Table of Contents
Communities Resolving Our Problems: the basic idea
[SUP: Finding Problems] [THINK: Shaping Problems] [LEAP: Solving Problems]

The Story of the Info Pyramid:
Strategic Priorities and Tools in the Hunt for Information

Knowledge has always been the primary coin of education. In the 21st century, knowledge has also become the new oil that has surpassed the importance of former key economic factors. same 3 layer clickable pyramid described aboveData is not only the newest raw material of business and culture but has become more important than capital and labor ("Data", 2011^). In the 21st century, knowledge has become the "primary engine of economic growth" (Birkinshaw, 2005^). In turn, questions have become the beating heart of the knowledge industry, pumping up facts that can be refined into solutions and startups. Enormous quantities of this "new oil" are free, and through awareness of city and university libraries, a much higher quality of "oil" is also available and already paid for and therefore also available for public use. The "story of the pyramid" is a strategic way to think about accessing and using this "black gold", this knowledge. This pyramid strategy applies to both the search for knowledge in general as well as Internet and Web searching. Since ancient times the pyramid has served as a symbol and source of enlightenment and creation to diverse peoples on multiple continents (Alford, 2003^; McCafferty, 2008^). This concept extends these metaphors of the pyramid into the idea driven practices of the global 21st century.

animation of yinyang symbol with throbbing question mark in the middle, the heartbeat of understanding and composingKnowing how to pump (question), refine (understand) and use (compose with) this oil to make new knowledge products using the magical range of the digital palette then has considerable value. As the yin-yang symbol on the right implies, for many millennia people have thought deeply about many different kinds of systems that synergistically feed and build each other; thinking is one of them. As the strobing lub-dub of the question marks within the animated graphic on the right imply, the heart pumping action of questioning and searching drives an endless cycle of eventual understanding and then new compositions with new conclusions that yield new questions, new searches. The digital age has vastly amplified the power of the pump. It also continues to exponentially increase the quantity and quality of the data far faster than society has enabled people that can run the pump.

The search strategy is simple to explain; start at the top layer of the information pyramid and work downward. In keeping with much current naming of Internet phenomena beginning with an "i", it might be titled the ipyramid. The challenge is in the details about what the layers represent and what search tools are available at each level, which the thoughts ahead will explore in depth. Such methods are critical skills for the Look stage of problem solving, the problem processing stage for sifting the data of the information explosion in order to deal with problems and questions. As the general strategic thinking ability of children grows quickly from almost nonexistent in the first years of school to almost adult-like by age twelve (Winsler et al, 2006^), teaching strategic approaches to digital searching has great potential from elementary grades upward. Among all searchers in the general population, once search skills become effective there is an annual doubling in the number of questions asked and searched. Acquiring the initial skills though is expanding much slower; the number of new Web searchers expands at around 6% a year (Goodman, 2011^). To help expedite the needed growth, the document is divided into three major sections: the layers of the information pyramid, the geography of the Internet, and intellectual skills needed for making the most of the information pyramid.

The number and quality of the iPyramid tools, the search tools of the Web, are significant and yet still exponentially growing in capacity. The stored bounty of the information explosion (Houghton, 2012^) grows at a rate of 23% per year (Hilbert & Lopez, 2011^) and has done so for decades. To make effective use of the tools and the bounty requires inquisitive and probing minds that are both adept at the full range of higher order thinking skills and growing in number as exponentially knowledge is expanding. The best hunting strategy ought to make the beginning point of the hunt the potentially richest and most useful place available and then lead questioners onward through additional layers of resources. The linked web pages (noted below) will organize key search system tools into the pyramid's three major divisions: brains, book shelves and drives.

This page not only gives greater depth to the overall concept, but leads to other Web pages with numerous and unique search systems divided in major divisions, categories and sub-categories. The pyramid model also helps the teaching and recall of the sequence for using this strategy. It also serves as an antidote to the idea that one search engine, such as Google's or Bing's, is sufficient for all information hunting needs. Though the information pyramid pages lead to numerous different types of search engines, "more than 35% of all searches happened on non-search engines" (Goodman & Green, 2012^), including such types of sites as ecommerce (e.g., Amazon) and social networking (e.g., Facebook). This Look stage of hunting for information is the first part of the LEAP problem solving process, which in turn is part of the larger CROP model for problem processing, all of which is explained in the basic idea section and other header branches above.

A strategic approach is defined as a planned or structured sequence of activity or the use of priorities to select some choices and ignore others (Davidson, 1991^). As important as cognitive-guided instruction should be, research indicates that children and adolescents commonly persist in using relatively ineffective strategies even when others are available (Siegler & Stern, 1998^; Winsler). Conversation with reference desk librarians has indicated that ineffective information search patterns persist throughout adulthood as well. Further, some 15% of even adolescents still do not apply strategic thinking (Winsler). That is, teachers must persistently instruct and monitor strategic approaches to provide sufficient support for changing habits, which applies to strategies in all content areas, not just in the strategic recommendations of digital search discussed here.

