Instagrok: A (Re)Search Engine for Education


I remember going to the library as a kid to work on a research project for school. The first stop was typically the card catalog. From there, the stacks. Or I’d start with the Readers’ Guide to Periodicals and then check out the magazines and journals. I’d wander through the library, not just locating the materials I originally searched for, but discovering the items adjacent on the shelf, taking my search down different paths based on what I found and didn’t find.

(I realize those sorts of memories of analog searches for analog information in a physical library mark me as "an old person.")

"Search" now is synonymous with Google. But that "search" is hardly the same as "research." While Google promised to index the world’s knowledge, the algorithms behind its PageRank and the organization of the card catalog and of the information in a library are very different things. You can wander through the links Google offers, but the point of its search engine is to give you the “best results” so that you just have to click once. The point – and you can see this by the fact that Google tells you how many fractions of a second it took to process your query – is to find an answer quickly and efficiently.

Education and Search/Research

When I first heard about Instagrok, a new “educational search engine,” I admit, I wasn’t that thrilled with the idea. It’s not that I think Google is the perfect search engine. It’s not that I think the company is unassailable in the area that was once its core product (remember those days?). I’m a huge fan of DuckDuckGo, for example, as I think that it offers high quality, low-spam search results – with major bonus points for caring about users’ privacy.

But even so, I just wasn’t sure why education needed a separate search engine. Why have students use a tool that they won’t use “in the real world”? If search literacy is a problem (and it is a problem), how does offering an edu-only search engine address that? Isn’t the answer improving search literacy, not simply switching search engines?

But I spoke with Instagrok’s founder Kirill Kireyev today, and in doing so realized that calling the startup a “search engine” isn’t quite the right way to frame his project. This isn’t about finding “the” answer to a search query; rather it’s about, in his words “seeing the topic” and learning more about what you’re researching – concepts, definitions, and connections. “Learning is an exploratory process,” he told me, arguing that the way students move through the Web should encourage that exploration. It shouldn’t just be about clicking on the “first blue link.”

Exploring and Learning through Web Search

In some ways, Instagrok is akin to the now-defunct Google Wonder Wheel which visualized the relationship between search queries. Instagrok also has a visualization component; however it’s not based on others’ searches but on the (semantic) relationship between topics.

Take for example the information that’s returned when you search for “evolution” in Google and in Instagrok:

Google gives you: 1.  The Wikipedia entry.  2.  a UC Berkeley website.  3.  a PBS show.  4.  The dictionary definition.  5.  A 2001 David Duchovny movie.  

Instagrok offers definitions and related concepts. There’s a slider bar so you can adjust the level of difficultly for the search results (Google also lets you adjust results based on reading level). Instagrok also breaks down the search results into different types – websites, photos, videos and so on.  If you click on "more," you can further refine your search in the websites and so on based on their common keywords with a word cloud created from each of the sites it returns, giving you more a little more information about these various resources

But unlike Google’s scouring of (almost) the entire Web, Instagrok only returns results from “educational sites.” That’s a pretty difficult call to make: what counts as “educational"? Commercial sites? Religious sites? Again, take the “evolution” example: one of the top results in Instagrok describes evolution as “the big hoax.”  You can flag these types of “inappropriate” results -- that's me making a judgement call about what's educational right there, of course -- and there are built-in profanity filters. 

Search/Research in the Classroom

There are several other features of Instagrok that are geared towards its use in a classroom or school library setting. If you sign in to Instagrok, for example, you can track and record your research into a journal. If students sign up with a code from a specific class, the teacher will also be able to view and comment on students’ journals.

Kireyev, who has a PhD in computer science and in cognitive science, says he’s interested in building "interfaces for learning."  Instagrok certainly offers a different way of thinking about the UI for Web search and research.  

Instagrok is one of the members of the current class of Imagine K–12 startups.

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