TOOLS FOR THE TEKS: INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM
by Wesley A. Fryer
The March 2004 cover of Wired magazine was entitled “Googlemania.” The issue featured ten different articles exploring the reasons for Google’s success, suggestions for maximizing use of the Google search tool, and predictions for the future of Internet search sites. Next to email, search engines are one of the most frequently utilized computing tools for classroom teachers, and likely the number one computing tool used by students at school. (At home, instant messaging software also rates high.) The “information superhighway” continues to be perceived as an exciting place filled with educationally-valid information. The popularity of Yahoo has waned as Google’s popularity has soared, however, and Google is now the search tool of choice (by a large margin) for a majority of Internet users. Ironically, while “the real world” outside K-12 education uses Google more than any other search engine, some school Internet filtering solutions prohibit access to the “Google images” search portal, and may block access to Google entirely. These school limitations do not affect students at home, however, and Google has become common parlance among Internet users of all ages.
Large numbers of search engine “hits” are not anything new, but the number of webpage results can still amaze. At this writing in Spring 2004, a one word search in Google for “Mars” returns “about 18,800,000 websites.” Almost twenty million websites! If one thousand sites is too much information, what is a fitting description for over eighteen million?
Web search and evaluation skills are essential components of twenty-first century literacy, and large search results like these bring several suggestions to mind which can help reduce information overload and make Internet searching more fruitful as well as efficient:
The above options are not new and have been available for some time, but a fourth option for web searchers is emerging that offers qualitative as well as quantitative differences in the online search experience. This option is using search tools fundamentally different from those previously mentioned, because they return results in DYNAMICALLY generated categories based on the content of searched pages. Two search tools offering this functionality are Vivisimo and Grokker. Yahoo was initially a very popular search engine because its categories (indexed by human eyes rather than computer algorithms that can be misled or tricked) provided very relevant results. The explosive growth and enormous magnitude of the World Wide Web outstripped Yahoo employees’ abilities to categorize it, however. Relative to search engines like Google and Altavista, whose computer “web spiders” crawl the web from link to link indexing content as they go, Yahoo databases contain a much smaller fraction of the web’s content.
Vivisimo: A “Clustering Engine”
The same simple, one-word search for “Mars” which returned over eighteen million results on Google returns 202 “top results” on Vivisimo (http://vivisimo.com/). Vivisimo offers not only a quantitatively different search experience from Google, Altavista, or other popular search engines, but also a qualitatively different experience because of its left sidebar containing “clustered results.” These categories are dynamically created “on the fly” by the Vivisimo website. For our “Mars” search, these include:
Additional categories (clustered results) can be displayed by clicking the “More” link below the initial list.
Like Yahoo and its student friendly version, Yahooligans (www.yahooligans.com), Vivisimo includes in parentheses after each category the number of websites respectively found. If a student is interested in the latest exploration missions of Spirit and Opportunity, a single click on the “Mars Exploration” category yields 17 relevant, excellent websites about this Mars area of interest.
Seventeen websites! I need to repeat that because that number is less than twenty. To educators, parents or students now accustomed to thousands (if not millions) of website search engine hit results, this number should provide a reason for rejoicing! No one doing research on Mars exploration at any level can mentally process or even adequately conceptualize “eighteen million search results.” But seventeen is a very friendly number. A student could reasonably look at seventeen different sites and determine which one best fits his/her research needs. (The tendency among most web surfers is to click on one of the first several results, however.) A comparative search like the one described here with Google and Vivisimo can become an epiphany. Is Google still the number one search engine worldwide? Yes. Does that mean you or your students need to use it, especially when CATEGORIZED results in a REASONABLE quantity are available from Vivisimo? Certainly not.
Vivisimo is a free, web-based search tool. Hopefully it is not blocked by your district’s internet filter.
"Grokking" the Web
Most educators acknowledge different learning styles, yet to date Internet search tools have not attempted to cater to visual learners. Enter “Grokker” (www.grokker.com), a product promoted with the motto “a picture is worth 30 billion webpages.” Like Vivisimo, Grokker returns search results in categories, but Grokker is a downloadable application running outside your web browser. Grokker is also not free, but it is not expensive either. Given the fundamental ways it can enhance information searches and retrieval from the Internet, Grokker’s modest price may seem extremely reasonable.