Given the frequency of ineffective strategies in use, inventing and teaching memorable models for strategy becomes significant in developing a way to recall persistently effective approaches. To assist with this effort, the model of a pyramid can prove useful. Begin by imagining a three layer pyramid. This pyramid can be used to categorize the three major ways in which our culture currently stores information, making it an information pyramid. It is possible to stack these resources in the order of how much human intelligence is applied in the storage of the information and in the interface to the information. In this model, the best view and the best quality resources are at the top of the pyramid. At the top searchers hunt for the person with the best brain for your needs. In the middle hunters seek the best publications or resources that must be retrieved from specific places on book shelves. At the base the quest is for the best things which are stored electronically on various drives such as hard drives and other storage media. At this bottom or base of the pyramid is the greatest quantity of information but too often requires significant filtering to identify quality within the great quantity of digital material.

The strategy chosen here is to Look in a top-down order through the tools of the layers of the pyramid. Two mnemonics for the layers have emerged. The order could be called person, place and thing, take from the grammar rules for a noun. The sequence top down could also be called brains, shelves and drives. Within each layer, the resources can be further stacked in additional sub-pyramids.

Clicking the relevant pyramids and layer links below will take you directly to the tools of these divisions. Definition and explanation of the categories is brief. Learning some of the systems within each category and subcategory are the best way to comprehend the nature of the categorizing. Learning the details of the search system for each link begins by finding the help pages and examples within each search system site. As these collections of search tool sites are constantly evolving and growing their search capacities, it is useful to revisit the help pages with some regularity to look for changes and improvements.

The Layers of the Pyramid

a clickable image of pyramid with color on in top layer indicating this is the first priority in research - contacting people

The Top

Click this link, Top of the Pyramid (the Person or the Brains layer), to search for the minds of those with the most expertise in your question or problem. This same layer also has links to sites that collect questions and attempt to connect them with those who can answer. This layer of tools also represents the brains of those who serve as librarians and other local information specialists who specialize in assisting with information retrieval. A key advantage of communicating with the right person is that they can interact with you in an interactive discussion that redirects effort in more effective ways. One of the unique contributions of the Internet is the number of ways it enables finding and interacting with people, a reach extending from local to global. Yet, this is also the most neglected layer of the three, though when successful, the most useful place for a search to begin.

The boldfaced categories and subcategories of the Brains Layer page lead to a range of search tools for finding the contact information of people. Each of these Web sites opens to its home page which contains links to define and explain itself. Consequently, the best way to learn about each of them is to click on the links in the categories, then click the site's Help link. The Experts group of Web sites allow users to enter questions and have them answered by people of some interest and expertise in the topic, or those with none. Yahoo Answers allows anyone to respond, without any prequalifying of expertise. The Experts Exchange for IT requires payment for services, with a consequently much higher level of quality to their service. The category of Web Messaging Systems has been the most innovative with new designs constantly emerging. The microblogging category is the most recent, perhaps best represented by Twitter, though facing challenges about how to use it in non-trivial ways. Microblogs are made up of messages that are no more than 140 characters, a length set by the maximum size of cell phone text messages. This makes them useable from a computer or a phone. These searches will lead to comments written by people just seconds or minutes ago. The databases of the White and Yellow Pages categories provide the more traditional phone and postal address information, but increasingly they will need to contain Internet phone system numbers, such as those created by Skype and others for free calls over the Web.

The Internet gives inquirers and researchers unprecedented direct access to experts around the world through a wide range of tools. Human intelligence can do what no other form of information storage can do for you, intelligently interact. Unlike a book or Web page, a person can tell you that your question does not make sense and can help you re-work the question. If the person cannot answer you in a sentence or two by voice or email they can still put you on a useful path. They can cut short the reading of dozens or thousands of books by telling you a small number of books or resources that you need to study to understand how to proceed. For example, if you were interested in the theory of relativity you could begin to look for this phrase and find it referenced in thousands of articles and books. The expert however could tell you that one book nicely summarizes all the basic information on the topic and that two articles sum up the most current thinking since the book was written.


Experts, however, are not a perfect solution to information needs. They might not be conveniently located in a nearby building or community. They might not use electronic mail. They may not be able to respond to your question or at least not in any time frame that is useful to your immediate needs. They may charge for their services as consultants and employees of information businesses. They of course could also tell you that you are wasting their time with a trivial question to which you can find the answer in a course textbook, dictionary or encyclopedia. They could dislike the direction of your work, be heavily biased or for other reasons try to prevent you from proceeding. They might not be the experts that they believe themselves to be. Further, experts can disagree and the newer the idea and the more controversial the topic, the more experts you must consult to cover the range of ideas being considered for that issue. However, whatever the disadvantages of experts, on average, starting with them can provide far greater mileage than the lower two layers of the pyramid.

a clickable image of pyramid with color on in top layer indicating this is the second priority in research - searching shelves in bookstores and libraries around the world

The Middle

Click this link, the Middle of the Pyramid (the Place or Bookshelves layer), which is generally the next best layer to visit. Here you find the places where books, articles, movies, videos and other physical forms of information are stored. These physical storage formats include paper and plastic (film, microfische, audiotape, videotape, CD's, etc.). At some point in its storage that means that all these formats are stored physically on shelves.

The boldfaced categories and subcategories of the Periodical set provide indexes to the magazine and journal categories. For example, Google Scholar searches for articles while providing the number of the times a work has been cited by other scholars. The Bookshelves group lead to a range of search tools for finding information stored on shelves, usually periodicals and books. With one web address,, an information seeker can be combing through the Library of Congress and its over 25 million books, which is just part of its collection. Google Books not only searches by title, but with increasing frequency allows users to search for words within the book as well as read all or selected parts of a retrieved book. General Reference is a catch-basin for a wide variety of other forms of informatio that are stored on shelves whose content go beyond that of periodicals and books.

Several layers of intelligence were involved in the preparation and sharing the information identified by this group of tools. These works have the advantage of having been refereed or reviewed by others, often by other experts on the topic. That is, at this time in human history, information that is stored on shelves is often superior in quality to web pages stored in the interconnected hard drives of computer networks such as the Internet. Much of this material can generally be faxed or shipped within minutes or days from libraries and bookstores. These shelved publications are also a source of names of experts. If they are still among the living, you can move to the person layer of the pyramid and seek their contact information. 

This form of information storage has its own imperfections as well. This data is housed in buildings around the world. These Web-based information systems can only tell you where in the world the resource is located. You then must use various transportation technologies to move that work or publication to your current location. This certainly takes time, sometimes weeks. It often involves expenses. These transportation systems might include working with InterLibrary Loan, the Post Office, UPS or Fedex or other overnight delivery services, fax machines, copy machines and more. Library and information scientists have observed that finding a citation to a work of interest in this layer is only 1/7 of the cost in time and labor in getting the book or article in the hands of the person who needs it.

Consequently, this information isn't kept just on the shelves. Many businesses have found it profitable to convert the full text of this shelf material to digital information and make it available online on the web. This well established trend shows that every form of information is moving to digital format to take advantage of the global distribution and market of the Web. This will be discussed further in the next section.

a clickable image of pyramid with color on in middle layer indicating this is the third and lowest priority in research - searching hard drives

The Bottom

Click this link, the Base of the Pyramid (the Drives or Things layer), which represents information shared through the Internet and stored on computer hard drives and other computer based mass storage systems. By clicking the pyramid symbol above, a large set of online tools for this searching in this bottom layer will be revealed. The categories within this layer can also be thought of as a sub-pyramid of organized data.

The boldfaced categories and subcategories of the Drives Layer page lead to a range of search tools for finding information stored on the hard drives of the Net. The Pro category generally represent the work of professionals and their businesses, information that is often duplicated are adjusted in minimal ways for both paper and Web formats. The Reviewed Web Information links lead to databases of reviwed Web sites, information that generally provides some sort of critical analysis and evaluation criteria. The Subject Catalogs division provides convenient access to presorted information. It is the same role that library catalogers provide in appropriately finding and shelves new works of information so that related knowledge can be found as a set. The Robot Collected sites provide a representative subset of the diverse set of approaches for using software to visit, collect, index and make searchable the data stored on the hard drives of the computers of the Internet.

Using the Pyramid Toolbox

graphic dehscribing the 3 elements of the frameset seaching tool - notepad, toolbox, workbench

Clicking any one of the pyramid symbols above each section, instead of the link within the opening paragraph of each section, reveals the full Pyramid Toolbox. As the headings above described each of the three layers of the pyramid, an icon above the section was provided. Each icon led to the information pyramid's workroom or workshop for searches. This workroom is broken into three major divisions or windows or web pages. The toolbox area can display any of the three layers of the pyramid's tools: top, middle and bottom. No matter which layer is showing, the bottom lines of this layer have links to each of the other layers. Think of this as three shelves of tools that can be brought into view in a instant. The workbench area is where a particular tool from the toolbox will be displayed for use. The notepad area is to encourage the taking of notes, about search terms being used, or ideas copied from a web page. This area may be to small for any, but it serves to remind searchers to open a word processor window to capture ideas as the hunt proceeds. A "further directions" link above the notepad describes this info-hunter's workshop arrangement in greater detail.

The 3 layers are also described by characterizations other than top, middle and bottom. "Person, place and thing" helps connect the idea to a mnemonic that has been in the heads of many since childhood. "Brains, bookshelves and drives" helps connect the pyramid's organization with the physical location of the information.

Summarizing the Information Pyramid

There is an interconnectness between these three layers that should not be overlooked. The base and the middle layer are cross-connected to its top layer. That is, web pages are also more than just a resource for their content or ideas. These files stored on hard drives are also a source of the names of experts, not just web page content. Further, there are two distinctive layers to the web, the "deep" web and the "shallow" web. On the web, the area of greatest quantity, the deep web, turns out to also be the area of highest quality.

No matter which layer or zone stores the information, its digital format brings major advantages. If the information is stored in a computer which is accessible through the Internet, access can be extremely fast. You might find the real thing, that is the complete thing (book, article, image), not some citation that points to the real thing located on the other side of the world. The information could also be in other electronic resources you already have paid for, such as an electronic encyclopedia on a compact disc or information created personally in a folder on your desktop hard drive. Further the information arrives in a format that makes it easy to edit, copy and fit into other publications. You can quickly tailor this incoming information for a variety of needs. Computer based information is often among the most current data available, because it costs so little to update or make changes to it once it is stored electronically.

The Geography of the Internet

As geography is the study of the distribution of things, maps of physical geography and animal populations provide access to special resources within the complexity of their patterns. Many other patterns of digital distribution have also been envisioned and mapped; such designs help in understanding structure and function in cyberspace (Dodge, 2008^; Zook, Dodge, Aoyama, & Townsend, 2004^; Zook & Dodge, 2009^). The ipyramid is another way to think about this distribution of data. Another basic division of knowledge is the password protected data and the public data, the deep Web versus the shallow Web. The shallow Web can be further envisioned in terms of the density of its patterns into something like a bowtie. The Web though changes much more rapidly than physical structures or animal populations in an information life cycle that also adds to our undestanding of Internet use.

The Deep Web

The phrase "deep web" began as a way to describe information in networked databases that could not be indexed by the standard public search engines of the Web. The company BrightPlanet (BrightPlanet, 2001) claimed to have identified some 350,000 specialty databases that are not indexed by standard web search systems, and could therefore could be described as hidden. Once information is in databases, it takes a query or search strategy to point to it, not a static web address. But there is other information that is not being indexed by the public or free search systems, notably any set of documents kept behind passwords and access fees.

The deep web is often the electronic copy of the most commercially valuable portions of the middle layer of the information pyramid. Fortunately, this perception of the information being "hidden" is a misrepresentation of reality. Our library system and its reference librarians provide an easy and well-lighted walkway into the database and commercial areas, though some libraries have budgets which pay the access fees to more of the private or commercial layer than others. Several web sites also provide various approaches to searching the databases of the deep web

How deep and big is the deep web? The BrightPlanet estimate was that the deep web in 2001 was over 550 billion documents or web files (BrightPlanet, 2001), in contrast to the shallow web of some 2.1 billion pages. This simple count of files greatly obscures the real size comparison. The deep web files contain the full text of lengthy articles and books. The shallow web is made up of significantly shorter web pages, often just a printed page or two in length. The deep web is at least hundreds of times larger and could easily be thousands of times larger than its cousin, the shallow or surface web that the public frequents most often.

The Shallow Web

The shallow web or surface web represents the public portion of the Internet's hard drives. It is similar to the deep web in its rapid growth rate. It is also qualitatively different in important ways from the deep web in its interconnectedness.

The growth rate of the shallow web is significant. Estimates in the fall of 1999 put this part of the Internet at over 800 million web pages (Kiernan, 1999). In July of 2000, the number was reported to be near 2 billion. Though the shallow web consists of a mere 2 billion web pages, current estimates have it growing at the rate of 7.3 million new web pages a day (Murray, 2000).  If the daily growth rate held steady, the public web will have reached a staggering annual growth rate of over 2.6 billion pages a year. The web in the fall of 2001 did not meet their estimates of some four billion pages, which called into question either their daily net growth number or their capacity to keep up. In 2003, the major search engines of Google and All the Web finally indicated they had indexed between 3 and 4 billion pages. In 2007 a report estimated some 30 billion pages (Pandia). In July of 2008 Google reported that it had indexed over one trillion Web pages and still did not have it all (Google). However, growth of the web with new pages is just one part of the turbulence of the web. Researchers should also take into consideration the additional change provided by web pages being updated and obsolete ones being deleted.

search engine comparison tableGiven the thousands of search engines, how does one set priorities in learning the numerous features of various search systems well? Dignan's (2009) data in the table of this paragraph helps clarify the current situation. The marketplace continues to vote through its usage that Google's search systems represent the best yet available. Google's stated corporate goal is provide access to all the world's information, meaning all the layers of the information pyramid. But Google is a long way from delivering on that goal. Searchers will also need experience with other search systems beyond having baseline knowledge of Google's search tools (See also, Google Search Posters, Google Search Classroom Activities.) Other search systems includes knowing the search systems of the libraries that are within reasonable driving distance from your home and place of work.

As dominant as one company can be at any point in time, the future of search may very different. Mobile searchers, those searching the Web from smartphones with Internet access such as the iPhone, are moving from Google search to many specialized applications designed exclusively for smaller screen display which are more focused in their content, easier and faster to use (Hiner, 2009). Further, real-time search systems ignore Web pages and specialize in providing access to up-to-the-minute information. These systems draw information from a range of real-time systems such as microblogging sites like Twitter or social networking sites like Facebook with its status updates, pushing a continuous stream of updates to a user's screen. Just as one search system closes in on offering access to every Web page, educators may find they need to teach multiple search systems, each requiring some new form of reading ability that rquire the use of some unique search methods.

The Shape of Information

What is most special about the shallow web is the openly revealed nature of the linking among its web pages. Search engine technology enables researchers to "see" into how human beings interconnect their ideas. This has always been possible on very small scales such as minute portions of the neuronal connections in the brain, or in larger scale with groups of people or an interrelated set of journal articles. In contrast, search engines and the public or shallow web enable studies to be done on the relationship of billions of pieces (web pages) of information. The patterns that are emerging here may be typical of not only of information found in these other layers of the pyramid, but of many types of complex networks.

What do we know about the shape of information? On average, any web page is but a few clicks from any other page. Some research has estimated that the average web page contains from between five (Murray, 2000) to seven (Kiernan, 1999) external links per page. The number of links between any two pages on the web can then represent the diameter of the shallow Web. This diameter was first estimated at around 19 clicks (Kiernan, 1999). In this view the web could be seen as a well stirred pot of spaghetti noodles, each noodle representing a path of many connections between web pages. Later work showed that the distribution is not so evenly stirred. The web has neighborhoods that are highly connected and those that are not. Broder and others developed a model that reminds one of a bow tie with a few loose threads hanging from it (Broder et al, 2000). The knot of the bow tie represents a highly connected core or neighborhood of some 30% of the web. The left wing of the bow tie stands for the 24% of the web which has connected to the core but which lacks connects back from the core. These could be thought of as new web pages not yet discovered by authors with web pages in the the core. The right wing of the bow tie is the 24% of web pages which are connected from the core but lack connections back to the core. The loose threads and tubes which hang from the bow tie represent the 22% of information that is made up of disconnected web pages. Of the pages in the highly connected core, Broder's team showed there is an average of 7 degrees of separation, otherwise the diameter of the paths is 16. However, nearly 75% of the web is either not connected or poorly connected to other bits of information.

The patterns of information in the other layers of the info pyramid is much less well known. This is not to say that the deep web lacks linkage, but the linkage is done through bibliographies and footnotes making movement through these connections much more slow and cumbersome. Because these links are not computerized and therefore not available for rapid computerized measurement, the actual pattern in the deep web cannot be seen directly but only can be inferred from the patterns appearing in the shallow web. The deep web can be liken to the slower pace of life in the colder deep ocean, with a seemingly sluggish rate of change in comparison with the rapid growth and decay in the hot shallow waters close to continental shores. Both have important value. It is an even further reach to suppose that social networks and paper citation trails follow the same patterns. Yet,  Barab�si's work (2001) does show that the non-scaling patterns of information in the shallow web do match with many other forms of complex systems. In playing with the perspective of these different patterns, our minds gain a deeper understanding or the wide range of possibilities of the Internet and the web (ManicLink).

Improving The Life Cycle of Web Information

An examination of the ecology of the shallow web and how information life grows, gains value and dies there is needed to understand its life cycles. Life first grows in the shallow web because anyone can grow something there by uploading a file in seconds. Because of this, it is true that the shallow web has much seemingly irrelevant information about hot cars, birthday pictures and email flame wars. That observation misses seeing how the information that is valuable becomes known and how it grows into stronger and more useful information. Just because a web page exists does not mean that many people pay attention to it or value it.

People make links between web pages when they perceive that another web document does an effective job of contributing to their own web page. It may be a contribution of complement or a contribution of contrast and dissonance. Web authors do not want too many links on their web pages, so there is an evolutionary or Darwinian struggle as new more effective web links come along which leads to the removal of less effective web links. As the author of a web page makes these links, they learn things from the pages they link and modify their own web page, making it more valuable. This contrast with the deep web in which the original article cannot be modified, requiring the author to write and publish a new article, a much more time consuming and arduous process. Search engines have learned to take advantage of this ecology. For example, the search engine makes the priority of its search listings dependent the number of links made to a given web page. The pages at the top of its search listings have been prioritized by the number of other web pages that have links to them. As those seeking further links for their own pages use the top items from search engine hits, this further contributes to the evolutionary rise of certain web pages and sites. The rich get richer. The popular get more popular. This not the top down order of a cataloging system but the bottom up emergent order of a social system.

Thinkers that discover new problems and compose new solutions often must make a choice between publishing their work in refereed publications which removes their work from the evolutionary struggle for value in the web linked economy, or placing them in the shallow but public web where the best information evolves to have the most links to other relevant works. The deep web keeps its holdings separate from the direct links of the shallow web.  In the deep web appears designed for the interaction of a small group of specialists. The surface or shallow web appears designed for a wide open public "vote" on the merits of a given web page, the vote being a web author's choice to link to a given page. This poses an intriguing and deep problem. Can information scientists and scholars bring higher levels of interactive life to the deep web and connect this dialog to the higher levels of interaction of the surface web without undercutting the very economic system that has built the deep web or detracting from the democratic openness that has spawned the phenomena of the World Wide Web? 

Many problems exists within the information at this shallow layer. The information that becomes published in seconds may never have been qualified by any other human as to the data's accuracy, currency, truthfulness or a host of related concerns. Much greater responsibility is placed on the hunter of this layer to not bring home tainted or rotten fish. Anyone with the capacity to put the information on the Internet can remove it in seconds too. You may tell others where to look, but it may have moved, been removed, or updated or changed in some way that no longer suits your purposes. This is in contrast to the deep web in which much of its information has a permanent and stable home for decades.

In all fairness, there are many Internet or otherwise computer-networked sites with carefully qualified information. This information can be extremely relevant and useful. But you must look over Internet sites carefully to make sure that they are legitimate, not a careful fake from someone who might benefit from altered data or just someone enjoying a spoof of others work. Cross checking this information against that found in other layers of the pyramid is the only way to validate or trust what you have found. One can also envision a time in which the person, place and thing layer will be collapsed into one layer, with all information universally available electronically. But it is emphatically not here now and there are economic forces at work that can keep this from ever happening.

Do remember to keep track of where the information came from in this electronic thing layer. That is, not only copy the information you need, but copy its references. The format of such references may seem quite different from citations in the middle place layer. References for a web page should include the URL or web address, the author of the web page if he or she can be found and the institution that hosts or provides the web pages. 

