EdReach Show #12: Use “Penguins” as a Default

This week’s show brings us some very helpful search information via Judi Epcke and Sweetsearch.com.

We take a look at the alternative to buying the iPad 2. In this case, we take on Jim Klein’s and Ben Grey’s ideas from Twitter about rooting the Barnes and Noble Nook device for classroom consumption. Interesting!

Also- the Gates Foundation is putting listening devices in teachers ears, and the Khan Academy is at the TED Conference.

In Blog Watch, Jen Wagner’s post about PLNs draws some remarks from us and Jon Becker.

In Twitter Talk, the debate about iPads vs. Netbooks again comes up, thanks to Dean Shareski’s thoughtful post.

Finally, Judi and the gang give us their On the Radar suggestions and advice in regards to Sweetsearch and Easybib Notebook.

What do you think?

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  1. That was a shoddy hack job on SweetSearch.

    Journalism 101 mandates that, before you openly attack a company, you should call it first for comment. Why didn’t you?

    Perhaps it was because Judi acknowledged that she couldn’t even remember my name before she launched into her ill-informed diatribe, and to contact me, you would have had to look up my name, email address and phone number, all of which I publish on my site (By the way, your “Contact Us” page is blank).

    Please tell me you expect more than this from your students.

    As Judi kindly noted, the vast majority of educators who have actually spent more than 90 seconds reviewing SweetSearch hold it in high esteem. See the reviews that Judi referenced (http://www.findingdulcinea.com/info/main/media-kit.html) and this series of Tweets from educators (http://twitter.com/#!/findingDulcinea/favorites). Thus, I am honestly less concerned about the irresponsible attack on SweetSearch than I am about the spectacle of three educators with a platform cementing in their listeners’ minds some widely held, but simplistic and misguided notions of how to conduct research on the Web.

    The flimsy basis for this segment, which oddly was about what you learned “this week,” arose when Judi in fact contacted me 5-6 months ago about her unhappiness with SweetSearch’s first search result for “penguins.” She said that in my response, I was “all upset,” with a “how dare you” attitude; ask the thousands of educators who know me very well whether they believe this at all.

    In fact, we appreciated her input, and responded by promptly writing this article (http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/environment/2010/sept/Climate-Change-Pollution-and-Human-Interference-Pose-Danger-to-Penguins.html) about penguins. It was synthesized from, and links to, seven of the best resources on the Web about penguins for students, young and old. By reading the article and its links, students would learn everything they’d want to know about penguins. This article is the first result on SweetSearch for penguins, and was at the time of your show. I understand that findingDulcinea may have been down at the time your show ran; this was the result of a snafu during routine maintenance and happens from time-to-time to every site on the Web (hence the Twitter “Fail Whale”). Perhaps you could have deferred the segment, or done 45 seconds of research to find my number and call me about it.

    Please tell me you expect more than this from your students.

    Daniel and Scott expressed a concern about getting results for a hockey team when searching “penguins.” But the word penguin has many connotations; a searcher who puts in a single-word query may be in fact searching for information about the hockey team, or something other than a flightless bird. I note that the Pittsburgh Penguins official site is the first results on Google for “penguins.” Our “Learn More” tab on SweetSearch leads to this explanatory blog post about it (http://blog.findingdulcinea.com/2010/02/why-sweetsearch-is-the-best-search-engine-for-students.html). It states, in part, “of course, students still need to follow the principles laid out in our Ten Steps to Better Web Research (http://www.SweetSearch.com/TenSteps) by, among other things, formulating good search queries, and often looking past the first few results to find the very best ones.” As good Web researchers know, if you don’t want results about a hockey team, all you need to do is add “-hockey” as one of your keywords, or look past the irrelevant results.

    Please teach your students the Ten Steps to Better Web Research, and model effective search behavior in front of them.

    You questioned our practice of posting findingDulcinea’s results at the top; most other search engines put paid placements in this spot, and we have always been transparent about this. We do this because we have created 700+ Web Guides and 10,000+ articles on findingDulcinea that were written to help students find credible and comprehensive information about a topic. A white paper released in November 2010 by Temple University Media Education Professor Renee Hobbs, sponsored by The Knight Commission, included findingDulcinea in its “Portraits of Success: Powerful Voices for Kids” and wrote, “Finding Dulcinea… addresses the ‘context deficit’ that occurs with online searching.” While sometimes the findingDulcinea results in SweetSearch are not completely relevant (and we are evaulating options to address that), more often these results provide all the resources students will need for their research, and “address the context deficit” that all search engines leave them with.

    You asked “who knows” who actually vets our content; a bit of research would have shown that we publish biographies of all of the employees who have ever worked on our site, here: http://www.findingdulcinea.com/employees.html

    Lastly, as we preach in our Ten Steps to Better Web Research, good Web researchers always use several search engines for every project. They know that no search engine is always the best for every query. While SweetSearch in fact now returns outstanding results for the word “penguins,” you should not be cementing in your listeners’ minds the widely held, but misguided, notion that you can judge a search engine by its usefulness for a single query. Had you done more than 90 seconds of research, you likely would have come to the same conclusion to which scores of other well-respected educators from around the world have come: that SweetSearch is the best search engine for students.

    Hopefully your users won’t judge your show on this single segment, because it was a poorly researched and ill-considered disservice to them.


    Mark E. Moran
    Founder & CEO
    Dulcinea Media

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment Mark and thanks for listening to the EdReach podcast.

      1. First, it is important to clarify that we have four members of the EdReach podcast. You reference my ” concern” about the search results concerning the hockey team and I would like to clarify that if you listen again, I did not make any such comment. I brought up the fact that Club Penguin and a Club Penguin’s Linked In page get as much prominence in the SweetSearch results as anything related to information about the animal “penguin”. I am sure our voices blend to a certain extent but if you give it another listen you might hear our 4th member of our podcast included in the discussion that you may be referencing.

      2. I was very clear near the end of the segment that stated, “In my opinion, If you are going to be doing research on Penguins, do not use SweetSearch.com.” I stand by that statement because there are more effective tools to do research on Penguins than what SweetSearch provides at this point.

      3. I would like to note that SweetSearch’s “About SweetSearch” page states, “It searches only the 35,000 Web sites that our staff of research experts and librarians and teachers have evaluated and approved when creating the content on findingDulcinea. We constantly evaluate our search results and “fine-tune” them, by increasing the ranking of Web sites from organizations such as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, PBS and university Web sites.” I find it hard to believe that after all of those websites are incorporated, the results that you get in SweetSearch reflect the best results of those sites. For me, this means that the tool is not very effective.

      4. As of 8:10 PM, March 10, 2011, Central Time Zone, the top three results are still from Dulcinea Media and based upon SweetSearch’s model for search results, that will most likely be the case. Shouldn’t students expect to get more effective information from the primary sources mentioned like PBS and the Smithsonian? I did a little experiment to see what I would get by searching for penguins on PBS.org (http://www.pbs.org/search/penguin/) and the Smithsonian (http://www.si.edu/Search/Index/default/1) and all of the results clearly related to the animal. I contend that students will be more successful when they are provided tools that will give them results beyond what SweetSearch provided that included content from Dulcinea Media, an online gaming social network and a LinkedIn.com page dedicated to that gaming company as the first five links. Based upon the quality results provided by PBS and the Smithsonian, one should be very circumspect of SweetSearch results. Perhaps SweetSearch should tweak the search results as per your About SweetSearch to better include PBS and the Smithsonian instead of writing its own article about penguins.

      5. As an educator who is in a position to help teachers find quality tools and resources for their students, I have not recommended SweetSearch regardless of the example penguins search. The quality of search results is inferior to many other vetted search engines that target students and schools in my opinion. While I publicly applaud the idea behind SweetSearch, I just can’t get behind it based upon the results. I do encourage the improvement of the tool and am always happy to re-evaluate my opinion!

