Although school district Web sites often include links to the popular text-based search engines Google and Yahoo, growing numbers are including new visual search tools that are redefining online research. For example, California's Orange County Department of Education promotes Grokker as a tool that "transforms your computer into a visual research and learning station, so you can work smarter and faster." Similarly, Phyllis Gardner, technology coordinator in Virginia's Richmond Public Schools says Grokker is one of her "top 10 sites you can't live without." Nevertheless, most educators know little about the visual search tools and are uninformed about the advantages they bring to teaching and learning.
More than 550 million searches are launched across the Internet each day, and 85 percent of these are done with the "big four" search tools, that also include AOL Search and MSN Search. However, relying on text-based search tools to find information among billions of Web pages can be a frustrating process that requires the use of several search engines--since indexing "spiders" track different areas of the Web--and repeated trials with various search terms.
But since text-based search engines report results as lists of hundreds, thousands and even millions of hits, and do not group related items, it is easy for school users to be overwhelmed and miss key resources. When a simple search on the topic "teacher recognition programs" generates 200,000 links, users seldom look beyond the first few pages of results.
Grokking the Web
High-speed Internet connections have now opened the door to intensive online applications that display results through physical representations--maps, constellation charts, tree diagrams or two-dimensional shapes--and group results into easily accessible subtopics. Therefore, users do not have to page through interminable lists to find resources, and instead simply click on topics in the visual displays. And, since the major visual search tools are also "meta-search" engines, deriving content from multiple sources simultaneously, users gain the bonus of broader information pools.
One of the most amazing examples is Grokker--the name is derived from the Robert Heinlein science fiction novel term "grok" that means to understand through intimate and exhaustive knowledge--originally a fee-based desktop tool that was recently released in a free Web-based version. To use the Grokker site you must have the latest software from Java.com, then all you do is enter a search phrase and click the Grok button. Search results are displayed by categories in colorful circles that can be clicked to drill down to subtopic circles until squares are displayed that represent individual Web resources.
For example, the phrase "curriculum supervision" can be grokked to categories that include curriculum evaluation, teacher education and staff development. Grokker maps can be saved, edited and e-mailed to others, and used in applications such as sending information to department heads and assignments to students. Try it.
Related visual search tools include Vivisimo, a combination text/visual search tool that groups items into topic folders, Clusty that compiles information clusters that are accessed by clicking on icons displayed for every item, and KartOO that shows results in a tree of interrelated folders and documents. There are also other visual tools such as NewIsFree that presents world news in onscreen maps, and Visual Thesaurus where selections are made by clicking on word constellations.
Tapping Visual Power
Visual learners comprise slightly more than half of the population, so the use of visual information display tools makes online teaching and learning more effective. But the graphic representation of content is also a powerful way to communicate with all learners and brings dimensions to schools that have never before been possible. This year make sure your staff and students are informed about the power and excitement of the new online visual display tools.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.