Carefully follow the top-down path of person, place and thing, capturing the best of what is available at each level. Summarize the information where you can. Copy and move needed data to files that are saved to a data storage device such as a USB drive. Compensate for the weaknesses of information stored in one layer with the strengths of ideas and concepts found in the others. The strength of our global culture's information pyramid comes from the differences in each layer. Utilizing the full scale of the pyramid adds strength and depth to your work in addressing the problems and questions of your lifetime. In turn, readers become thinkers that add strength back to the pyramid. This is done by mixing information that comes from your own experience with the information found in new situations and seeking its performance and publication.

Intellectual Skills for the Information Pyramid

The information pyramid strategy that has been explained helps with two important features of information literacy: knowing how knowledge is organized and how to strategically go hunting among its different major layers. For further background, also explore Fowler and Simpson's tutorial on information literacy skills (2003). There are other feature of information literacy that also needs to be much better known, including reading skills for the digital age, human logic and processing logic. Though after a certain age we presume much about reading skills, in fact, many skilled adult readers of paper technology have much to learn about Web reading. The needed logic consists of certain mathematical terms that can be applied to computer stored knowledge and also consists of processing logic, otherwise known as higher order thinking skills with an accent on critical thinking.

Reading & Writing Skills

A special general challenge for readers is to recognize that a transition is underway between paper and digital systems. Some reading skills overlap the world of paper publications and the world of Web publications. Other reading skills are new and are still being invented through the innovations of web design. An especially valuable feature of information search activity is its dual role in a simultaneously reinforcing and teaching writing and reading activity. Nothing happens until something is written, an act which often return additional related vocabulary.

Readers of text and many forms of media benefit from solving the problems of what might be called traction and bias. Traction requires settling in to a reading in stepwise fashion using skim technniques to grasp the highlights of a text and scan techniques to find specific words. This should be followed with reading methods such as SQ4R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Relate and Review). Information in any format must also be weighed for varieties of bias that call into question the relevance, currency and accuracy of the information.

Exploration of the new digital skill sets can be divided into three areas of activity: pre-reading, comprehension and engagement, and meta-reading. Pre-reading skills include: Web search skills; browser display management to elliminate distractions; and control of the window width to support efficient line scanning. Comprehension and engagement skills include: learning the systems for writing on the Web page during the reading event; having sufficient time to build up background knowledge; learning in-page Web searching techniques; mastering embedded Web searching for any word phrase not understood; and pairing text ideas with an image search for the same term to enhance the mind's dual encoding of information. Meta-reading means thinking and making decisions about the reading process while the reading of information is underway. For example, effective decisions must be made about whether to stay with a particular page or jump to something new. Other high level decisions include: activation of a browser's read aloud features; capturing segments or entire compositions to build a personal library; mastering tabbing and tab grouping of Web pages; and making decisions about meta data and applying metatags when files are stored. The examples provided here are just some of the elements involved in these three major divisions of reading activity.

The valuable role of information search in expanding everyone's language arts capacity deserves additional emphasis. Every search expands the definition of other related keywords, a running thesaurus activity. Every reading provides new words that can initiate the next search with the sub-second response time of right clicking on a word in the reading. The response rate is as fast as the reaction times of video games of which youth are so enamored. The capacity to be hooked on search just as youth are hooked on games is one more reason to make Internet capable computers routinely available on student desks both at school and at home. A computer's presence in an environment of study about some aspect of the world must be having a significant impact on world's reading and writing skills that the scholarly literature has yet to find a way to measure.

The topic of Web reading and composition skills is much more vast than can be fully explored here. As the numerous details of digital language arts skills go far beyond the scope of this composition, it is best to recommend other more focused readings on these topics. The articles Reading Challenges: the Paper to Digital Web Transition (Houghton, 2009) and Breakaway Literacies (Houghton, 2009) expand significantly on the ideas introduced so briefly in this section.

Boolean Logic

As an extension of this pyramid strategy, searchers must also understand and use the terms of Boolean logic (e.g., AND, OR and NOT) to narrow and expand their searches as needed. Failure to know and use Boolean thinking leads to a significant number of failures in information retrieval (Weise, 2001).  Sometimes these terms must be entered manually, sometimes the search pages are set up with data entry boxes that carry out these functions without manually entered the Boolean logic terms. Sometimes the search engine assumes OR and sometimes AND relationships in the search strategy. Knowing more about Boolean and more about the degree to which different search engines handle Boolean increases the searchers effectiveness (University of Albany, 2001).

Searching for "CATS OR DOGS" retrieves more information than searching for "CATS AND DOGS" because or means either condition is acceptable while and means both conditions must be true. The more conditions that must be true before a citation or article is retrieved, the less information that will be found. The terms AND and NOT are used to narrow a search when too much information or too irrelevant information is retrieved. The term OR is used to broaden a search by connecting a set of synonyms for a concept. A thesaurus is a handy tool to meet this need. Through the use of parentheses, complex nested sets of logic can be arranged (cats OR tigers OR lions OR felines) AND (dogs OR wolves) NOT pets. More attention needs to given to those resources that teach Boolean skills to both school age children and adults as well as resources that show how to apply those skills to searching databases and the web (Houghton & Houghton, 1999).

