Thursday, January 12, 2012

An Alternative to Reading Lists?

One of the ideas behind creating a customized search engine for course reading materials is to let students explore the course topics in an arbitrary order. However, even massive open online course (MOOC) opponents may look for some sort of agenda that may take the form of daily newsletters to highlight distinguished thoughts. When using custom-built search engines, this agenda may be manifested beyond the search engine’s interface such as links to highlighted queries, or be integrated into the engine's interface by using promotions  or tweaking the ranking of the search results.

Although students are considered to be more search dominant , providing a browsable version  of the reading list will make it more usable for link-dominant students. In addition, it may enhance their learning process by acquainting them with the instructor’s scheme of the course material, and may equip them with a web browsing skill that is often neglected nowadays (i.e. hierarchical navigation).

Now, this browsable reading list may be implemented as a vertical portal or as part of an institutional courses’ portal. In any case, the hyperlinks to the course web-resources (e.g. web-pages, power-point or video files) may be implemented manually or dynamically through URLs of highlighted query strings in the custom-search engine or even in some general search engine. The latter will provide the students with reference to relevant documents and at the same time supply the students with examples of  domain experts queries that may reformulate or even inspire them to formulate new queries.

Getting the most relevant results may be in the students' best interest  even more than in their instructors'. The simplest way to control the course search engine results is to specify a detailed list of URLs to relevant resources. Although this approach may seem as worthy as a standard reading list, it may have some advantages like full text search over the list of resources (except maybe for subscribed materials which Google may has access only to their abstract web-page). This method may entail greater investment from the instructor and leave less room for exploration to the student.

An Alternative method is to set a list of domain names  (i.e. “websites”) and let the student search this space of domains. Although this approach may lead to incidental search results it is less likely to yield empty results  compared with the previous approach.

Gogle Custom Search Engine Settings

Google Custom Search Engine  (CSE) has various means to customize the user’s search interface. These may help students to discover course-applicable resources and mitigate the effect of incidental results.

One way to improve search engine efficiency is to use auto-completions. These may be curated by the instructor or be generated solely by the platform's algorithm. Curated suggestions can integrate experts’ queries into the search engine interface. These queries may represent the instructor's endeavors to extract relevant resources over the listed domains space. Additionally, there is a new feature in Google CSE which assimilates promotions into the auto-completions management so that one may set a suggested query and a promoted URL that will be triggered by this query directly from the 'Autocompletions' section (i.e., 'Control Panel'–>'Autocompletions'–>'Autocompletion Promotions' ).

Another way to gain control over the search results is to set synonyms expansions . Although it is difficult to predict what terms students will use and how these terms may related to the domain's professional terms, search logs or even students’ works from previous related courses may provide a hint for necessary synonyms expansions (in any case it is recommended to confirm that Google isn't utilizing these synonyms  already). Students' search behavior tracking may rise some ethical issues, though librarians track their patrons' (i.e. the institute’s) databases search logs as a common practice. It is also worth mentioning that Google CSE has two levels of users' search behavior tracking. By default it reports only the top search queries; to get detailed report one should ask explicitly to track users' search history. Additionally, current search logs may serve as an opportunity to enrich students’ professional vocabulary and clarify essential terms (directly or indirectly).

Using Google CSE 'Keywords'

Although apparently a minor feature, CSE 'Keywords' may help the instructor to confirm that students are reading resources which correlate to the course’s key concepts (significant especially for entry level classes). Also, the 'keywords' property may serve as an alternative to expert's personalized keywords in match-word profile algorithms. To set the CSE keywords one should go to 'Control panel'->'Basics' in the GUI or add them to the 'CustomSearchEngine' element in the 'context file'.

Suppose, for example, we want to set CSE for an “environmental protection” course. First we would recognize the core principles behind this issue. In our case they may be: sustainability, waste hierarchy, and conservation. Then we may set the principles that derive from them in the 'Keyword' filed. Here is the outline of our imaginary course principles:
  1. Sustainability
    1. Sustainable energy
    2. Sustainable agriculture
    3. Sustainable design
  2. Waste hierarchy
    1. Reduce
    2. Reuse
    3. Recycle
    4. Recovery
    5. (Disposal)
  3. Conservation
    1. Water conservation
    2. Energy conservation
    3. Conservation biology
    4. (Geoengineering)
Now, Google's CSE keywords are limited to a maximum of 100 characters (include spaces between keywords and quotation marks for key-phrases).Thus, we may use the keyword “sustainable” to represent all the principles that derive from the “sustainability” core principle. Next, we will add the key-phrase “waste hierarchy” and its related keywords. However we may want to eliminate the term “disposal” because it is the least-recommended action (i.e. it is on the bottom of the hierarchy). Alternatively, we may use the term “incineration” which is less environmentally destructive. Additionally, the instructor may use the term “Geoengineering” according to his world-view or to the course's goals.

Of course, we may use alternative sets of keywords for the same course or even use distinct sets for various courses over the same set of websites. This may be obtained through referring to the same external annotations file from every course context file. In any case, students that submit one-word-query or use improper terms may still get valuable articles that deal with the most important aspects of the course (though not necessarily corresponding to the intent of the student).

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