After downloading and installing Grokker, a search term can be entered in the field at the top of the program window. After pressing enter or clicking the “Grok” button, a visually compelling process begins before the user’s eyes. Grokker builds a visual map of search results using different colored circles. After the “Grok” search for the word “Mars” was complete, Grokker had found 862 items in 345 categories. These included:
The relative number of sites found in a category is indicated by the size of the circle mapped by Grokker for that category. Categories with more included sites are larger, and vice versa. Moving your mouse over a category circle causes text to popup identifying the main topic of a subcategory or site. Clicking on a circle within a category circle ZOOMS IN on the subscategory, making it easier to see the included sites. Clicking on a found site within a category changes the righthand pane of the Grokker program to display the live website. By default the Grokker program acts like a framed webpage, keeping search results in the left pane and showing actual websites on the right. Mapped search results or actual webpages can take over the entire program window with a mouseclick on the appropriate view option button in the upper right corner.
Drilling down into graphical search results in Grokker immediately brings to mind software programs which model iterative, repeating mathematical patterns like the Mandelbrot set (http://www.fractalarts.com/ASF/Download.html). Fractals like the Mandelbrot set are amazing and a pleasure to explore (even if you do not fully understand the formulas and complex/imaginary numbers crunched by the computer to create them.) Using Grokker is a similar experience, with the notable difference that search result patterns are not repeated: each category includes different websites assigned different colors. Don’t like the color scheme? This and other preference options are easy to change by choosing FILE – PREFERENCES, and then VIEW. Select a different VISUAL THEME as desired, along with other options.
Grokker search results can be further refined using fields and drop down menus at the bottom of the program window. Sites can be shown which:
Each feature of Grokker allows users to virtually navigate their way through categorized search results on their topic of interest, while powerfully limiting or expanding the scope of those search results using intuitive tools which do not require special syntax or programming. Similar to a video game’s virtual environment, Grokker users are able to visually explore the environment of an Internet query. This is not “just another search engine” or merely a meta-search engine with combined results from multiple sites: this is a completely novel Internet search experience that redefines both the way information is communicated to users and the means by which users interact, manipulate, and view that information. In addition to searching the Web, Grokker also allows users to “Grok” their local hard drive, with created categories based not only on filenames but also on actual file content.
This comparative table outlines some of the basic differences between Google, Vivisimo, and Grokker:
* A Macintosh OS X version of Grokker2 is under development in Spring 2004.
Currently the only downloadable version of Grokker available is for Windows XP or 2000, a Macintosh OS X version is still in the works.
It is always difficult to make accurate predictions about the future of a technology as dynamic as the Internet and World Wide Web, but it seems reasonable to expect web search engines (in some form) to be a permanent fixture of our virtual computing landscape. Rather than remain limited to text-based tools, however, software programs like Grokker not only promise a future of more sophisticated and visually engaging web services, but also deliver on that promise today. The expected 2006 release of Microsoft’s next-generation operating system, nicknamed “Longhorn,” is likely to include more sophisticated and integrated search tools, possibly similar to the search tool “Sherlock” already integrated with the Macintosh operating system (www.apple.com/macosx/features/sherlock/). In fact, if you read what Bill Gates said about the anticipated features of Longhorn back in June of 2003, it sounds like (again) Microsoft is trying to play catch-up to Apple with features like shared Internet bookmarks/favorites across computers, shared calendars, etc. With a nickname like “Longhorn,” you have to wonder exactly what the engineers in Redmond are wanting users to expect! I will end my editorial commentary there, to try and not alienate the UT fans among my readership!
Whatever computing platform you use today or may use tomorrow, Internet search tools are here to stay. Google is popular, but it can easily overwhelm. Vivisimo and Grokker offer compelling reasons to search different.
Wesley Fryer is a recovering Windows user and an aspiring blogger, as well as being a West Texas educator. Read his musings on www.wesfryer.com/blog.
 "The Complete Guide to Googlemania!" http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.03/google.html. Accessed 3 March 2004.
 Beiser, H. Darr. "Gates on a future version of Windows." Posted 30 June 2003. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2003-06-29-gates-longhorn_x.htm. Accessed 3 March 2004.
"A Study of Search Result Clustering Interfaces: Comparing Textual and Zoomable User Interfaces" found relative speed and efficiency benefits for Vivisimo compared to Grokker.