Recently, I was teaching about the concept of bias to some middle school students. It’s a concept many teachers in the Humanities have taught about for years: how to recognize and account for bias in the texts they read. However, this year the discussion got me thinking: we so often teach about bias in the materials students read; why don’t we talk about bias in the method by which students select what to read? Twenty years ago (heck, ten years ago), students got most of their materials from the library, and could be confident that the material they were getting was both (a) vetted and (b) reliable. As the internet has become the method of choice for students’ research, time has been spent showing students how to analyze the material they read online. However, where students rarely consider bias is in the search engines they use to find the material. Using Google for all searches is no better than citing a single source in an essay. Additionally, understanding how using different search engines can skew one’s understanding of a fact or concept is the type of 21st century skill that may be going unnoticed at the moment.
So in class the next day, I had students research a single topic: Christopher Columbus (we happened to be in the triangle trade/early explorer unit). I had them use four different search engines to research the topic, and then we mapped the results. While the top three sites were similar, there were distinct differences in the results given by each of the search engines. This led to a great conversation about how different algorithms used by different sites might produce results that bias a researcher towards a specific type of result.
Now, for all research papers, I require students to not only cite the sources they used, but also the different search engines as well, and ask that all students use multiple search engines to find the material. In an era in which we are constantly warned to be aware of the bias of our sources, those who control which sources are presented to us in the first place should be equally scrutinized.