Workshop on Search Engines Aims to Build Awareness on Digital Literacy

By Jennifer Hoyt, W&M Libraries graduate assistant

William & Mary’s University Teaching Project (UTP) welcomed conversation on a topic that students are all too familiar with: searching for information. At the March 20 workshop titled Sexism and Search Engines, two W&M librarians led the meeting by focusing on the non-neutrality of the Internet, specifically the results from searches produced by algorithms and biases. As faculty members increase their use of digital instruction in the classroom, the librarians hope to raise awareness of knowledge building and the connection to content on the Web.

“You can’t just grab things off Google Images and say Google is a good arbiter of what we should be sharing,” said Candice Benjes-Small. Serving as W&M Libraries' head of research, she emphasized the importance of digital literacy in a time where many images of people and situations simply fail to reflect reality. “Let’s lift open the hood, and let’s look at the engine here. Then, interesting conversations can happen.” 

UTP workshop titled Sexism and Search Engines
opens discussion on how W&M students collect 
and use information.

Liz Bellamy, W&M’s instruction and research librarian, pointed to the daily use of search engines in academic settings and the significance of digital literacy as students sift through photos and content made available online. “Students at W&M, and really everywhere, use digital tools that are powered by algorithms in everyday lives,” Bellamy shared. “Search engines like Google or Bing, social media sites like YouTube or Instagram, or even the search functionalities within sites like Tumblr use algorithms to try to predict the information their users will want to see.”

To support the topic, the librarians tested their claim by asking the attendees to draw images that depict a typical university instructor. The results quickly became evident as the activity produced stereotypical descriptions, mainly men who wore glasses, dressed in formal attire, and, as the group apologetically noted, chose “bad hair styles”. Considering that search engines like Google may reinforce a skewed reality for Internet users, Bellamy asked a key question of faculty and learning partners. “How does this process shape the understanding of students as they move through course work and research assignments in higher education?”

Educators and learning partners share ideas on
digital literacy and search engines during the
March UTP Spring Series workshop. 

The librarian also shared her motivation behind co-hosting the noon workshop by highlighting the challenges faced by today’s educators. “We want to help faculty raise their students’ awareness that what they see on sites like Google doesn’t necessarily constitute the full reality of information that exists on a topic, but may just be what Google’s algorithm has been programed to deliver,” said Bellamy.

The UTP’s 2019 spring series has sparked discussion ranging from integrated learning to student-driven initiatives, which all include forms of digital literacy, and before the Sexism and Search Engines workshop wrapped up, Benjes-Small offered her perspective that the awareness of distorted information must increase across W&M’s campus. “Google is always changing its algorithm and its results, so the Google of yesterday is not the Google of today,” she stated. “It is not one discipline’s responsibility. We all have to be doing it.”