actually the questions I wanted to ask here.  I did find a few videos – and this one was a little bit interesting.

That’s the final of the 2004 NDT – Michigan State over Berkeley.  A result I have to give you because the video itself isn’t all that good and cuts off right before the winner is announced. Clearly, it’s not interesting because of the video itself; what got my attention was the comments.  First, that there even are 100+ comments on a mediocre video about an arcane activity like academic debate.  But more than that the tenor of the comments – mostly those that are displaying on the first page.

As someone who was on the fringes of collegiate debate for a long time (my own experience came in high school where I was pretty successful but not really technically skilled) I have certainly heard these types of reactions to the very technical, very fast debate shown here.  But when I read these in the context of the many discussions Shaun and I have had recently about the need for liberal education, the conversations Kate and Sara and I have had about the thinking/ learning connection in the context of research and writing, and the thinking/ reading discussion I was having in my own head yesterday — these really struck me.

First we have edfehrman — its too bad that "debate" has become much less about making a good argument and the strength of your reasoning as has now become more about who can unleash the greatest volume of words, regardless of their content. No wonder logical discussion is in such short supply in our culture.

Now this really isn’t too bad.  I would probably counter that competitive debate has never been about making a good argument so much as it has been about making a winning argument.  But at the same time, I don’t really think those things can be separated.  To do so would suggest that one could make an objectively "good" argument totally separate from its intent, and its impact on the audience.  These video debaters are making their arguments in front of an audience they know well, in a way that is familiar, expected, and valued by that audience.  But still, my knee doesn’t jerk when I read this comment.  Probably, I’ve heard it too many times in my life for it to have much of an impact.

That brings us to sixlbs9oz
who says — "I agree with daytraderaz– this kind of debate doesn’t have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments and compelling rhetoric– this kind of debate is called "speed and spread" by debate teams (not all of whom do this kind of debate exclusively). I guess it’s interesting as an academic exercise, but it seems like an Ivory Tower hobby to me."

Again, this starts out totally familiar.  As if this kind of debate even wants to have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments.  As if watertight arguments alone are enough to persuade normal people of anything.  As if there is an objective standard of watertightness that we can use to decide whether or not we normal people are persuaded.  As if – all of that. 

No, what I find really interesting here, and a little bit depressing, is that last part of the statement.  That this is just an "ivory tower hobby"  – what does that even mean?  Because sixlbs9oz seems to understand a few things — s/he seems to understand that these debaters ARE performing for an audience.  And s/he gets that this specific audience both has the overt power to decide how effective this rhetoric is by giving a win or a loss in the round – and that this specific audience likes this kind of debate.  S/he seems to understand that this performance is built upon a ton of work, and that there’s some thinking going on there.  And yet, it’s just an ivory tower hobby.   The cognitive, rhetorical, critical thinking skills – these apparently won’t matter at all outside of the academy. 

Thanks to the reverse chronological order of YouTube comments, we only now come to  daytraderaz
comment — Only academics could come up with a system that if [sic] absolutely no use in the practical world.

Now, there’s been a lot of fights in debate over the years.  Actually, that’s not entirely accurate.  It’s more like there’s been the same fight and it’s happened a lot of times.  People worry that excessively technical debate – most of the time "excessively technical" can be read to mean "excessively fast" — is moving the activity too far away from practical skills. and that the activity should place a higher premium on a persuasive vocal style and the ability to turn a moving phrase.  Rules are changed, new leagues are built, new forms of debate are adopted.  Eventually, the debaters start to push at the new rules, and the argument begins again.   

And I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that this idea of debate having value only if it teaches transferable "real-world" skills is not just an us against them thing — debate people do this too.  Sometimes it is because they see something they value being lost in the activity.  But sometimes, I think it is because they take the daytraderaz’s of the world a little bit too seriously.  If the activity becomes so specialized or technical that the average person can’t see the value of it – then there must not be any value to see.

And this is where I get sad, and worried, because don’t you feel this happening in higher education?  A lot?  I think we frequently work under the assumption that the average person sees one value to a college education – and that value is all tied up in the ability to get a good job.   And I’m not saying that’s not a valid assumption.  At the very least, a whole lot of our students seem to come to us with the idea that the good job is the carrot they’re chasing.  But when we try to shift our focus to that value alone – to inculcating only those skills and characteristics that point directly (and measurably) to the "good job" — then we risk losing a lot. 

Because of course there’s more going on in academic debate than meets the eye.  I don’t think anyone would deny that the most obvious physical skills needed to win the NDT – the ability to flip a pen around one’s thumb and to talk really, really, super fast — don’t have a lot of real-world utility.

(Though I have gotten through a lot of awkward small talk situations because of the pen thing.  I’m just saying.)

But I don’t know many people involved in debate, even those who were not exceptionally successful, who think they got nothing out of the activity beyond an ivory tower hobby.  Instead, they argue that while the actual debates themselves might have been jargon-filled and specific to that context, the skills gained by doing the activity translate to almost every other context.

As a former female debater, I still take note of women who succeed in this very patriarchial activity, so I know that Greta Stahl – the woman in the video above – was not only a national champion debater, but she was also an honors student, and a Marshall Scholarship winner.  I’m guessing that some of the same skills that led to success in the debate venue helped her out in international relations?  I’m guessing that her ability to analyze, to research, to build an argument, to evaluate information, to find new ways to approach and attack a problem …. even practical things like controlling nervousness during public speaking …. that all of those things might have been honed and sharpened during academic debates.  And that they might have helped her succeed in all those other venues.  I don’t know Greta Stahl at all – but I still feel comfortable guessing that because those things are true of most of the academic debaters I know. 

And I have long thought, even though I was not a technically skilled debater myself and I would have benefited greatly from arbitrary rules set up to prevent others from using their technical skills against me, that debate as a whole should focus on all of those benefits instead of trying to turn the activity into something that a "normal" person can understand.  Because those under-the-hood skills are not just useful, they have actually been far more important to me in life than any practical public-speaking skills I developed.

And college too, is about so much more than measurable skills that employers say they want.  If that’s our goal – guaranteeing employability — we’re just measuring our students by someone else’s standard.  And by a standard that would call everything about college that doesn’t directly and obviously and measurably point to a good job nothing more than an "ivory tower hobby."

And that really, really scares me.  When the kinds of things that are not obvious, that happen behind the curtain of the academic performance — critical thinking, analysis, evaluation, creativity — become something that only a particular class of people get to do, when thinking itself is something that only those ivory tower freaks get to play at – we’re obviously the worse for it.   

Note:  if you want to look like a very cool debater, don’t start with the talking fast thing.  Start here: