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    Understanding Change in Web Search

    May 25th, 2023
    back to Courses

    An undergraduate course on understanding change in web search.

    This page is very much a living document. I plan to share more on particular assignments and class exercises, reflections on what content was harder to teach, what I re-saw in search, and interventions imagined by the students.

    semester: Spring 2023
    location: Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University (remote, synchronous)
    formal title: LB 322B Advances in Science and Technology - Social Sciences (W)
    faculty page: Daniel Griffin, Ph.D.

    Formal course description:

    Interdisciplinary study of technology and innovation in relation to science and/or medicine. Emphasis on scholarship and methodologies from the social sciences.

    I was hired to teach this course the week before it began. As I adapted the guidance to my core expertise, I focused the course on understanding change in web search. I maintained some focus on medicine in discussions and class assignments given the formal focus and the interests of my students. I include “change”, to distinguish the plausible neutrality of change from connotations in advances and innovation.

    Here was the course description for the syllabus:

    Web search is both a relatively new technology and a site for constant innovation in design and practice. People also use it to understand and advance other new and emerging technology. This course develops students’ sociotechnical understanding of web search “so they can be better equipped to develop and advocate policies for how search engines should be embedded in, and restricted from, various private and public information settings” (Hendry & Efthimiadis, 2008, p. 277). This course will cover the design and articulation of search engines, the various interacting actors and other components, and ways of reimagining web search. We will use prior and present changes in web search technology to better understand interactions between people and technology generally. Students will develop their ability to understand and communicate interdisciplinary social science research about sociotechnical systems and practices.

    Reimagining is a core step in developing deeper understanding.


    Here are the modules and their core assignments as listed on the initial draft of the syllabus.

    Module 1: Attending

    Re-seeing. So what? Raising questions.

    Assignment: Find a significant search failure, detailing your search process and your analysis of the failure. This could be a significant failure on the part of the searcher, the search engines, or the speakers hoping to be found. (Variation 2: If in the process of searching for a search failure you identify a wonderful surprise, report on the serendipitous search instead. Variation 3: If you fail to find a search failure, you have not failed. Analyze this failure itself.) For this assignment please only use Google, DuckDuckGo, or Bing as your search engine. Justify why this failure is interesting and significant and how it provides evidence for a particular issue in the construction or control of search, as an innovation. Cite evidence found and supporting material from our readings.

    We will take in-class time for workshopping and peer feedback.

    Analysis should be approximately 500-750 words.

    Module 2: Infrastructures, components, & interactions

    How does it work? Understanding the mechanisms and functions.

    Assignment: Personal essay reflecting on what you are learning in these first two modules and your own conception of web search, your search practices, and how you talk about search. Refer to specific search sessions or specific conversations you had with others. Please include annotated screenshots of the SERP for at least two search sessions. Include a log of at least one search session for each week.

    We will take in-class time for workshopping and peer feedback.

    Approximately 1000 words.

    Module 3: Case studies in web search for health, healthcare, and medicine.

    How do people use search? How do search engines shape searching? How do we use search to inform or shape interventions? Who?

    Assignment: Group project - facilitate class session, feedback as op-ed on topic or review of one of the papers.

    Feedback approximately 500 words.

    Assignment: Identify and develop an intervention. Repair. Speculative fiction. A policy proposal. A design change. Advocate for the use of an existing extension. Advocate for a use of or change in a search engine. A letter/op-ed to future students. Advocate for refusal practices. Make a complaint. Create or modify a Wikipedia article or website to repair a search void or gap. Propose a search practice or literacy intervention. Write a justification of your intervention. (Group or individual project.)


    • Engage with norms to legitimate or delegimate searching in particular places, times, or topics or with particular tools or purposes.
    • Engage with design within the SERP or the extensions of search to change perceived affordances or constraints.
    • Engage with questions of repair and sharing searches.
    • Engage with questions of responsibility.

    We will take in-class time for workshopping and peer feedback.

    Text in intervention and justification (combined) should be approximately 1500-2500 (6-10 pages double-spaced) words. Not including bibliography.


    See readings on a separate page here.

    Notes and Reflections

    In-progress. These reflections are shared with the hope of providing some reference for others, and to spur my own learning.

    2023-05-25 10:13:00: These are initial notes and I will likely follow up with more under repairing searching.

    A shooting

    There was a shooting on the MSU campus this semester, killing three students. Campus closed for the rest of the week, with all classes cancelled, and I shifted around and changed assignments and class plans. I referenced Dunn (2021)—on recommendation from campus emails—as I made changes and communicated with students. Only a few students came to class for the next class session and I cut all readings out until after spring break (two weeks later). I ended up only giving brief lectures on the readings, and facilitating planned engagements around team-led classes after spring break and low-pressure explorations of alternative search engines.

