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TOOLS FOR LEARNING: Search, Research, and Discovery, in Life and in Learning

By Victor Rivero - Posted Nov 14, 2014
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"Delve,” “dig,” “examine,” “inquire,” “investigate into,” “look into,” “probe,” “explore,” and so on. All these sorts of words have something in common. They are synonyms for the word “research.” At face value, “research” would mean “to look or search again,” but if you did look again, you’d find that the French-derived “re”’ in this case was more of an intensifier rather than a placeholder for the word “again.” This means that “research” is more than just a search (and not so much a searching again), it is a “careful” search, a “very closely seeking out.” In any case, the “systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions” from Google is a good working definition. Merriam-Webster keeps it straightforward with “a careful or diligent search.” (“Diligent” means “a steady, earnest, and energetic effort.”)

This all goes to show that research (even on the word itself) can be interesting, it can be pleasurable, and there can be unexpected but yet enlightening results. And though Google can help, upon further investigation, it’s no surprise that Google is not the only tool out there. There are plenty more. And depending on what you are carefully seeking, you will find a variety of different research tools. For you, for your colleagues, for your students or for your own pursuits—and in celebration of research—we provide here a mixed bag of some useful tools for learning in the area of search, research, and discovery for life and learning.

PROQUEST. ProQuest’s collections span 6 centuries (imagine that!), all disciplines, and the diverse content types needed by researchers. It provides one of the world’s largest collections of dissertations and theses; three centuries of newspapers; more than 450,000 academic ebooks; collections of important scholarly journals and other content researchers need such as data; and unique digital vaults of primary source materials. Its renowned abstracting and indexing enables researchers to find sources more easily in their area of study. A good place to start is by looking at ProQuest’s offerings for libraries and academic searches.

STEMSCOPES. This one is from Accelerate Learning, a company that is the outcome of a project by Rice University to develop PreK–12 STEM content, started with a science curriculum called STEMscopes. Founded by Vernon Johnson and Reid Whitaker and adopted by the entire state of Texas (this is big!), the STEMscopes program is now used by more than 1.5 million Texas students. At ISTE 2014, it was announced that STEMscopes—which is aligned to the NGSS (the Next Generation Science Standards)—is now available nationwide. The site also offers a STEMcoach section providing hands-on investigations, ready-made lessons, chats with other teachers, videos, etc.

WIKIPEDIA. Only 25% of students visit a library, while eight in 10 students turn to Wikipedia as their first source of research. Currently, English Wikipedia alone includes 4,604,945 articles of any length. Each day, content is increased with more than 800 new articles. The combined Wikipedias for all other languages greatly exceed the English Wikipedia in size, giving a combined total of more than 18 billion words in 32 million articles in 287 languages. The English Wikipedia alone has more than 2.6 billion words. Consider: This is more than 100 times as many as the next largest English-language encyclopedia (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and more than the enormous, 119-volume Spanish-language Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana. How do we know this?:

ANSWER UNDERGROUND. Answer Underground gets students help—fast. Students post questions to their group, and classmates and teachers collectively answer. This very cool mobile app gets them high-quality answers, providing students with homework help right when they need it. It was set up to develop and release an educational iOS app designed to help teachers and students find information via group Q&A. The app can be used independently or integrated with learning management systems. It works by allowing members to create and participate in academic groups related to a variety of study areas. Groups are categorized by major subject areas, such as math, history, or the sciences, and are fully searchable. Members of an academic group can post questions, which are then answered by other members. Because these members may be either students or educators, the app has a feature that allows verified academics to certify that the answers are correct. It is also possible to search existing answers to see if the question has already been resolved.

CITELIGHTER. Citelighter is a technology company with an innovative academic research platform that allows students and researchers to save, organize, and automatically cite online or offline information throughout the duration of the writing process. Content can be stored privately or aggregated by topic to be shared with the community via what the company calls Knowledge Cards. The brainchild of business school buddies Saad Alam and Lee Jokl, Citelighter was launched in September 2011 and is already being used by students on more than 1,500 campuses and in more than 50 countries, for good reason.

NOODLETOOLS. NoodleTools has created-easy to use-modules for the classroom and home. Use its Show Me module to enhance your teaching and guide students in information evaluation. What constitutes credible information? How does source type contribute to relevance, authority, and point of view? How do I evaluate and cite born-digital images and online sources? What may be a relief for educators is that all modules incorporate Common Core concepts. NoodleTools can be an instructional partner for differentiated teaching of literacy skills, critical analysis, sound reasoning, and collaborative group research.

