Instagrok and the Problem with Google Search for Students

April 29, 2013

11:00 am

According to a Pew Research survey from November, high school teachers believe that information online is overwhelming to students (83 percent), students are discouraged from using a wide range of sources (71 percent), and they have trouble finding credible information (60 percent).

Put another way, the problems with Internet research – and in most cases, that means Google – can be boiled down to quality, format, and purpose.

Quality. Although Google obviously filters out spammy websites, it doesn’t filter out those with a one-sided political perspective or a marketing agenda. Instagrok uses semantic algorithms to pick out the top 10 educational websites for your topic and display them on the right sidebar, along with key facts, videos, and images. A slider from basic to Einstein changes the complexity of the information, and the tool actually highlights any contradictions between websites.

education tools for students

“Instagrok’s really good when you know nothing about a topic and you want to learn a lot,” says president Andrew Bender.

Founder and CTO Kirill Kireyev has expertise in using algorithms to estimate the complexity of text, predict the vocabulary level of different-aged students, summarize texts, and classify web documents. He was inspired by his own learning experience: he grew up in Belarus, where it was frowned upon to learn things outside the textbook. When he moved to the United States, teachers started to encourage his curiosity – leading him all the way to a PhD in computer science and cognitive science.

Format. As Bender says, Google is intended to get you to your destination, the one webpage that has the answer you’re searching for. To consult multiple sites at once, you’ll have to open multiple tabs and click back and forth. To explore a related topic, you’ll have to start your search all over.

Instagrok creates a mind map with your central topic and related topics. You do have to open up tabs to consult different websites, but you can switch between topics easily by clicking on a different node.

Purpose. Finally, Google search is static: the point is to absorb information. But Instagrok makes learning active: you can grab facts, links, and images and pin them onto your mind map, creating a personalized record of the things you learned. For example, kids have created mind maps on topics as varied as poaching, freedom of speech, and Brazil. They can also test their knowledge with quiz questions.

In the $35-per-year teacher version, teachers can see what maps their students are creating and how they do on quizzes. Mind maps are called “groks” – a word that kids particularly love to say – and Instagrok has awarded “Grokstar awards” to avid learners.

While the current version is targeted at middle and high school students – and had over 300,000 visitors last month – Instagrok plans to expand its offerings for Internet researchers of all types. Bender hopes that people will someday turn to Google to look up facts, and Instagrok to explore new subjects. As he says, jokingly, “Let’s grock!”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact