How the modern librarian is guiding research in the online era

Word Researcher displays an on-screen pane of information on the Hyacinth macaw, as reference in a paper being written on the Amazon Rainforest.

Teaching proper research methods is about so much more than enabling students to turn in the perfect paper. When done thoroughly, it imbues them with the ability to evaluate resources for credibility, avoid misleading misinformation and mount a cogent argument. Teaching students how to research is about empowering them to think critically, both in the classroom today and beyond.

“It all comes back to the purpose of school,” says Aron Early, research technology specialist at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, WA.  “Not so much about content, but teaching kids how to learn. Like evaluating information and being a critical thinker.”

In many ways, the Internet has made research easier. In many others, however, it’s complicated the task of discerning verifiable, accurately sourced and cited material from the misinterpretations, half-truths and flat-out falsehoods that live online. A lengthy study by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education concluded in June 2016, found that even older students could stand to improve their skills in correctly identifying true stories online.

Meanwhile, the role of librarian continues to evolve in support of long-term learning. Research technology specialists are 21st century figures, standing at the nexus of technique, knowledge, community and social collaboration. For Aron, whose students in Washington have come to rely less on textbooks and more on the Internet, this means actively coaching them on ways to refine their information-gathering abilities, both in the classroom and the library.

Aron has also found help in Researcher, a tool within Microsoft Word that makes finding those credible sources simpler. With Researcher, anyone can search for and incorporate reliable sources and content, including properly formatted citations, all within a few clicks and without having to leave the document.

“It’s really bringing the library to the students and enabling them to be good researchers,” Aron says. “Being able to research sites, collect and curate your information all in one program is kind of amazing.”

Researcher displays source material found using Bing’s Knowledge Graph, which is tailored per a mix of algorithms, human oversight and measured criteria for what constitutes a “trusted” source. By vetting for sources that have an established history of accuracy and high level of online citations, Researcher can present a body of reference materials that includes national science and health centers, well-known encyclopedias, history databases and more.

In managing how sources are both gathered and displayed, Microsoft’s engineers consider Bing’s role in Researcher as a pro-active step, making good research quicker and less daunting.

“How do we get people to the good information and get them away from the bad information as quickly as possible?” asks Microsoft Researcher Engineer Douglas Taylor. Veracity, he says, and timeliness are the goals with Researcher. “We think the fact that people spend so much time learning, teaching and scrutinizing any website to see if it’s trustworthy is a problem worth solving.”

Highlighted text is added to a research paper automatically, with a pop-up window offering options to add, or to add and cite.Aron adds that Researcher is not intended to replace the library for students, but rather to complement it. “As much as we are bringing the library to them digitally, we also want to make sure the library stays important in a student’s life,” he says. To that end, Bing and Researcher can point users to the nearest library for source material that isn’t yet digitized.

Ultimately, Aron views Researcher as a valuable teaching tool with the power to promote critical thinking among students and adult users alike. For more insights on research practices and other modern tools in education, you can follow Aron Early on Twitter.

Researcher, which is currently available to Office 365 subscribers, will continue to be updated with additional resource material over time. Students and teachers who haven’t already subscribed can download their free version of Office 365 with Word 2016* using a valid school email address. Researcher is also available as a mobile app for iOS and will make its way to other platforms and Office apps in the near future.

*Researcher in Word is currently available in Word 2016 for Office 365 subscribers, with Researcher in Word Online coming in the future.  Some schools allow teachers and students to install the full Office applications on up to 5 PCs or Macs for free. If your school provides this additional benefit, you’ll see the Install Office button on your Office 365 home page after you complete sign-up.