Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Facebook, iPhone and Viagra. Not, perhaps, the most informative opening sentence you’ve ever read in Community Care, but it does serve a purpose. Containing several of the most popular Google search terms, it should ensure that the online version of this article receives a few more hits than usual. So if you were looking for celebrity gossip or little blue pills, click away now.
That’s the trouble with the internet you put in your search terms, but you are never really sure what you are going to get. Not that that stops us trying. Whether it’s the ubiquitous Google, one of the other search engines or online information tools such as Wikipedia, the internet has put an unparalleled amount of information within the grasp of anybody with access to a computer.
For those who work in social care there are many benefits to the new information society. Information and knowledge have been gaining currency within the profession for many years, with “evidence-informed” or “knowledge-based” practice being championed by Research in Practice and the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Thanks to Google, Yahoo and the like, it has never been easier to get hold of the latest government policy document, charity report or research results. Messageboards and social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Community Care’s Carespace are being used to share ideas and improve collaboration between colleagues. Service user groups are increasingly using websites to ensure their voices are heard.
But there are also dangers. For instance, there are concerns about the security of online data. While you are googling research documents, could someone be googling you? A few years ago the technology magazine Wired managed to access over 5,000 medical records, complete with names, addresses, telephone numbers and details of diseases and treatments. This wasn’t a feat of sophisticated hacking. The magazine identified a command commonly used in web-enabled databases and simply typed it into Google. Who needs spyware when Google will do the job for you?
There are also concerns that the Google generation simply has it too easy. According to qualitative research carried out by communitycare.co.uk last month, there was a strong trend for social work respondents to use Google as a first port of call when looking for specific information. Many of those interviewed were quite pushed for time in their jobs and needed a lot of information from a variety of sources. They favoured Google as it is perceived that it will do much of the legwork for them. And it’s a trend that is becoming habitual. Most were starting at Google, reviewing what it returns and then ending up where Google points them.
Down to the library
Also, where previous generations would have to spend hours in the library scouring through academic texts, students today can download all the information they need while supping a latté at their local Starbucks. Could it be that once valued research skills are being lost? Tara Brabazon, a professor from the school of computing at Brighton University, believes so. She has dubbed Google “white bread for the mind” and banned her own students from using it.
“Google offers easy answers to difficult questions,” she says. “But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas and superficial surfing. Google ranks [sites] on popularity not importance. You can’t tell the difference between popularity and importance.”
Brabazon’s concerns are supported by a recent study from University College London. This found that although the google generation – young people born or brought up in the internet age – are at ease with computers, they tend to rely on the most basic search tools and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information they find on the web. But it is not only the younger researcher who exhibits the Google effect. The report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future also found that traits such as impatience in search and navigation, and zero tolerance for any delay in satisfying their information needs were now the norm for all age-groups, from younger pupils and undergraduates through to professors.
“These findings serve to remind us all that students and researchers will continue to need the skills and training to help navigate an increasingly diverse and complex information landscape,” says Malcolm Read at education technology body the Joint Information Systems Committee which commissioned the report.
Indeed, concern over how new technologies are shaping learning and research have prompted several leading educational bodies to launch a UK-wide independent inquiry. Chaired by Sir David Melville, former vice chancellor of the University of Kent, the inquiry will consider the impact of the newest technologies such as social networking and mobile devices on the behaviour and attitudes of learners coming up to, and just arrived in, higher education.
“Over the last 10 years or so, the internet, in particular, has transformed the way students access information,” says Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK. “These technological developments present a major opportunity for higher education. This inquiry will certainly help inform universities about the challenges ahead.”
Students of social work at London South Bank University are already advised to “exert a degree of caution when using generic sites such as Google,” says professor of social work Keith Popple.
“Google can be very useful but, of course, the problem is that you end up with reams of information that is not refined or classified. Some of it may be useful but a lot will not be and it can be quite a lot of work to sort it out. A lot of the social care-related material is also very US-specific, so that can be a problem if you are looking to focus on other areas.” Rather than use sweeping searches on Google, students are advised to source material from respected peer-reviewed sites (see box).
While urging caution in the use of generic search engines, Popple rejects the notion that the social work student of today is any lazier in his or her research than in previous generations.
“I would say that, if anything, social care professionals are becoming more and more research minded,” he says.
Tony Newman, head of policy and research at Barnardo’s, agrees. “Most people who work in social care these days have access to the internet and will use search engines to find out information. So this has become an important issue for organisations such as ourselves. It affects not only our capacity to locate information but also allows us to respond very rapidly to events with our own publications and research.”
Newman stresses that using search engines is an acquired skill and recommends learning how to use the more advanced search features that most offer.
“Used properly, generic search engines can be brilliant, enormously helpful. But it’s worth spending a little time looking at how you can refine your searches using Boolean commands and so on.”
It is also important to learn how to interpret the results of those searches. “At Barnardo’s we run workshops for staff internally and for external organisations on the location and critical analysis of online research information,” says Newman. “But there’s no great secret to it. Anybody who uses search engines regularly will quickly develop the skills you need to identify what is helpful and what is not. Often just by looking at the urls you can identify what is rubbish and what is worth looking into.”
Celia Atherton, director of the children’s and families research organisation Research in Practice, also believes that once the limitations of search engines have been understood they can be a force for good within social work practice.
“Google is great if you know what you are looking for,” she says. “If it’s a policy document, an article or government report then Google will find it quickly. But for general research you should be using one of the portal sites that have some quality control.” And, like Newman and Popple, she rejects the charge that social workers are becoming lazier in their research.
“To say that Google is undermining our research skills rather suggests that we had those skills in the first place. But within the social care profession we are still developing the idea of evidence-informed practice. So I think that as a profession we are becoming much better informed and more knowledge based rather than less.”
Internet Social Worker (includes online tutorials for social workers and exercises on how to judge the reliability of websites)
Joseph Rowntree Foundation (social policy research)
Research in Practice (children and families research organisation)
Community Care’s Inform site, is a subscription-based repository of good practice and research designed for social workers searching for ideas to use in practice.This article appeared in the 3 April issue under the headline “Engine trouble”