Adding sense to searches

One of my favorite tasks as a college journalism instructor was killing off Dolly Parton at the start of every semester. Well, not really—what I would do at the beginning of every term was give my Journalism 101 students the details of the singer’s fatal, fictional car crash before turning them loose to compose her obituary. Originally I thought this was going to be a great way for the class to practice shaping a story without having to worry about interviewing skills, but my first batch of papers changed that. Almost every paper was riddled with the same, small mistakes. Hopping online, I discovered most of these errors were spread all across the Web—clearly, Web sites (just like my students) had copied and recopied information without checking the facts. That assignment taught me that there was one more urgent skill my Web-centric students needed to learn—how to distinguish a good source from a bad one.

I hadn’t thought about what a job that must be for today’s elementary and secondary teachers until I took Thinkronize’s $50 per year NetTrekker Home for a spin. This kid-safe search engine is billed as a way to help kids avoid accidentally stumbling across age-inappropriate content as they surf the Web.

Thinkronize claims 10 million kids in 19,000 schools currently use the school version, NetTrekker d.i., for classwork. But what I found interesting was the search engine’s hand-picked links. NetTrekker doesn’t filter out sexual content using keywords. (You can do that for free with Google or Yahoo by clicking on the preferences link and choosing the SafeSearch option.) Instead, the site has pressed educators into service to evaluate, rate, and organize links they think have educational value. The upshot is, at least in my testing, that you spend a lot less time picking through chaff to find useful information among your results.

When you use NetTrekker, you start your search in a grade level area—Elementary, Middle, or High. Type in your search term or click on a subject link (for example, Social Studies, World Languages, or Science) to browse topics. Each search result includes a quality rating, the name of the evaluator, and a link to report problems. You can narrow your results by subject area, by type (pictures, learning exercises, learning games, and so on). Click on the Readability Scale to limit results according to your kid’s reading level. There are many thoughtful touches—for example, text is larger on the elementary school pages. Each grade level section also contains a huge, helpful homework help page with links to all sorts of great references, all organized by category.

Complaints about kid-safe search engines typically concern the clumsiness of keyword filtering—either it blocks everything or misses the obvious. For example, search on nude using Google with SafeSearch turned on and you’ll get no results at all. Do the same using the human-maintained NetTrekker and you’ll get a list of art-related sites. A search on finger using Google returns a hodge-podge of results, some of which parents might not be too pleased with. NetTrekker’s results, pictured up and to the right, stick to academically relevant results.

It’s true that there are a few free, human-selected search sites for kids, such as Yahoo Kids. But free is a relative term—Yahoo’s site (still in beta) has a heavy focus on commercial movies and music.

Yahoo Kids

Also, kid-safe search engines and sites typically only filter out pornographic material. What happens if you search, for example, for KKK ? Google with SafeSearch brings up a Wikipedia entry, as well as a long list of Ku Klux Klan sites. NetTrekker turns back a list of sites that cover the history of lynching, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the KKK. True, the KKK sites you get through Google are primary sources, but it’s nice for kids to have a little context. When it comes to volatile subjects, the Web is sometimes rife with sites that aren’t actually what they appear to be. These pseudo-sites can provide great “teachable moments” for a class, especially a high school class that’s ready to start working seriously on media literacy. But what if you’re a 5th grader just trying to do a report on the civil rights movement?

NetTrekker won’t stop kids from wandering off on the Internet in search of something illicit. But if your primary concern is that your kids can’t find information they need in the confusing jungle that is the World Wide Web, I’d consider adding a subscription to the home version to your list of school supplies.

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