Monday, October 12, 2009

A curated search engine for students

Most educators today struggle to harness the potential of technology and the Internet, which have only just begun to change the skills that students need to succeed.

David Ligon's post on "New Media Literacy," is a comprehensive look at the opportunities and challenges 21st century teachers face. It is exhilarating - and terrifying. As Joyce Valenza and Doug Johnson recently wrote in the School Library Journal blog, "School librarians, as we once knew them, may no longer be relevant. And, yet, this is undoubtedly the most exciting time in history to be a librarian."

I agree emphatically. In my school days, evaluating the accuracy of information was rarely part of the mix - if it was in the library, it was accurate. To fully develop critical 21st century learning skills, students will have to be taught how to find, evaluate, use and communicate information gleaned from a dozen credible sources, chosen out of the millions of resources available a fraction of a second after the click of a "search" button, and in countless other places. It is a transformative moment in the history of our education system.

So how do we teach students these critical skills ? When they conduct online research, most students heavily on major search engines, and review only the first few results. Students sense that some results are better than others, struggle to distinguish effectively, and worry about wasting time on the wrong one. So they put their faith in the search engine, hoping it has somehow placed the best results are the top.

This is not something that can be overcome in a 30-minute tutorial. Just as students develop writing skills by reading hundreds of great books, they learn to recognize a credible Web site by using hundreds of them, and learning from the experience. Teachers and librarians should refer students to the best Web resources, and let students devote most of their energies to distilling it and communicating the information they find.

With that in mind, our first product, findingDulcinea, directs users to credible and comprehensive information online about thousands of subjects. It is accessed through both an internal search function and by rooting through the category-driven tree-structure. After we spent 75,000 hours over 18 months creating it, we realized all this information we had amassed could be accessed in a manner that was more consistent with established user behavior.

And thus was born SweetSearch, a custom search engine that is derived from our work on findingDulcinea. SweetSearch only searches 35,000 Web sites that have been evaluated by our staff. It does not include results from the unreliable sites that often rank high in other search engines and waste students’ time. You know those hundreds of bookmarks you have to lists of great sites selected by teachers, librarians and subject-matter experts ? Think of SweetSearch as a giant, searchable repository of all of them.

This curated pool of Web sites allows students to choose, from a list of credible results, which ones are most relevant to their research, rather than spend much of their time deciding which sites are worth their consideration.

We launced SweetSearch in February of this year and have been improving it ever since. We've been gratified to see usership grow dramatically in recent weeks. Most encouraging has been the fact that every day, we see more school librarians linking to SweetSearch from the school library Web site. Some examples can be found here and here.

We invite the educational community to help us curate SweetSearch; please send any suggested additions or deletions to

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Gallop for the Great Grete Waitz

I had an "I'll never wash this hand again" moment today. I didn't merely touch greatness, I high-fived it, wrapped my fingers around its fingers and stared into its eyes. As I crossed the starting line of "Grete's Great Gallop," a half marathon today in Central Park, enthusiastically greeting and high-fiving as many runners as possible. was the Great Grete Waitz. Yes, the word "Great" is misplaced in the title of the race. Wayne Gretzky is called "the Great One" because he annihilated the hockey record books. Similarly, the Great Waitz laid waste to world records in women's marathoning in the 1970s, and to the notion that women could not compete among the top men in the marathon.

In 1978, Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, invited Waitz to participate as a "rabbit", pacing the top runners and dropping out. But fate had other plans. After setting the early pace, Waitz decided to complete the entire 26.2 miles. Despite not having done any training runs beyond 12 miles, she won the race and set a women’s world record of 2:32:30.

The following year, Sports Illustrated's cover story was about an epic duel in the men's New York Marathon; it noted that, shortly after the men finished "all of them were near the finish line, and Rodgers, at least, was cheering when Grete Waitz, the Norwegian schoolteacher who insists she has always been, is now and ever will be a track runner, not a marathoner, crossed the finish line in 2:27:33, almost five minutes faster than the world record she set last year in New York, and 11 minutes faster than any other woman in the race."

SI reported that Rodgers said admiringly, "She's pretty outrageous. I saw her come across the line, and, well, she's inspirational." SI also noted that, the prior year, nobody, including the announcer at the finish line, knew who she was, but that "this year she spent hours signing autographs wherever she went."

At the starting line today, they rattled off a list of Waitz' accomplishments, including her winning the New York City Marathon an unprecedented nine times and a litany of other records.

What can get lost in her long list of stunning accomplishments are two particular points worth noting:

Over the course of 7 years, Waitz lowered the women’s marathon world record by more than 9 minutes. In the 25 ensuing years, despite great advancements in training methods, nutrition, etc., today's women have managed to lower Waitz' record by only 3 minutes.

And most importantly of all was Waitz' influence on all the women who followed her. In 1979, she was the only woman to finish in the top 100 overall in the New York City Marathon, and the notion that a woman could do such a thing was staggering. In the 2008 New York City Marathon, 12 women finished in the top 100 finishers.

In the spring of 2005, Waitz began battling cancer. Throughout her treatment and recovery, she has been a tireless promoter for many charities, particularly around children's health, and of course a great ambassador for the sport of running. It was because of the latter role that I will never wash my right hand again.