Saturday, November 10, 2007

Nettrekker and Pathfinders: Are We Making Their Lives Too Easy?

Renee over on the Teacher/Librarian Ning posted a question that's fomented an interesting discussion: Are we doing our students a disservice by subscribing to products such as Nettrekker?
I'd like to come down solidly on the "Yes" side of the debate--and I work at a school that purchases Nettrekker.

Students, whatever they think to the contrary, are information illiterate. They're marvels at using technology as social interaction, but virtually clueless (pun intended) about more analytical applications and information access. If it's on Google, it must be good.

I was reading a study online that I really wish I'd bookmarked, as I have no idea where it is now. A university researcher was studying the research habits of college freshmen. Aside from their general problems in framing a research question, one student also complained about not having a list of sites he knew his professors would approve. (You mean I have to THINK?!) My first thought: Here's a kid raised on Nettrekker.

While I can see a case in using it with elementary students, by the time they're in middle school, kids need to taught to navigate the web on their own. They won't have Nettrekker in college--or in life. They need to be taught about portals and search techniques and evaluating sites for authority and relevance. That's a lot of work, so I wonder if one reason Nettrekker and the like are so prevalent is because it makes our job easier? We can turn them loose with a few lessons on Boolean and keywords and there you go. We don't have to worry about porn or peeved parents.

But what do students learn?

From there, it's a small step to pathfinders. As an English teacher, I would have loved having these as a resource. When I show them to the teachers here at school (it's a new concept for them) they rave about them. Students love them, too, because it does a large hunk of the hunting for them. I spend HOURS searching great sites on forensic anthropology or the 1920's. And the students happily click away, never having to worry about whether the site is authoritative or not, because I did that for them.

So I wonder: in the long run, am I helping or hindering? Or maybe there's a medium ground--not every research task has to be a huge project. We can provide them with pathfinder and SIRS WebSelect for small project, but on key projects each year, they do guided digging. We point them to great portals and directories, but they have to find and analyze the sites themselves.

What do you think?


  1. I agree with you on several issues raised here, and have often wondered if I am helping students by creating that "walled garden" through path finders. Teachers LOVE them , yes, and kids will use them after they get lost in the sea of information on the Internet, and get nailed for using a site that isn't so authoritative after all. But creating that "walled garden" does not make them information literate or an independent learner either. Joyce Valenza proposed this summer that we STOP making pathfinders, and instead make path wikis where the students, teachers and librarians can contribute, and then all decide if the added link is "worthy." Using a path wiki would give students permission to search the Internet with an evaluation lens, add links to a wiki pathfinder, and subject their links to an assessment for quality by all the stake holders. Imagine the learnig that all gain from an activity such as this? Also, sites that metamorphasize or mutate into something else can be removed from the wiki when they are no longer relevant. The Pathfinder becomes a living document rather than a stagnant page that may eventually become obsolete. How cool is that way of thinking?

  2. That's interesting. I actually do all my pathfinders on wikis, and give the kids the password so they can add other sites they find, but I've only worked with a couple groups so far, so they haven't really done that yet.

    I love the thinking behind this--I hadn't taken it that far. Count on Joyce!!

    Glad to see my instincts were right! (grin) When we talk about the pathfinders, I need to emphasize it's just a place to start, and that students should be very proactive about making it their own, adding sites, etc.

    I'm starting to put together an entire set of wiki pages. Would love your feedback!

    I just sent the link to all the faculty, along with the password and an explanation of why I was doing it this way rather than revamping the website. And for precisely that reason--I want it to be completely interactive and growing, rather than something static.

    Thanks for stretching my thinking! (grin)