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InstaGrok-ing: Mining the Web for Meaning

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

What if you could conduct an online search and instead of a list of results returned based on Google’s ranking metrics, your browser displayed a semantic map of the concept you searched for and a list of relevant, educational resources? A tool like this would help you "to understand thoroughly and intuitively," or grok your subject. This is exactly what the website instaGrok does. Here’s how to use it and why it should be part of your education whether you are a student or a teacher at any level.



What is Grok-ing?

Grok is a slang term which means to understand something intuitively (The Free Dictionary). instaGrok accomplishes this by creating a customizable semantic map that visually illustrates your search term and its relationship to other concepts, facts, or information. This graph (as instaGrok labels the resulting diagram) is customizable in that you can adjust the level of detail displayed, drag and drop nodes to better illustrate relationships, or pin other terminology from the sidebar to the map.

The graph space also contains a tab that lets you open a journal to type notes and quickly add elements from the sidebar with just the click of a button. The sidebar itself contains "Key Facts," "Websites," "Videos," "Images," "Quizzes," and a "Glossary."  Items from  these categories can be added to the graph or journal by clicking the pin button. Clicking "more" in these areas expands the sidebar to display many more resources that can be filtered using pre-determined qualifiers.

Unfortunately the semantic engine used to generate the quizzes still needs some major work. One of the questions that it created based on a search for "educational technology" was, "You can also visit my website The Best of Mobile Technology for ___s of free apps and smart devices." Not exactly a quiz that reflects the intended focus of an instructional unit.

Grok-ing in the Classroom
As a first step in conducting Web-based research at any level, instaGrok is excellent. The key facts are right on, the Websites it pulled were generally accurate, and videos were from reliable sources such as TED.com. Images for "educational technology" were limited, but a second search for "cell division" yielded a variety of good images that would greatly enhance a graph or journal.

This Web app would be perfect for students at any level who are fluent readers, including those in college. At the very minimum it provides an excellent source for initial research and very convenient note taking about any subject. What is great about it is the ability to expand the semantic map and drill down into different elements to reach an appropriate intellectual level for any user.

As an example, a search for "Native Americans" led from the basic categories initially displayed to information about the Ghost Dance, Wounded Knee, and eventually to the American Indian Movement. Videos and images of some of these events were available as well as links to relevant websites and key facts and other relevant events and information. Even as someone who studied Native American culture and religions as an undergraduate, I was able to find new and interesting information using instaGrok. The slider bar at the top of the graph window allows for an easy visual adjustment to the level of complexity that is displayed.

Concerns/Limitations
The things that instaGrok can do are amazing. It saves time and the effort of countless dead end searches or clicks on bad websites, but at what cost to the fledgling researcher? Web searching and information evaluation are valuable skills that are neglected when one uses instaGrok. Critical thinking could be negatively impacted by an overreliance on sites that do all of the evaluation for students. Ironically, making it too easy to find good information could damage students’ abilities to deal with the bad information they will encounter not only on the Web, but also in books, on TV, and in their daily interactions. It is critical to teach students a variety of research and critical thinking skills. This is a debate that is going to continue in the information age where it is more important to know how to find something than it is to actually know something.

In terms of helping support students to develop the crucial skills of researching and synthesizing information, instaGrok could be more of a detriment than a help. While it would be appropriate for classroom research at the middle school and high school levels, it could be a crippling crutch for those who lose the ability to do this searching on their own, or for those in college. It is conceivable that, as the Internet continues to grow and eventually houses a greater percentage of human knowledge in digitized books, oral histories, etc., the idea of researching could become archaic. Students will simply punch in search terms and the computer will return all the "important" information about a subject, neatly packaged and organized for easy consumption.

While this model could be part of a utopia in which all knowledge is available with a few key strokes or even a thought, pessimists will ask the inevitable question, "What happens when the power goes out or the Internet goes down?" Too heavy a reliance on technology that makes us lazy thinkers could be very dangerous to our continued growth as a species.

instaGrok is an amazing innovation and deserves a place in our education system at all levels. It is also a useful tool for those interested in alternative sources of learning. Some adjusting of the engine may help with the quiz problem, but otherwise the program is great at what it does. The problem is that it might be a little too good.

 Share your opinion about instaGrok, critical thinking and the future of learning on Google+ or Twitter @drjwmarquis.