Monday, May 27

Googling the future

History is created every day, but it’s not very often that we get to learn about this history in the making in class.

Two Fiat Lux seminars at UCLA are taught on aspects of Google. One teaches students to think critically about Google, and one teaches students to think critically outside of it.

John Richardson, professor and associate dean of information studies, teaches a seminar called “Just Google it,” dealing with the history and scope of the use of Google, the ubiquitous search engine many college students use every day.

Richardson’s class deals with questions of quality, reliability and trustworthiness of searches on the Internet. The course also covers history, traditional use and common misconceptions of Google.

“Everybody thinks they know what Google is ““ why not do a class on Google?” Richardson said.

The first assignment in the class is to Google yourself. The students use this as their first exercise for deciphering what we can about the way the Google algorithm works.

Each time Google substantially changes, the course changes. Current news articles and videos are added to the curriculum or simply e-mailed out to the students.

“How to Stop Just Googling … and Find the Really Good Stuff!” is a Fiat Lux seminar taught by Esther Grassian, information literacy outreach coordinator at the College Library. This course covers informative research practices both in and outside of Google’s scope.

“I’ve been taking a lot of math- and science-type classes that are just straight out of the book” said Eric Kveton, a first-year math and applied sciences student in Grassain’s class. “But in this class, everything’s on the internet, everything’s changing.”

The class deals with databases and information on the Internet. Some of these databases are available through Google, but many are closed and are available through subscription. UCLA subscribes to many online databases of scholarly articles, as do most college libraries.

“One of the things I tell students is don’t pay for articles,” Grassain said. “We’ll get the article for you for free.”

This includes subscriptions to sites such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and inter-library loans for not only books but also articles.

Kveton found this course especially useful for narrowing down searches and finding better grounds to negotiate what good information is.

It can become difficult to keep track of so much information, especially so many references.

One of the most interesting things I learned from Grassain’s course is the existence of Zotero, a Firefox plug-in that allows the easy addition of books from online libraries and other article database searches to personal bibliographies. Having tried Refworks and Endnote, two common citation software programs, and decided against purchasing them for myself, I found this free plug-in easily manageable.

A running theme throughout both courses is the open access and availability of information, or at least the hopeful prospect of this.

Google Books Library Project, an effort putting books online as much as copyright will allow, is where Creative Commons comes into the picture.

“I really love Creative Commons, and the library has just put the Creative Commons license on all of its pages, and it’s (an) attribution, non-commercial, share alike (license),” Grassain said.

There is the idea that PDFs of books won’t stifle book sales, it will help them. In The Long Tail blog, Chris Anderson wrote about Crown Books’ experiment with Scott Sigler’s book, “Infected,” this past March.

The book was free for the four days, preceding the actual book’s publication, pushing the book to impressive sales on Amazon over the course of its four-day free availability.

I think that Google books is onto something. Having free information doesn’t get rid of the deal for books, nor the need for more of it.

One of the many places to find user-content generated information is Wikipedia. Both courses touch on the subject in regards to authenticity of information. Grassian uses Wikipediavision, a visualization of anonymous, nearly real-time changes to Wikipedia visualized through Google Maps, as an example in her class.

“Anybody can change anything in Wikipedia at any moment and you may stumble across something that’s a mistake that no one has caught yet,” Grassian said.

Now we can not only read articles but also create them and search for them. With its growing and changing history, Google will keep providing us with open access to information ““ and we’ll keep following along in class.

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