How Useful is that?! Making sense of information, together
Well, whatdya know?
When we search for and find information on the web, how do we decide what information is useful? From a researcher perspective, deciding how ‘successfully’ people have found information – whether through a search engine like google, an OER website like gooru, or a jobs portal, school site, or whatever is challenging. I think we should also be interested in how users conceptualise what they’re looking for – do they think there’s, “one answer” or many, do they think there are lots of bits of connecting information or are they more independent. Perhaps they have views on particularly authoritative websites (the BBC v. Wikipedia v. Yahoo Answers), or whether they should just take as a “given” what is said on websites, or that in order for them to have knowledge, they need to understand the information.This area of research is on “epistemic beliefs” – beliefs about the structure, source, justification for, and stability (over time and place) of knowledge.
It’s useful cuz: 1) I didn’t know it before 2) it has all the key information, 3) it has lots of information
In my research I got pupils to engage in information retrieval on ‘role model’ tasks – not tasks traditionally associated with epistemic belief research, which tends to focus on science information. The heading pretty well summarises the ways the groups talked about why information was useful for them:
- One of the groups emphasised the novelty of information to them
- The second placed some importance on the particular website (as an authority) and the presentation of ‘key’ facts – they made a judgement regarding the lack of use for some bits of information,
- The third was particularly interested in quantity, and in fact paid little attention to the site, flitting back and forth between fairly authoritative sites, and ‘answers’ style sites (which are much more unreliable than, say, Wikipedia).
So why is this useful to us?
I’m interested in this for a range of reasons, including just that I wanted to explore the best methods to probe this problem. But in a wider context, I think there is also something interesting in how we think about students trying to solve problems, particularly collaboratively. Collaborative work has some great potential – and I’ll talk about some of that soon – but it still needs appropriate scaffolding, especially to avoid the sort of “group think” issues which can lead otherwise rational individuals down “dark alleys” or dead-end thinking.
One interesting possibility in encouraging people to think in different ways – again, whether looking for holiday information, learning resources, or on the job hunt – is to explore how we can make use of collective intelligence. My PhD research is going to explore this issue a bit more.
People who have already sifted through online information to make sense of a subject can help strangers facing similar tasks without ever directly communicating with them, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research have demonstrated. (Article here)
The key thing here isn’t to do with delivering content – so it isn’t like Amazon’s “customers who bought x, also bought y” function, which is based on “collaborative filtering”. The key thing is helping people to think about how to organise knowledge in order to make sense of it. Moving from “lots of information” to “important information” and “this information links to that information”, and so on. So rather than losing the time people spend finding and making sense of information, we should be interested in using it to benefit others – looking for a particular job, for example, might start with a general idea of a field to work in, but it might end in a rich set of information (which could be organised into a map) regarding various sub-fields and related fields, and the qualifications or experience one would need for each. (see also this description of the research + video)
Making sense, together, effectively – what tools do we need?
Maps are probably one way we organise this data, the example below provides one way of making sense of a twitter network from OII (a slightly tenuous link).
Perhaps we should also think about the ways that people talk about problems, their dialogue surrounding what they think they need, and how they start to understand problems. Fundamentally though, by not sharing sensemaking effectively, we may deprive people of knowledge they’d find vital for various purposes; over my next few blogs I hope to talk about this a bit more, about the tools we might use to support shared sensemaking, and the ways in which collaboration might be important.
It’d be great to get comments as always, either in the comments below, or www.twitter.com/sjgknight