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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 009-131-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: School Libraries and Resource Centres
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 131.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Children's paperless projects: inspiring research via the web

Dania Bilal and Jinx Stapelton Watson,
School of Information Sciences,
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
E-mail: dania@utk.edu
E-mail: jinx-watson@utk.edu


This paper reports preliminary results of a study that investigated a group of 7th grade science students' search strategies in using Yahooligans, a World Wide Web search engine and directory designed for children, and their subsequent success and failure in retrieving relevant documents for their paperless research projects. Results showed that children's success was affected by the type of questions they searched (i.e., factual vs. research). Their success level in retrieving relevant documents for the assigned research question was zero percent, whereas it was thirty percent (30%) for the factual question. This study has implications for student training and for World Wide Web search engine design.


Introduction and Background

The use of the World Wide Web (Web) has reshaped the way children access, retrieve, and create information. The Web's ease of access, speed of finding information, convenience of access from home, and richness in graphics are characteristics perceived by children as more appealing than those embedded in traditional sources, such as encyclopedias, books, and magazines (Bilal, 1998). It is estimated that the number of online usage by children may amount to twenty percent (20%) by the year 2002 and that their use of online resources may bypass adult use (Jupiter Communications, 1998). The Web's popularity and increased accessibility to children, especially in public schools, warrants a study of their search processes and their subsequent success and failure in retrieving relevant documents for research projects and/or assignments.

The growing number of local, regional, international teachers and students continues to expand the pool of those using the Web for educational purposes. Within this expansion, many educators may begin to perceive teaching and learning in new ways. For example, students may not only use technology to access information, but also to create information. As a result, products once seen as term papers, exhibits or experiments, may now be shaped in paperless fashion, using word processing, spreadsheets, etc., from Web information and prepared on disk or as Web-based materials. Teachers may not only assign students the use of technology for research, but may also employ technology to observe and diagnose their students' thinking and search processes.

Despite the benefits the Web provides (e.g., free access to resources, interactivity, multimedia interface, etc.), both children and adults experience information retrieval problems (Bilal & Wang, 1998). Although adults may be able to refine their searches to solve information overload problems and increase document relevancy, children remain at a disadvantage for two main reasons: First, many lack a conceptual understanding of the information search process, and second, their limited knowledge base and developmental cognitive ability compound the challenge of searching. Studies on K-12 students' behavior in seeking information reveal that although they perceive themselves as motivated and competent in using technology (Watson, 1998), many children experience difficulties in formulating search strategies, and do not understand research processes (Bilal, 1998; Borgman and Hirsch; Kuhlthau, 1996).

In effect, students may be novices in seeking and evaluating information, generally. In the traditional information provision paradigm, school and public librarians reserve specific resources to meet the school assignment research needs. In serving students, these professionals often locate the required sources, assist students in finding the specific information and provide feedback to examine their satisfaction with the information sought. As sources available in the library or media center, their contents would rarely be questioned for reliability or veracity. Relying on the librarian's guidance, students typically would not evaluate the sources they use to find the information they need. Thus, critical thinking, information literacy and research strategies begin to assume interdependence in an individual's process of searching for information on the Web.

Although a small body of research offers insight into children's use of OPAC and on-line databases (Marchionini, 1989; Edmonds, Moore & Balcom, 1990; Solomon, 1993; Borgman, Hirsch, Walter and Gallagher, 1995), little exists regarding their interaction with the Web, in general (Wallace and Kupperman; Lyons, et. al., 1997), and their use of technology (Watson, 1998). No studies have been found in regard to children's information seeking behavior in using Yahooligans, a Web engine and directory designed for children ages 7-12.

This study examines children's search processes and their subsequent success and failure in finding relevant documents for their paperless research projects. It reports the preliminary results of a multi-faceted research project that is investigating a group of 7th grade students' information seeking behavior in using Yahooligans.

Research Questions

  1. 1. What types of search strategies do children perform in Yahooligans?

  2. 2. How do children explore the information they retrieve from Yahooligans?

  3. 3. How successful are children in finding appropriate information to use in their research projects?


An experimental methodology was employed to assess children's cognitive skills in searching Yahooligans. Their search processes were captured using a software program that interfaces with Netscape Navigator. Their search sessions were saved, replayed in Netscape, transcribed and analyzed.

