Google vs. educational databases

A fellow teacher asked me the other day as he was planning a research project for his class,"Which is better, Google, or one of the databases we subscribe to like JSTOR?"That's a pretty good question.

A fellow teacher asked me the other day as he was planning a research project for his class,

"Which is better, Google, or one of the databases we subscribe to like JSTOR?"

That's a pretty good question. Our librarian would certainly say JSTOR. JSTOR and other services like it tend to give relatively easy access to solid primary sources of information on a topic. This is actual research performed and then written about by actual smart people, not just the usual first three hits on Google. It has to be better, right?

I, for one, don't think the answer is that simple. For a lot of folks, it really is a better choice. As we all know, kids want the first paragraph from a Wikipedia entry or one of the top hits on Google. They're rarely willing to dig through a couple of pages, refine their search terms, use boolean logic in their searches, or see if the references are even worth reading in the first place.

But what about those of us who are willing to dig? Some of us have taken the time to learn the art of Googling. The other day, I assigned a followup project on our trip to Six Flags for my physics class. Some information on the physical characteristics of a particular ride weren't available at the park, so a group of students needed to do some fairly intensive research on amusement park ride engineering to answer some questions I had posed (nothing complicated, but the background information was essential).

Fortunately, this group of students is a fairly driven bunch, so we sat down at separate computers and started Googling. We compared notes, results, successful and worthless search strings, and otherwise had one of those memorable teacher/student collaborative moments. Try that on SIRS.

I'm not saying that Google is better than solid collections of well-researched primary sources. For an awful lot of students, educational databases can be an extraordinary resource. However, I worry when teachers are too quick to discount the thrill of the chase and the real value of having the better part of human knowledge a few good search terms away. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we teach kids to wisely use the incredible variety of resources at their disposal, whether that means Googling until they hit that perfect article, browsing Wikipedia for references and ideas, or seeking out actual people who can help them wade through all of the chaff in search of the wheat.