Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Information seeking, teachers and what a digital repository could offer?

In context of digital learning repositories we often times offer users a few ways to search learning resources without thinking much of why and for what purpose they would be using the repository.

Too many times repositories are developed with a glorious idea "if we build it, they will come". But to start with, do we really ask teachers whether they need a repository for digital learning resources?

Building a repository or a federation of them without asking this "raison d'être" is like creating a product to sell without a need or demand for it. That happens often, without doubt, but with the difference that there is a big marketing budget to create the need. Thus, teachers are stuck with bad looking search interfaces that hide potentially interesting technology without any needs and desires to use it.

To backtrack a bit, one should look at what teachers are doing in their work and how they are doing it. Ok, they teach, right. They have a goal, usually laid out in a curriculum, that they are set out to fulfill. They might have different requirements for the material to use; in some countries teachers have more freedom on choosing educational material than in others. To facilitate their job, teachers like to use the material that they are comfortable with and know well. They might use ready-made lesson plans by school book publishers or prefer to create their own material from bits and pieces.

Moreover, there are the routines to save time and efforts - information seeking, like learning, is a fundamental and high level cognitive process (Marchionini, 1995). People like to resort to something that they know does the job. Teachers are social animals, too, maybe a few hints from a colleague will settle a teacher for the day's task. Thus, the needs are rather contextualised (the given age, curriculum) and socially supported (accepted and negotiated educational practices, hints from colleague teachers,.. ).

Where does the digital learning material stand in this picture and how do teachers see the need for using a repository to better do their teaching? On the long term we are interested in looking at teachers' tasks in their teaching and see how digital learning resources repositories could better support teachers in their daily quest to make the learners better learners. Two main areas are concerned, namely information seeking and social information retrieval. We will argue that digital repositories should do more to offer social and contextual support for teachers and learners to discover relevant resources from a repository. But this blab is about looking into information seeking and the review on existing literature.

Information seeking, teachers and what a digital repository could offer?

When we think of a teacher preparing for a new lesson, we can think that it is part of larger information seeking behaviour, which is contextually driven, i.e. there is the national or regional curriculum, its topics, goals and learning activities to fulfill. The current information seeking research defines information seeking as a conscious effort to acquire information in response to a need or gap in your knowledge (Case, 2002).

For a teacher there is a diversity of support material available to fulfill the task, some of it being paper-based teaching material, some digital and others might relay on human resources. A teacher might also address a digital learning repository for the purpose of finding suitable digital learning resources. This teacher might already know exactly what he is looking for, a piece of material that he has seen before, or he might look for some motivational piece of information or some assessment material, for example.

However, often times digital repositories are not well prepared to serve different individual tasks that teachers might have at hand when they come to a repository. For that reason, more job-level analyses would be needed to look into individual tasks that teachers are to perform when they are using a learning resources repository. In general, the repositories have very little observation on patterns across tasks and contexts. So we ask, what are those general patterns that we can find across tasks that teachers are set out to perform at a digital repository?

Moreover, information seeking, in some cases, can be a social activity. Wilson (2005), for example claims that more information is communicated by word of mouth than is ever retrieved from databases. Many other researchers in the field of information seeking talk about its social layer. Hargittai & Hinnant (2006), who lay out a social framework for information seeking, argue that an “important factor influencing users’ information-seeking behavior concerns the availability of social support networks to help address users’ needs and interests. People’s information behavior does not happen in isolation of others.“

Thus, when we are looking into teachers information seeking tasks at the learning repository, it becomes important to think of the support for such social networks to tap onto. We can think of these networks in two different ways, as human resources themselves (such as getting in touch with an expert in a given field, etc) or as secondary support to help the teacher to find the suitable resource for the lesson. Or, like Peter Morville (2004) says; We use people to find content. We use content to find people. Information seeking behavior and social network analysis go hand in hand.

Information seeking ranges from forming question to gathering, synthesising and using information. It is usually cyclic and iterative process from seeking to gathering, refining questions, to evaluating and synthesising information to using it. A holistic view of information seeking process comes near to ideas of inquiry learning, both emphasising an iterative question-driven process of finding, managing and evaluating information. (Lallimo, et al. 2004).

Moreover, Kuhlthau (Wilson, 2004) also talks about search process in similar terms as educationalists, introducing the notion of the 'Zone of Intervention', similar to Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), where the learner, when engaging in collaborative problem-solving with a guidance of an adult or more experienced student, can reach better level than without. Kuhlthau talks about five intervention zones, in some of which the advancement is dependent of collaborating with others, such as the librarian providing the quick reference or someone helping discovering potentially useful information resources.

We should further investigate how these zones of interventions could be supported in a digital learning repository when a teacher is looking for learning resources, or when a learner is there with his own information seeking intention to attain a task. We are interested in looking into supporting users in different ways, by designing better tools and interfaces, but also to build in support from fellow users.

This support could appear in different ways, such as "leaving traces" of information seeking patterns by other users or by creating social connections between users where they did not previously exist. The following can be envisaged: leveraging the previous search histories of other users; tapping into similarities in interest displayed by bookmarking action; looking into subjective relevance judgements such as annotations, tagging and end-user evaluations and ratings. Moverover, the use of existing social networks (such as expressed by using FOAF or FXML) should be supported, but more importantly, also the emerging ones, that could be detected by using social network analysis should be investigated.


Case, D.O. (2002). Looking for informaiton: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs and Behavior, San Diego: Academic Press.

Hargittai, E. and Hinnant, A. (2006). Toward a Social Framework for Information Seeking. In New Directions in Human Information Behavior by Amanda Spink and Charles Cole.

Järvelin, K., Ingwersen, P. (2004). Information seeking research needs extension towards tasks and technology. Information Research, 10(1) paper 212 [Available at 1/paper212.html]

Lallimo, J., Lakkala, M. and Paavola, S. (2004) How to Promote Students' Information Seeking? ERNIST Answers archive, European Schoolnet.

Marchionini, G. (1995). Information Seeking in Electronic Environments, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Morville, P. (2004). Ambient Findability.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, T.D. (2004) Review of: Kuhlthau, C.C. Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and information services. 2nd. ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Information Research, 9(3), review no. R129 [Available at:]

Wilson, T.D. (2005). Review of: Ingwersen, P. and Järvelin, K. The turn: integration of information seeking and retrieval in context. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2005. Information Research, 11(1), review no. R189 [Available at:]

Links to other things I'm reading about the topic:

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