A group project for school. Planning a family vacation. Researching information about a parent just diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Co-authoring a scholarly article. They’re all situations where people have to work together to find and synthesize information — otherwise known as collaborative information seeking — the principle research area of LIS Assistant Professor Chirag Shah, Ph.D.
He wants to know, in a Web 2.0 environment, how can people collaborate more easily and effectively? To forward his research, Amazon has given Dr. Shah an “Education Research Grant Award,” which recognizes his work with big data and social media. It includes support and services that will allow him to use Amazon’s cloud processing and storage for his research projects that require large-scale data collection and processing.
In the past three years since joining SC&I, Dr. Shah has been prolific on the subject, presenting workshops at three conference and publishing a book last summer, “Collaborative Information Seeking: The Art and Science of Making the Whole Greater than the Sum of All.” In addition, he was awarded an IMLS grant to fund research in this area, as well as an NSF grant to study collaboration in social media research.
In studying the behavior of how people collaborate online, Dr. Shah noted that many people use tools available to them, such as Microsoft Word documents, Google Docs and email. “While those serve the purpose, we want to explore solutions and tools that are not only designed to support collaboration, but also encourage it,” said Dr. Shah.
“In education specifically, collaboration is an important skill for students to have, but it’s often not clear how to encourage that,” he added. “For example, in group projects, one student often ends up taking the lead and doing most of the work.”
To that end, Dr. Shah conducted a study at a high school to deploy collaboration tools. Whether students were in the same space or working remotely, they had a tool accessed through their browser that allowed them to chat, research and write the report together. He says that students loved it, and teachers did too because it allowed them to monitor the collaboration.
“It was an ‘aha’ moment for teachers. They were able to see who was working, who was stuck or who was going in the wrong direction, and they could intervene at critical moments instead of finding out at the end of the project. It ended up being very useful to them,” he said.
While Dr. Shah is approaching collaborative information seeking from a library science and communication perspective, he notes that the issue is interdisciplinary, and it has spurred him toward future projects that approach it from different perspectives.
“One of the things we recognized in the last workshop is that this issue is very interdisciplinary and people working on it come from computer science, communication and library science. Each perspective and different things they can contribute, and we need all of it,” he said.
To further explore the interdisciplinary perspective of collaborative information seeking, Dr. Shah is putting together a proposal for a new book that he will edit, with chapters from researchers from diverse groups and fields. He also is guest editing an issue of IEEE Computer magazine (March 2014 issue) to continue driving the interdisciplinary approach.