There’s been plenty written on the value of letting students explore the Web on their own, rather than being sternly directed to one site. How are they going to learn how to identify and evaluate online sources if they never find any on their own? The searches that FAIL are often as useful as the searches that are successful, in terms of what the kids learn about the search process. A perfect example: a couple of years ago, I had a group of third graders in the computer lab, learning about the people of Africa. One group was learning about the Masai, another group the San, another group the Ashanti. A smartypants in the Ashanti group decided to jump out of our subscription database and see what they could find using Google. They found not quite the information they’d anticipated. (A nice plug for subscription databases!)
I think this little incident shows that, in the elementary grades at least, there is something to be said for the guided search. That’s when creating your own custom search engine comes in handy. My favorite “roll your own” search engine is Rollyo, though I’ve dabbled with Google Custom Search, too. Basically, both sites work the same way. You give your engine a name, and identify which specific websites you want your search engine to search. When you click “Create,” you will be given a link to a page where you can try out your search engine. If you like what you see, you can share the link or even embed it on your own web pages by copying and pasting some HTML. You can see the Rollyo search I created for our urban wildlife unit here.
There are excellent reasons to use Rollyo or Google Custom Search. You can create a search engine for your own website–very useful, if you’ve made a page from scratch. If students will be essentially repeating the exact same search on five or six different sites, create a custom search engine and let them do the search once. Librarians might want to create a lesson plan search engine for teachers, or a wildlife search engine for their students. It’s also a way to let young students experience some web searching, while restricting them to sites that are safe.
Rollyo is not perfect–the Rollyo site needs a link for “Help!” (I searched for 15 minutes, trying to figure out how to change the image on my profile.) There are also some “sponsored links” (which is WebSpeak for “advertisements”) at the top of the page, that kids will have to be instructed to ignore, though they are pretty clearly separated from the rest of the results page. Rollyo’s contact form is broken at the moment, and I could not locate any other contact information. Sometimes, mysteriously, one of the customized Rollyo engines I created returned all the results from the websites I linked by site, not by relevance–meaning if I searched for “elephant,” I got every single mention of “elephant” from Enchanted Learning, including “elephant shrew” and a circus page, before a better result from BioKids. All in all, though, I think it’s a good product. And it’s free, to boot!
Here are some more customized search engines:
–A search engine on the issue of bullying
–A search engine on early literacy
–A junior high search engine on the Civil War