MENDELEY. Mendeley is a free reference manager and academic social network. Make your own fully searchable library in seconds, cite as you write, and read and annotate your PDFs on any device. Securely stored and accessible across devices, you can search and sort your references, documents, and notes in one place—right down to the keyword you’re looking for. Use it online or offline to access your PDFs on the move. Highlight, annotate, and add sticky notes to capture your thoughts in context. Generate your citations and bibliography in the style of your choice, in just a few clicks. Compatible with Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, and BibTeX.

RESEARCHGATE. Particularly geared for scientists, educators should have a look at this and perhaps students too to see what they’re in for when they get especially professional with research. Users access scientific knowledge and make their research visible. They can add publications, access millions more—and connect with colleagues, co-authors, peers, and specialists in their field. What’s really useful is that it also provides stats about views, downloads, and citations of a user’s research.

BENCHFLY. For another look at what’s happening in the world of research today, have a closer look at this premier science video production platform designed by research and video experts. BenchFly provides both open access and private solutions to labs and companies, allowing researchers worldwide to communicate via a universal language—video.

EASYBIB. With EasyBib School Edition, you can improve your students’ information literacy skills, effectively encourage plagiarism prevention, and teach the essential research skill of website evaluation. It’s important for students to support their ideas with research. EasyBib’s School Edition provides students with the tools to enhance critical thinking skills and research habits. If you’re concerned about implementation, this company has an in-house team of librarians who have created a professional development course to help you and your colleagues integrate the platform into your instruction. The School Edition gives your students access to MLA, Chicago, and AP styles and a feature-rich, ad-free experience. Use it to cite, organize, and search.

CONNECTEDRESEARCHERS—ONLINE TOOLS FOR RESEARCHERS. “I often feel like academic research is stuck in the 1990s,” writes Thomas Crouzier, a biomaterials researcher, “where email and word processors were the only tools we had to communicate. This is 2014. Where are the Facebooks, the Kickstarters, the Google Docs for researchers?” he asks. Having done a bit of research on research, Crouzier and his blog can provide some help: “Web-based tools for researchers do exist! You just might not know about them,” he says. Research-orientated social networking sites, tools to support
scientific research, to manage labs and data, and to better communicate have been multiplying within the last few years. According to Crouzier, “These tools could change the way we do research.” But the adoption rate is still slow, partly due to the lack of awareness. This blog keeps readers updated on new services, provides short reviews, and assembles a comprehensive list of web-based tools for researchers.

CAROLINA SCIENCE ONLINE. Because so many students have so little exposure to the outside world (not that schools are akin to correctional facilities, just that classroom walls can certainly be limiting), it helps to have stunningly visual depictions of scientific concepts in brief, 3-minute clips organized into fun, interactive takes on biology, chemistry, and Earth and physical sciences. These videos are incredible and definitely have that “wow” factor for video-game playing kids who can spot outdated online content in a heartbeat. They’re not only drawn in, the videos offer fun quizzes and additional content that supplements any curriculum. You won’t be disappointed, and you might make a few scientists in the process.

ECHO METER TOUCH. OK, just one more for something completely different. From an interesting company named Wildlife Acoustics comes a just-launched iOS app called Echo Meter Touch. It’s pretty slick—using the ultrasonic module, you can detect and record bats flying over your head in real time and manipulate full-color spectrograms directly on the app. The company has actually seen a surge in K–12 classrooms using the app for hands-on science lessons recently. A quirky app like this is worth a good look. In addition to the ultrasonic module, an iPad lets you can examine their digital curriculum. Just be sure to duck if you’re outside.

For sure, “research” can have a connotation to some of a tiresome burden, of word-laden work, dense thickets of technical jargon—or even specialized experimentation and practical laboratory-setting trial -and- error activities. And these are all things best left to those who for some unknown reason seem to derive pleasure from what is, for most, not pleasurable. You may have felt this way yourself, or quite possibly you’ve witnessed students who hold this view.

But wait, have another look. Move yourself through its motions—or help your students to do so. It’s 2014 already, and you (or they) just might find that research is really the stuff of learning and life itself—especially when you open your eyes to what’s actually out there today. Besides, have you ever sat still, looked around, and realized it is hard not to be curious about, well, just about anything? Research, whether superficial or deep, brief or lengthy, is really the way forward in learning and in life. And with the right tools, you’ll be amazed what is now available these days, and you’ll be on your way.

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