Sample and Procedures

The sample consisted of thirty 7th grade science students whose parents granted them permission to use the Internet and who volunteered to participate in this study. Three students volunteered for the pilot study and twenty-seven for the experiment. Five students dropped in the beginning of the experiment, leaving twenty-two participants who remained during the length of the study. Students were assigned one research question, "Diet for kids - has it improved or gotten worse?," and one factual question, "How many years does an alligator live in the wild and how many years in captivity?," to search in Yahooligans.

In the beginning of the experiment, the researcher introduced the participants to the study, described the Internet/Web Quiz which they took prior to searching, and provided further instructions on how to proceed.


As stated earlier, this paper is a part of a multi-faceted research project that is still in progress, as of the writing of this article. Because of space limitation, sample results are reported for the research question only. No quantitative data analysis has been performed, as of the writing of this paper, due to incompletion of data collection.

What types of search strategies do children perform in Yahooligans?

An examination of the recorded search activities revealed that a high number of children bypassed browsing Yahooligans' subject categories and employed keyword searching in the beginning of their search sessions. Children used natural language in their search statements and employed very broad or very specific concepts (Table 1). They made a few misspelling errors and did not correct them in later searches. As seen in Table 1, many searches resulted in zero hits due to misspelling errors and use of natural language.

Children were found to be persistent in finding the information they needed. On the research question, for example, the lowest number of search attempts was eight (8) and the highest thirty-nine (39), whereas it was eleven (11) and fifty-two (52), respectively, on the factual question.

How do children explore the results they retrieve from Yahooligans?

Children rarely examined the description or summary of the URLs returned, scrolled the URLs hit list fully, or clicked on the "Next" page of URLs, when present. As instructed, they highlighted with the computer mouse what they thought to be the "best" answer(s) or "best" result(s). They also printed out the answer(s) or result(s) and highlighted the relevant information with a marker. Children's reading of the content of the documents retrieved was found to be minimal as they rarely scrolled the returned "pages" fully.

How successful are children in finding suitable information to use in their research projects?

Children made many search attempts to find the information they needed. Despite their persistence, they were not successful in finding information for the research question (i.e., diet), but exhibited a low level of success (30%) in finding the correct answer for the factual question (i.e., alligators).

Table 1. Sample Results of Children's Search Strategies on the Research Question "diet"

Trial 	      Concepts          Search results/       Browsing from	  Observations
no.			        selection from 	      hit  list
			        hit list

1	what middle schools	Around the world: 			Natural language 
	 eat			food and eating
2	increasing or is it 	0 hits					Natural  language 
	decreasing kids diet						Misspelling error - 
									no correction attempted
3	diet of kids		0 hits					Natural language
4	education of the  	0 hits					Natural language; 
	middleschool  							broad concepts 
	improving or 
	getting worse
5	education of middle 	1 site; link for 	None		Natural language; 
	school kids		education in 				broad concepts
				North Carolina
6	tennis middle school	2 sites; 		None		Misspelling error - 
				no selection				no correction attempt 
7	education for middle 	49 sites; 		None		Limited scrolling
	schools			no selection
8	diet of kids		0  hits		
9	diet of middle 		0 hits					Natural language; 
	school  kids							misspelling error; no 
									attempt to correct error
10	diet of middle 		0 hits					Natural language
	school  kids
11	diet of humans		0 hits					Natural language; broad
12	diets for schools	0 hits					Natural language
14	diets of middle 	0 hits					Natural language
15	diets of schools	0 hits					Natural language
16	what schools are 	0 hits					Natural language
	doing for the diet 
	of kids
17	diets of the school	0 hits					Natural language
18	learning in middle 	0 hits					Natural language


This paper is part one of a multi-faceted research project that is investigating a group of 7th graders' information seeking behavior in using Yahooligans, a Web directory and search engine. Both quantitative and qualitative inquiry methods are being used in this project to examine children's cognitive skills, affective states, and sensorimotor skills in searching. The preliminary results reported in this paper concern their cognitive skills. Data transcription of two additional search questions, as well as children's verbalization (captured through videotaping) during searching are being performed. Further, the quantitative data generated from both the Quiz and their learning characteristics, and the qualitative data gathered from the exit interviews are being analyzed.

Children's failure in finding appropriate information about their research question on "diet" and their low level of success in locating the correct answer to the factual question on "alligators" can be attributed to many factors: a. querying the system in natural language, a strategy that is not implemented in Yahooligans; b. misspelling errors; c. using either very broad or very specific concepts; d. scrolling part of the returned hit list; e. browsing the hit list minimally with concentration on links that appeared on top of the list and on keywords in the headings of the links; f. lack of understanding and/or lack of reading of the content of documents retrieved; and g. relying on the headings of the links rather than on their descriptions.

Children's level of success was also affected by the database size and structure of Yahooligans. This engine which is designed for children ages 7-12 does not contain a misspelling check, a thesaurus of terms that children can use to find concepts about their topic, a rich database with information relevant to academic topics, a natural language interface, or a user-friendly feedback. To meet children's information needs, these features must be addressed by the designers of Yahooligans.

Children's low level of success (30%) in finding the correct answer to the factual question and their scarce examination of the content of the retrieved documents indicate deficiency in both reading skills and evaluating information - problems that teachers must address. Traditionally, students resorted to the school librarian for assistance in finding appropriate resources for their research projects and/or assignments and never questioned the authority of the sources they used. Further, on many occasions, the librarian provided actual answers to their questions to satisfy their information need. This traditional paradigm of information provision, however, is being reshaped in the Web environment and therefore, both teachers and librarians should collaborate to diagnose students' critical thinking and search processes prior to searching the Web and, subsequently, develop effective information access skills programs. The increased accessibility to the Web from school, home, public libraries, or other, by children requires that they be independent and critical information consumers. Children should be taught how to construct effective search strategies, synthesize and evaluate information, skim or read the information they retrieve, and compile information for their research projects and/or assignments.

Children are motivated, inspired, and fascinated by the Web, and they prefer its use over traditional sources, such as encyclopedias, books, and magazines (Bilal, 1998). This motivation should be nurtured, however, by both teachers and librarians who should take the lead in teaching children how to embark on their journey in cyberspace.


Bilal, D. (1998). Children's search processes in using World Wide Web search engines: An exploratory study. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting. Pittsburgh, PA. October 1998. Forthcoming.

Bilal, D., & Wang, P. (1998). Children and adults as information seekers. A study in progress.

Borgman, C. L., Hirsch, S.G., Walter, V.A., & Gallagher, A.L. (1995). Children's searching behavior on browsing and keyword searching online catalogs: The Science Library Catalog project. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 46(9), 663-684.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1996). The Virtual School Library: Gateway to the Information Superhighway. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1993). Seeking meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Science. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Jupiter Communications (1998). Quantifying kids' purchasing power. Digital Kids Online Entertainment Monthly (March 1997) . http://www.jup.com/newsletter/kids/features/9703.shtml. Accessed on March 27, 1998.

Lyons, D., Hoffman, J., Krajcik, J., & Soloway, E. (1997). An investigation of the use of the World Wide Web for on-line inquiry in a science classroom. ERIC Documet no. ED 406158.

Marchionini, G. (1989). Information-seeking strategies of novices using a full-text electronic encyclopedia. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 40 (1), 54-66.

Meghabghab, D.B. & Meghabghab, G.V. (1996). Information retrieval in cyberspace. Proceedings of the ASIS Mid-Year Meeting (pp. 224-237). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Wallace, R., & Kupperman, J. (1997). On-line search in the science classroom: benefits and possibilities. http://mydl.soe.unich.edu/papers/online/search.pdf. Accessed on April 2, 1998.

Watson, J. (1998). If you don't have it, you can't find it: A close look at students' perceptions of using technology. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Forthcoming. Summer.

Yahooligans. (1994-1998). http://www.yahooligans.com. Accessed on March 18, 1998.


The research was supported by a grant from the Office of Research, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The author wishes to thank the teacher, students, and the school librarian who participated in this study. Special thanks are extended to Joe Kirby, Senior Administrative Network Assistant, University of Tennessee, who assisted with software installation and hardware setup.