Gathering information

Over the last few years the strategies that are being used for research and gathering information have widened considerably to include information provided on CD-ROMs and the internet. The World Wide Web, which is hosted on the global network of computers making up the internet, is a vast collection of interconnected documents, which are often linked to other documents by completely different authors. A browser program like Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer displays these documents, which contain text with pointers to other text (this is known as hypertext). Hypermedia is a superset of hypertext, i.e. medium with pointers to other media. This means that browsers do not display just text files, but also images, sound and animations. The text can be read by text-to-speech software and the pictures and videos provide additional sources of information. As a result a dyslexic person can often enjoy the research process much more than they would have when using conventional sources of information (encyclopaedias, etc.). It also means there is an enormous amount of information within which to find specific points of interest and there can be a tendency to become swamped or distracted by the sheer volume.

In the past the strategies used to cope with large amounts of information were based on narrowing the topic before starting the process of research, using contents and index pages to home in on a specific item of interest; locating relevant paragraphs and sentences and, finally perhaps, copying out useful quotes and snippets of information onto note cards and pads. The computer can now be used to brainstorm the topic and locate hyperlinks to related materials and sources. For those who are working with students, it is vital to ask questions about what has been cut and pasted from the materials before they become imbedded in the writer’s own work without citation (reference to the original writer). Often the writer’s own ideas can be masked by the sheer volume of material collected.

Using search engines

A search engine is a program that enables you to explore either a database or the internet for a specific file or web page, e.g. Google (http://www.google.co.uk/). When searching for a topic it is a good idea to begin with key word searches and exact phrases in order to narrow the field and prevent being overwhelmed by information. Better results are obtained from search engines if a few related words are entered, rather than a single word. Avoid using generic words as these tend result in feedback from with many thousands of websites and will be lengthy and very tedious to search through. For more advanced searching use operators such as ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘not’ (these are called ‘Boolean operators’). When using some search engines it can also help to put quotation marks around key phrases “to be or not to be”. When you locate some information you think you will need, bookmark the website so that you can find it again if you need to, and instead of printing out pages of information copy relevant sections electronically to a notepad application or into a word processed document which is then saved onto disk. This will be easier to access and use later.

When searching it is often the hyperlinks within documents that lead to more useful information and new ideas but once the information has been found always check the validity of the document. When was the web page last updated? How old is the information – is it out-of-date? Check the writer’s credentials – can he or she be found elsewhere on the internet and in what context? Who is hosting the website – is it a political or commercial organisation or lone crank that might be giving a biased view? It pays to be vigilant when using the web because information on some website can be out-date, inaccurate and/or misleading. There are more guidelines and links to useful websites on the subject of evaluation on the 2Learn website at http://www.2learn.ca/