Sunday, April 5, 2009


When my husband began researching cougars for an art project, he went directly to Google. He expected to find this:

Maybe a few of these:

And perhaps some:

What he didn't expect to see was:

Evidently "cougar" can also be defined as "a woman 40 years of age or older who exclusively pursues very young men." To commemorate Barbie's landmark birthday this year, a video entitled "Barbie at 50: Cougar Barbie" popped up on YouTube showing the birthday girl partying with men young enough to be her sons. (The link is below - may be considered offensive by some, so use discretion when viewing.)

While my husband and I laughed at the fruits of his research, this experience did reinforce some key concepts relevant to student internet use:
  • seemingly innocent search terms can lead to unanticipated results
  • not all search engines are created equal
  • for younger students, pre-selected websites may be the best choice
  • adult supervision and monitoring is key
In our district, elementary classes are told not to use Google. Instead, the district website has links to Clusty and Ask which both cluster results. In this case, a student searching for information on cougar, the animal, could quickly identify appropriate pages. Additional, less desirable results might appear, but they would be grouped under a different category.

Another approach is to cooperatively plan research units with the school's library media specialist, who can help teachers locate websites and databases appropriate for their grade level. All sites should be tested prior to student use, just to be sure that there are no unwelcome surprises.

Even on the "safest" sites, inappropriate content may appear. This doesn't mean that children should be barred from the riches of the Internet. It just reminds us that students need to learn how to safely navigate in cyberspace, and we need to be there to guide them.

"Cougar" by dracobotanicus
"1970 Mercury Cougar" by dave_7
"Prince George Cougars" by iwona_kellie
"Barbie at 50: Cougar Barbie" on YouTube
"Cougar Niece" by Mo ToMo


Kymberli Mulford said...

Great post, Diane. In my school district in the Chicago suburbs, we are very troubled by the lack of broad and reliable digital image resources available for student use.

At one point, I had a large collection of reliable websites that housed copyright-free images for use for school projects. One of the most promising of these was Pics4Learning, a site designed by teachers for other teachers to use as they developed projects for students. Sadly, this site has not grown at the proportion which would have made it a huge success.

Most often, we find that students resort to Google Image searching, or sometimes Wikipedia. Both of these can lead to results such as your husband encountered, and most often result in student use of copyrighted work. While we are trying hard to stay ahead of that curve of teaching students about copyright, it can be an uphill battle if classroom teachers assign/allow these practices.

I had high hopes for Creative Commons (via Flickr and other such image collections) as a tool for classroom use. Sadly, the search terms can easily result in extremely inappropriate images being viewed by small children.

The end result? Almost any time I assign a project to students that involves the use of still images - even inventions - I pre-search the photos for them and place them in a large bank on our school server. This keeps unhappy parents and school board members from calling me, but I am dissatisfied with the method because it doesn't teach students good image search skills... and it consumes HOURS of time that I might better use in some other way on the weekend.

I wonder how we as educators can band together, as we have on so many other similar topics, and create a solution to this problem?

diane said...

I understand your frustration: by keeping students "safe" we limit their access to resources. The only solution I can see is to thoroughly instruct all grade levels on cyber safety, good digital citizenship, and website evaluation. Then give them a list of appropriate sites and search engines (although that's no guarantee that inappropriate material won't crop up) and turn them loose.

Re. copyright, an online colleague recently asked me why most information on this topic is directed towards librarians. My response was that ALL teachers need to be familiar with the principles of copyright and fair use, since many classroom projects are done without librarian/teacher collaboration.

There should be mandatory PD on copyright in every district. Educators need to model ethical use.

lindargeorge said...

I wrote to the contact us link...will back on the response! Thanks!

Blogger said...

Submit your website or blog now for indexing in Google and 300+ search engines!

Over 200,000 websites indexed!