Simple techniques can have significant impact. For example, BrightPlanet estimated that by using six to eight appropriate terms per search, the amount of irrelevant information retrieved can be reduced by over 99% (BrightPlanet, 2000). This yields a search strategy then that could be called push to failure. That is, the searcher should keep adding additional search terms and special qualifications to the search (such as date range) until the results yield zero. At this point, the searcher should then selectively drop off a term or condition or two so that just a small highly qualified set of items in a search list remain.

As beneficial as it is to know basic Boolean logic, effective net searching requires more. Certainly knowing basic guidelines on a number of techniques is important (Whitley, 2001). Examing the help pages of web search engines is a quick way to learn many valuable search commands and techniques. If instruction at this phase of research is really going to be enhanced by teachers and the team of educators that help them, some new elements must be added to the basic patterns of our compositions. The bibliography for every composition should include more than the list of authors and sources. The bibliography should also include a listing of the search systems that were used and the search strategies employed at each one. This information is most important during the formative stages of writing, and should be one of the first elements checked by teachers and writing centers that assist with rough drafts. This enhancement would be equally beneficial for the bibliography's of professional publications.

It is also valuable to be able to find the community of people interested in a particular topic by searching for which pages have linked to a given page. Some of the search engines have a command called link: that makes this easy.  For these examples use Google, Alta Vista or All the Web. Try or which return the web pages which link to the searched for page. The specialized commands are not the same for every search engine, requiring one to search for the search engine's name and "short cuts" or "cheat sheets", example, Google "cheat sheets". Techniques for searching by country and detailed cheat sheets for more specialized commands can be found in this eCROP blog posting, finding info by Web Country codes.

These Boolean terms in conjunction with specialized commands help us control the quantity and specificity of the information that is sought. These terms cannot directly address the quality of what is found. There is no substitute for thinking.

Semantic Thinking

Searching using simple search strings of text characters that can be enhanced by Boolean logic only goes so far. The search systems up to May of 2009 were based on matching a pattern of text characters with text in existing Web pages, then prioritizing and presenting the matches based on an evolving set of criteria. As the Web continued to dump information in helter-skelter fashion dissassociated with related information located on other Web sites and in commercial databases, new methods were envisioned that involved higher levels of reasoning and connectedness (Berners-Lee, 1998). Search engines were needed that went beyond pattern matching to understand the semantics of data, engines that both recognized the meaning behind a string of characters that makes up a word and recognized the relationship of data found at many different locations. Such systems can be thought of as a cross between a graphing calculator, a reference library for science, math and finance and a logic engine. From a knowledge of basic facts and logical procedures, semantic systems can reason to some degree. If users can create the right search questions, such systems can generate new information by making logical deductions and carrying out mathematical operations based on that meaning.

The first semantic systems were announced in May of 2009. Google announced a product called Google Squared that by the end of May 2009 will take a search term and pull related data from multiple sites to build a table containing comparison information that will link each cell in the table to its source. See TechCrunch's video on Google Squared. The WolframAlpha site has promised even greater semantic capacity. The WolframAlpha Introductory Video's demonstration of the initial capacity of the WolframAlpha search engine on day one of its public availability (May 15, 2009) is a powerful definition of semantic computing by example.

Left begging is the question of how to educate users to ask the right search query questions to generate solutions to real world problems. Strategies here though are not unknown. Like most topics, the more depth known about a topic, the more effective questions become. This adds further weight to the concern about mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and value to the notion of long term student projects.

Critical Thinking

Being effective at finding information is not enough. Whatever information is found, an intelligent weighing of the evidence is always needed. There are certain basic aspects of qualifying information that apply to the use of all three of the layers of the information pyramid. In every case you must consider basic rules of evidence. This type of reflective attitude is also known as critical thinking. The information literate person must be able to evaluate the accuracy, currency and relevance of the data they encounter. Evaluating relevance also means carefully weighing the reputation of the source of the information at any level of the information pyramid.

Both oral communication and the web, the top and the bottom of the information pyramid, can be easily, cheaply and rapidly shared and distributed without any filtering by additional minds, such as editors, reviewers and specialists on the topic. Consequently, using information from the top and bottom layers requires a heightened sense of care in examining the accuracy, currency and relevance of information found there. Being more skeptical of these sources than paper publications is a healthy attitude for 21st century thinkers. That said, the general perception of paper publications being better qualified means that those with greater reason to persuade someone of something are likely to make their approach or attack through paper. A skeptical attitude is a good defensive stance for all sources of information.

Being effective at critically evaluating the quality of information is not enough. To effectively use the information that has been found requires acceptable means to be able to store, manipulate (e.g., copy and paste) and compose in a way that has a positive impact on our culture, on those within it. At the mechanical level, using information means having the digital skills to paraphrase and copy information into different applications such as outline processors, spreadsheets, graphic information systems and databases and then use these tools for further and deeper analysis. In this age of multimedia, it also means having the ability to go beyond text, to capture, cut, copy and paste with audio, video, still image, three-dimensional images and more. It also means having the ability to merge these multiple forms of expression in the same composition.

Of even greater importance is the ability to use this information to be able to make a point and sustain it with examples and supporting facts. It means to be able to choose appropriate forms of sharing for a particular audience, from the creation of essays and newsletters to video, from making a speech to a stage performance. It means understanding Bloom's higher order categories about the unique nature evaluative thinking as applied to a social, legal or ethical question. Use the resources at hand. The walkway to many a college and community writing center is as well-paved and well lit as the one to the library reference desk.

Collaborative Search

Though Web search as a solitary activity is the most common experience of Web users, more expert searchers have reported carrying out collaborative search activities once or twice or month on average. Over 87% of these experiences (Morris, 2008) used the backseat driver model of 1 to 3 participants offering suggestions while watching over the shoulder of the person at the keyboard. About 88% of this same group had also participated in collaborative searches with off-site or remote sets of participants. As this group reported using the phone, IM (Instant Messenger) and email exclusively for remote communication, the interaction process can also be significantly improved through the use of software designed especially for Web conferencing.

Especially given the earlier discussion of the consistency with which children, adolescents and adults commonly persist in using relatively ineffective strategies, Web search, whether co-located or remote, is certainly one of those topics that could significantly benefit from team activity. One of the great benefits of group activity for all learning but especially for more difficult and complex topics is activity that shares new ideas, models good practices and enables joint discovery.

The search process breaks down into a series of steps which can be done in series by an individual or a team or distributed among participants who each have their own computer. The critical first steps is asking and reframing a question that clarifies the information needed. This is followed by selecting and imagining relevant keywords for the search, then skimming data for relevant information, selecting readings for in-depth reading to determine its value, copying and pasting results, synthesizing the results into some new composition, then evaluating the entire process. This process was first articulated as the Big Six Skills by Eisenberg and Berkowitz (1988) and designed to match stages of Bloom's higher order thinking skills. This approach overlaps heavily with other search models (Eisenberg, 2008). At each stage, the work can be done by one person or distributed among team members. Morris (2008) noted that when the expert group had their own computer, the group's strategy was either "divide and conquer" or "brute force". The former chose to divide tasks up among members while the latter worried less about duplication of effort, choosing to merge and sort out results at the end. It is curious that no teams chose to mix both methods. Having some kind of search task table to identify which stages will using divide and conquer with what division of labor and which stage will be brute force would streamline those early decisions.

When all the members of the group or team are in the same space, a number of simpler choices are available for working the search process. A typical computer display screen works fine for 2 to 4 participants while large computers screens or projection systems enable much larger numbers. The primary limitation is the number of people that can effectively participate in contributing to the search at hand. This suggests that large group demonstrations such as as classrooms and lecture halls would benefit from a team or panel that works the process while others observe.

When some or all members of the search team are remote, then the limitation is the capacity of the Web communication software. Email is the least interactive of the commonly used choices but works fine where time limitations are not problems. IM can support team size groups but is about a third of the speed of voice communication. Phone sharing can limit the number of participants to two unless phone conferencing capacity is available. Though free Web conferencing software limits the number of participants from 3 to 6, it eliminates the problems of email, IM and phone, by combining all those features with many more, including the especially valuable shared whiteboard space. Web conferencing software also has the capacity to not only share out a view of the someone's desktop where the search is underway, but allow remote control of that screen by others as needed.


The process of gathering information really begins with a sense of need and the construction of a question. There are certain basic signs which would indicate that more information and knowledge is needed. Does the individual or the participants in the research thoroughly understand the concept, idea or situation that is being considered? Are there multiple conflicting opinions and reports? Does everyone agree with the basic conclusion being reached? Has there been a real effort to dig for new and related questions? This activity should also be seen as equal parts of opportunity recognition and problem recognition. 

Teaching Strategies

Teaching the information pyramid starts with awareness. A simple poster with a pyramid with two lines drawn through it to create three layers is sufficient to begin the conversation with a class of students. This knowledge should be combined with the information taught by the school librarian or media specialist. There is much to teach and much that is complex and new to all students that requires some planning. Those plans should include a sequence of introductions and practice activities that cover something from each of the three layers throughout the academic year.

The need for the knowledge summarized in the list below, also known in information literacy circles as the big six, has long been heavily promoted by the professional library associations (Bruce, 1997; Esenberg & Berkowitz, 1990; Eisenberg, Lowe, & Spitzer, 2008). The more effective learner and problem solver will:

The Information Pyamid also adds a top down strategy for information pursuit, creating the big seven.

For classroom dialog and interaction these seven statements can be re-phrased as questions for class participants. For example, how do you know more information is needed? How is this knowledge organized? Can you show me how you hunt strategically?

Need a mnemonic device to learn and teach the info pyramid? Sing these words to the tune of children's song, Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.


How peculiar to be a member a global culture made up of an overwhelming majority of impoverished citizens that lack the capacity to pump and use an infinite supply of wealth. That is, one more time, some 1/3 of the world's citizens have created a system that produces infinite wealth and yet our thinking is locked into the behavior of those living in scarcity. This leaves most of the passengers on spaceship Earth without. The black gold gushes out beyond measure awaiting the simplicity of questioners able to refine it into usefulness. In short, the pumping action begins with empowering the learner and citizen of this age to know a series of interlocking basic information skills, an empowerment that is significantly increased by fluent reading ability.

For educators, some pieces of this information literacy need addressing in every assignment and project at every age level. For adults, using the information pyramid strategically in the discovery and solution of problems becomes increasingly important as the rate of change in knowledge and culture increases. This composition has provided a novel model for addressing each of these steps, a pyramid design which is in turn part of the larger CROP problem processing model.

In short, those handling the knowledge pumps need to know:



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For more, explore this Google search, "effective Web searching".

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