    Improves: After we returned to class I could have done a better job refreshing students on prior material and conversations (both from the start of the course and the material quickly covered around this time). I also cut back on warm up ‘quizzes’, which may have negatively affected retention of material and student engagement.


    I attempted to follow Gillis (2019) in grading encouraging and discussing participation. Student participation was heavily disrupted by the shooting noted above. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected participation as well.

    Sharing from the syllabus:

    ## Attendance Policy

    You are not directly graded on your attendance but your attendance will affect your overall learning and performance. Please attend class when possible. Please tell me if you anticipate missing class. Please ensure you make up for the missing class by obtaining notes from classmates and completing in-class writing exercises. Please try to make it to class by the start time.

    Assignments and feedback

    Providing written feedback was one of my favorite parts of the course, but also where my time was most out of alignment with my job description. Trying to give students the quality of feedback they deserved proved especially challenging. While we had some in-class workshopping of assignments in-progress (and I gave feedback to many end-of-session notes students submitted), I wish we had done that more regularly, with smaller portions of writing to practice giving and receiving feedback (and feedback on feedback).

    An unplanned change was allowing ‘feedback responses’ (rather than full or partial revisions) to allow students to demonstrate learning and earn full credit—this also allowed me to better gauge student progress. I also split the second individual writing assignment to consist of an initial submission (for feedback from me) followed by a final submission. For this second assignment I also organized ‘general feedback’ that I shared with all students. This included reflections on my own assignment guidance and instruction.

    I shared rubrics when I posted the assignments. They did not always fruitfully guide my feedback.

    I consider my feedback to the students on their writing (and their thinking and learning as demonstrated in their writing) as one of the core aspects of my instruction.

    Sharing from the syllabus:

    ## Late Work Policy

    Completing work on time will help you keep pace with the new material in the course and will aid the instructor in providing timely and formative individual and collective feedback. Please inform me in advance if you anticipate being late.

    While we discussed ChatGPT and other tools like it extensively in class, I did not make any formal policy about the use of them for assignments. I was generally not concerned about such uses disrupting student learning for this class and these particular assignments (that said, two students engaged with related questions in extra honors projects (TK)).

    A note on “plagiarism”

    I refused to use Turnitin (available on the learning management system), in its standard form or for identifying generated text, due principally to discomfort raised in Introna (2016). One student submitted work that could have been interpreted as “plagiarism”, though conversations with the student suggested the issue was limited prior instruction and feedback on writing and citation. The student and I worked through exercises to better attend to how citation is performed in the class readings.

    Aside on refusal, see: The Refusal Conference (AFOG, 2020)

    On content

    • There is a certain amount of work necessary to just lay out terms and distinguishing and describing key components in searching the web, particularly “search engine” v. “browser” (which others have noted this, due perhaps partially to the opacity/seamlessness around the address bar serving double function as the search box.) While I did not want to defer to company definitions, I did point students to Google’s recent page: Search Central > Google Search Central Blog > Visual Elements of Google Search
    • It turned out to be much harder than I anticipated to teach “data voids” and “frictions of relevance.” I think part of the problem is from the former being flexibly defined, with divergence in its initial take-up and shifts in the later presentation. “Data void” is also such a catchy, broad, and blameless(?) term, that it appears to be an explanation for any search failure. [TK: share written explainers from general feedback]
    • Students really took to the language of paid-for-placement in Introna & Nissenbaum (2000), and that (rather than the language of advertising or search engine optimization) appeared for a time to be the primary explanation for rankings for several students.

    Continuing the Course

    I am “continuing the course” in posts here: Repairing Searching.


    AFOG. (2020). The refusal conference. UC Berkeley; https://afog.berkeley.edu/programs/the-refusal-conference.

    Dunn, A. H. (2021). Teaching on days after: Educating for equity in the wake of injustice. Teachers College Press.

    Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing participation grading as skill building. Teaching Sociology, 47(1), 10–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X18798006

    Hendry, D. G., & Efthimiadis, E. N. (2008). Conceptual models for search engines. In A. Spink & M. Zimmer (Eds.), Web search: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 277–307). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-75829-7_15

    Introna, L. D. (2016). Algorithms, governance, and governmentality. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41(1), 17–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243915587360

    Introna, L. D., & Nissenbaum, H. (2000). Shaping the web: Why the politics of search engines matters. The Information Society, 16(3), 169–185. https://doi.org/10.1080/01972240050133634