Social bookmarking software helps students to generate resource lists
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First year students in History used the social bookmarking site del.icio.us to develop an online resource list for their weekly seminars over a semester in 2008. This has potential to develop students’ web-literacy and to allow staff to observe the reading which students have been doing outside of class.
General Description: what I did
I set up a del.icio.us site for the students and me to use. I guess that raises the initial question what is del.icio.us?
del.icio.us is a social bookmarking website – one of a number (e.g. Diigo, diggit). It allows users to add webpages to a list of favourites/ bookmarks. This list is then stored online and is accessible from any computer with an internet connection. This list can either be kept private or shared with the web. del.icio.us also allows users to ‘tag’ the chosen sites with keywords and to add descriptions. Importantly for my purposes, this can include articles behind sites which are normally password protected, such as JSTOR, provided they are accessed from a University computer. This meant that I could get the students to read and tag scholarly works as well as those available on the open web.
So, back to what I did…
• Each week, for homework the students were asked to choose three websites relating to that week’s topic. Initially I asked that they choose one primary source, one secondary source and one ‘other’ source (e.g. a podcast, a non-academic article)
• Having chosen these sites, the students were to provide a short description of the site and ‘tag’ the site with a number of descriptive keywords (including their names, the week to which the site pertained and type of source).
• I did the same each week.
• These resources were shared between the two groups which I was teaching.
• I also created a course blog, to which I asked the students to post a weekly question arising from their preparatory readings.
• I read the blog and del.icio.us site each week and used then as a basis for preparing the coming seminar – I hoped that this would mean I could make the seminars more relevant to the students’ interests and the independent work that they had been doing.
• Experimentation occurred around how best to integrate this into the classroom and the other activities in which the students were engaged.
Students: 20 - 10 students per class for two classes
Level: 1st year
This spring I was giving some seminars in the History Department on the first year course ‘Pagans, Christians and Heretics’. The students were doing work outside of class for assessed presentations and in preparation for the class discussion (general oral contributions in class were also assessed in this module).
I used the social bookmarking site del.icio.us to get the students to record their reading and generate a dynamic list of online resources for the course. In addition, I set up a blog on which I asked the students to post questions deriving from their reading in advance of each seminar. I’ve already talked about the blogging on the good practice blog (see below for link to the blog entry). These questions then formed the basis for the discussion in the subsequent seminar.
Why did I do this? There were two main reasons:
1. Being one of the Learning Development and Research Associates at CILASS I wanted to try to get the students to engage in some sort of inquiry-based learning activity but not to overload them, given the amount of other work they were doing. This is where the blog came in – if inquiry based learning is all about questions I thought it was a good idea to ask the students to pose some of their own questions rather than me deciding what we would be doing each week.
2. Over the years, I’ve been increasingly struck by the futility of simply forbidding the students from using the internet or making dire warnings about sites like Wikipedia. From my personal experience it simply isn’t realistic and doesn’t work very often. I thought that if I could get the students to record the reading that they were doing on the internet then I would have a better chance of modifying their behaviours and actually understanding what they were using the internet for. Also, in simple pragmatic terms, by getting the students to record and share what they were doing, their work was not totally lost in the digital ether – they could return to it in future, as could their fellow students. This would hopefully develop the students’ digital information literacy skills. This is where del.icio.us came in.
What problem or experience led you to develop this approach? A desire to move away from trying to scare the students off using the internet to understanding how and why they use it in the ways that they do and, ultimately, to figure out how we can modify this behaviour. I was also interested in investigating the uses of Web2.0 technologies in accomplishing this. So, it was personal curiosity really.
What preparation did you need? There were two main aspects to the preparation for these activities: 1. Initial setting up of the del.icio.us resource list and the Wordpress blog (now transferred to Blogger). 2. Writing resources giving the students guidance on how to use these two sites.
In addition, I sought some technical help and advice from Mark Morley (CiCS), who was on secondment to CILASS at the time.
How your development of this approach impact on your time? Given that this was the first time I had taught on this course, I don’t think that this took much more time (if at all) than that needed to prepare for a normal set of seminars. As I had to prepare in advance of the Thursday seminars each Wednesday evening there was a specific impact upon my time on that day. Hence, I didn’t see as much of the Champions League as I would have liked last year.
So, what’s next?
I’m in the process of thinking up some more varied activities for the students to do outside of class as I felt that asking them to engage in similar tasks each week got somewhat repetitive and may have reduced their enthusiasm as the weeks went by.
I think it is also important to make the link with classroom activities stronger, especially in the case of del.icio.us, for example by thinking up some tasks that integrate it more strongly with face-to-face sessions (instead of just using it as a resource list to which they can refer in discussions if they want). I hope that this would promote active engagement with the resource and the topic.
I also need to work to tie the blog and the resource list more closely together, again to increase the integration of the seminar course as a whole. For example, tags from entries on the blog could be uploaded to the del.icio.us site to create a resource list for the entire seminar series and not just for homework.
One note of caution – it is important to test the types of databases from which students might extract articles. If the web addresses are not secure/ permanent then the sites will not remain tagged in del.icio.us for long at all (a few minutes by some reports).
I think that the approach increased student engagement and preparation for the seminars. It also allowed me to make seminars more relevant to the work that the students had done outside of class, for example in the sources we looked at and the questions that we addressed in class.
Most of the students engaged with the del.icio.us site outside of class time, with 75% of students posting to the list. If we factor in those students who didn’t want to tag the entries with their names I think this is a good result for an unassessed activity. All of the students had to engage with the resource to some degree in class as certain activities made use of the resource list. On another level, it was also interesting to be able to chart what sort of reading the students were doing outside of class and what they thought of the websites that they were visiting. In addition, the students seemed to like it, as the comments below demonstrate.
I think this approach is transferrable across a range of disciplines and would be happy to talk to anyone who was interested in developing this further.
Feedback from students, colleagues and my own impressions of running the seminars suggest that this initiative successfully engaged students and encouraged them to work outside of class, although it needs to be developed further subsequently.
I have received positive feedback and useful suggestions for future development at events I have presented at inside and outside the University of Sheffield (links to the presentations are appended below). Librarians present at a Yorkshire Universities Information Skills Group Workshop at the University of Bradford in June were particularly interested in how such activities might be used for information literacy skills development.
Some student quotations Student 1. “The del.icio.us site, whilst I'm sure was very useful to some people, wasn't very useful for me. Even though there were lots of resources in one place online, I still preferred consulting the reading list in the course handbook to find reading for seminars/essays.”
Student 2. “The del.icio.us website was really useful, although sometimes it takes a little looking around to find really useful sources.”
Student 3. “The del.icio.us site was useful as a compilation of resources and to generate discussion about the use of primary materials.”
Student 4. “Del.icio.us: Helpful as it made sure I did some meaningful reading. Was helpful to go back to on my first essay. Obviously I couldn't use it for my second as it wasn't on a topic we'd covered. If I'm honest I didn't look at anyone else's entries generally as I found useful sites on my own that I used. But even if I haven't gone back to it much it was still helpful to have that incentive to do some reading
Student 5. “del.icio.us was a good way of doing reading, but wasn’t the easiest thing to get a hold of and could be improved somehow.”
Presentations and other stuff available for you to look at online:
1. Good practice week, May 2008: 
2. CILASS IBL Café, May 2008: 
3. Yorkshire Universities Information Skills Group Workshop, June 2008: 
4. Good practice blog entry on blogging and questioning, October 2008: 
To discuss this Case Study
Dr Jamie Wood, Learning Development and Research Associate, CILASS, firstname.lastname@example.org (0114 222 5276)