      When I think of vetted content for students, I think of the difficult balance between open access and censorship. However, I question the quality of “vetted” and Dulcinea for a few reasons. Apparently Dulcinea Media allows comments like the one that is posted on an article about Michael Jordan, comment #9 (ignore the fact that it says there are 8 comments as there is a comment marked #9). http://www.findingdulcinea.com/features/profiles/j/michael-jordan.html

      While I do advocate for many open tools that unfortunately can provide my students access to negative comments like that, I do so with an understanding that the Internet is a difficult place to manage. I just have a problem mentioning that this content is vetted for education. Yes, my example came up while working with a student a few weeks ago. The student called me on the fact that this is supposed to be an educational resource and they allowed that kind of content. While we had a just in time learning experience, I would prefer not to recommend something that is “vetted” and yet still has that kind of content. Once again, I recognize that it can be difficult to police people’s comments, I would rather point my students in a different direction.

      Additionally, anytime I am evaluating a tool for education, I try to test the quality for preventing inappropriate content. I did a test of some very common inappropriate terms in SweetSearch and I was very surprised by the results of this vetted educational search engine. Once again, the results for that inappropriate content can be difficult to manage but I was overly surprised to see that results from FormSpring.me are considered one of the 35,000 acceptable websites. Under the first test of an inappropriate search result, I was provided a link to a FormSpring.me page as the fourth result that clearly has inappropriate content for students in any school that I work with! SweetSearch clearly states, “Search Engine for Students, searches only 35,000 Web sites that have been approved by our staff”. What is the criteria for meeting SweetSearch approval? Is FormSpring.me really a site that meets SweetSearch approval? Is it really something that should be included in a vetted educational search engine?

      Now, for discussion sake, let’s agree the results that I just mentioned are an anomaly and they can be cleaned up. I still would not recommend this tool for teachers.

      6. First, I would suggest schools create Custom Search tools as Judi mentioned in the podcast. This is a highly effective tool to help guide your students and their research. Additionally, schools can have great discussions about the problems associated with search engines and why creating a custom search is such an effective approach.

      Second, there are many search engines that teachers might want to consider as alternatives to SweetSearch. One personal favorite that others may not agree with is, Quintura Kids: http://quinturakids.com/. I find this to be a nice tool as it incorporates visual search for students to help them with keywords. As students get results, the tool provides further words for students to consider.

      While it is important to note that SweetSearch does not allow ads as prominent search results, forcing the top three results to be Dulcinea Media is a similar practice in some respects. I would suggest that the top results from SweetSearch need to be more transparent as I have met too many educators since SweetSearch was launched that have not recognized that the majority of the top results always come from Dulcinea Media. Additionally, all of the Dulcinea Media content appears to be full of advertising which really defeats the purpose of touting an ad-free search engine. Research shows that the first page of results are the most important page for getting click-throughs on a search engine. I would rather have my students clearly understand the difference in ads and search results as I think SweetSearch has tried to blend the two together under the guise of vetted educational content.

      Third, I would suggest that schools should look for more research tools that do require subscription fees as sometimes you just have to accept that you pay for what you get. Tools such as Nettrekker are very effective because they have good search results and they include effective tools such as reading level, etc.

      7. The segment of the show that referenced SweetSearch is titled, “On the Radar”. The EdReach podcast team agreed that there was a lot of traffic on Twitter about SweetSearch this week which makes it a viable topic for discussion. While the story that was referenced may be considered old as you state, the results of the search are still the same today. “On the Radar” does not mean we can’t add any historical context to the discussion.

      To be very clear, it is not our responsibility to contact any company when we are mentioning their products for consideration to be used in an educational setting. We are expressing our professional opinions based upon our advanced degrees in education, the experience that we have accrued through many years in education and our experience that we have with the product. I accept that there are going to be multiple opinions on every topic and resource we discuss and yet it is our right and responsibility to stay true to our experience. I respectfully agree to disagree with you about the quality of SweetSearch.

      8. If another educator finds SweetSearch to be effective for their students, than I celebrate the fact that their students learned. I am happy for them! However, at this time, I can not recommend it as a tool for students that I work with, especially if they are doing research on the animal, penguins.

      9. Finally, I am very happy to see you come to the defense of your organization and all associated with SweetSearch as I am comfortable believing that everyone involved has students best interest in mind. However, I think it is apparent that there may be some quality control issues to work through. I would be more than happy to talk with members of your team to help if that would help improve this product for my students.

      • Scott, thanks for your reply. SweetSearch is an immense undertaking, and critical feedback from educators is an indispensible part of our continuous improvement process. I’d warmly welcome any other feedback or suggestions you have.

        I, too, am comfortable believing that everyone involved has students’ best interests in mind. We all know there are not enough people working to ensure that students are using the tools and resources they need to compete in the modern world, and I appreciate your efforts in this regard.

        As I wrote, I wasn’t concerned so much that you and the other members of the show didn’t recommend SweetSearch; while it surprises me that there is such a disconnect between your experience and that of many other educators from whom I’ve heard, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Rather, I was concerned that you were portraying it inaccurately. It may not be your “responsibility to contact the company,” but it is your responsibility to your audience to get the story right; this is why most journalists do contact a company before writing about its product.

        The primary reason Judi raised this subject is because, many months ago, the top result in SweetSearch for penguins was about a pair of egg-stealing gay penguins (about which there is a much-challenged children’s book); this was a legacy article written before we began to focus entirely on the education audience. Judi did not note, nor did anyone else, that we promptly remedied this by writing a new article, one that ranks first in SweetSearch, and links to PBS, Animal Planet, the New England Acquarium, and NatGeo.

        You apparently don’t think it is useful for students to read our well-written, comprehensive articles that provide context about a topic and are synthesized from, and hyperlink to, the best sources, and align these sources in a separate box. We’ll agree to disagree on that; as I noted, scores of other educators, and a whitepaper from the Knight Commission, have lauded our approach in writing, and thousands of others have thanked me personally at conferences.

        I was also concerned that you propagated simplistic notions of search and search engines that I am working hard to fight. As I wrote recently (http://blog.findingdulcinea.com/2011/02/a-lost-generation-a-response-to-the-dirty-little-secrets-of-search.html ), the New York Times regularly publishes articles on sites scamming Google to appear in the top spot, but never writes about what a scandal it is that search engine users – even university students – rely so heavily on what appears in the top spot, instead of quickly scanning the entire first page of results. Students generally do not formulate good search queries and rely heavily on the first three results. Instead of the NYT and EdReach railing at a search engine because they don’t like the top result to a single word query, they should be teaching students to form more robust search queries, with combinations and permutations of multiple keywords and special operators, and to look well beyond the first few results. Our Ten Steps to Better Web Research teaches students how; our SlideShare that teaches teachers how has been viewed 23,000 times in four months.

        I agree that custom search tools are the best answer for student search, and that educators and students can learn much about search by creating one; I’d be happy to Skype with your class about our experience. SweetSearch (and SweetSearch4Me, for emerging learners) are custom search engines, powered by Google. The effectiveness of any CSE comes down to the index used. SweetSearch searches 35,000 sites; SweetSearch4Me searches 3,000 that I individually added to the index. An educator can create his or her own CSE with 50 or100 or 500 hand-chosen sites, and it might be quite useful in some regards, but it will come up way short in others. For instance, Judi created this one herself ( http://edtechapalooza.typepad.com/my-blog/2011/02/google-custom-search-example.html ) for young students studying polar animals; while I realize it is just an example, I note that 7 of the 10 results (ignoring the paid results that come first) are from the same site, one with no academic authority and an obnoxious collection of ads. I found a single page of this site in SweetSearch4Me and immediately deleted it.

        I agree that inappropriate comments should be screened out; we are working on implementing the Disqus comment system soon. I concur that Club Penguin (which is also a top result in Quintura for Kids) is not an academic site, and it has been removed, as has FormSpring, which ironically was included only because we were one of the first publishers to write a critical article about it as a warning to educators and parents. While I am investigating how to incorporate some of NetTrekker’s features, I can’t even count the number of educators who have told me that its search results are inferior, and kids won’t use it, while kids love SweetSearch. I tried to explore QuinturaKids more, but it has been down for awhile, which I noted does happen with all sites now and then.

        Thanks again for your feedback, and I hope to have further dialogue with you.