Leveraging Student Interests through Social Bookmarking

Back in 2012, I wrote a few posts for the CIRTL Network on teaching with technology. Some of the technologies mentioned have changed since then, but the teaching and learning ideas are still sound, so I’m re-posting them here on the blog this week. Let me know if you find the posts useful!

bookmarks galoreA couple of years ago, I was fortunate to teach a 15-student, first-year writing seminar on cryptography, the study of codes, ciphers, and other methods of secret communication.  One of the great things about this course is that students are attracted to it for many different reasons.  Some like the puzzle-solving component, others like the abstract math (of a kind they don’t see in calculus), and others like the espionage and intrigue.  I had a couple of computer geeks who took the course because of its connection to modern information security.  And I had another student who was a Sherlock Holmes buff and loved the use of cryptography in literature.

Since there was no way I could “cover” all these angles of the topic myself, I included a social bookmarking assignment in the course.  I asked each student to find and bookmark ten interesting and relevant websites, news articles, or other resources to share with the class, tagging each find with the keyword “fywscrypto.”  (Here, “fyws” stands for first-year writing seminar.)  Doing so contributed to their class participation grades, which provided one source of motivation for my students.  Another was that I made sure to spend at least ten minutes each week sharing their finds during class on the big screen.  On a couple of occasions, students found such interesting resources that we ended up spending half the class session talking about them!  By integrating the social bookmarking assignment into class discussions, I kept it from feeling like some out-of-class “busy work.”

I knew that most of my students were new to social bookmarking and that they probably didn’t want yet another website they needed to monitor as part of their coursework.  So I took the feed generated by the “fywscrypto” tag and embedded it in my course blog and Facebook page.  This way they didn’t need to go out of their way to see what their peers were bookmarking, and for the student who “liked” the course Facebook page, the bookmarks might actually show up in their news feeds, helping to integrate this academic activity a bit more with the rest of their lives.

The next semester I taught a different course, a 70-student statistics course for engineering majors.  Whereas students in the cryptography course had opted in for that seminar, my statistics students were taking the course as a requirement for their majors.  This meant that few of them brought to the course any intrinsic interest in statistics.  Although this was a very different course, I thought that social bookmarking could play a useful role here, too.  I wanted my students to start to see connections between the somewhat abstract course material and the rest of the world, so I asked them to seek out those examples of those connections and share them with each other.

As with the cryptography course, social bookmarking contributed to the students’ class participation grades, but I this time around, I didn’t think I would have much success by asking students to chip in ten bookmarks each over the course of the semester.  I decided that they would need a bit more structure for their social bookmarking, so I gave them an assignment every week or two.  Their first assignment was to find and bookmark an example of data visualization of some kind.  Their second assignment was to look through the bookmarks from the first assignment and comment on one with a few questions that the particular data visualization led them to ask.  This second assignment was my way of encouraging students not only to bookmark their own finds, but also to learn from their peers’ bookmarks.  Later assignments asked for examples of probability in the news, statistics used in an engineering context, and well-designed infographics.

A quick word about platforms: For the cryptography course, I used Delicious as our course social bookmarking tools.  When the ownership of Delicious changed hands, I looked into Diigo as an alternate platform.  Diigo’s group tools looked very strong, so I used Diigo as the platform for the statistics course.  Actually, I gave students the choice between using Diigo and Pinterest for that course, since I wanted to see how Pinterest worked as an academic social bookmarking platform.  (Pinterest may have reputation for being full of photos of wedding dresses and craft projects, but it’s really a social bookmarking tool at its heart.)  If you’re interested in comparing these three platforms, see my blog posts on moving from Delicious to Diigo and on student perceptions of Diigo and Pinterest.

I’ll admit that in the statistics course, social bookmarking wasn’t the smash hit that it had been in the cryptography course.  Students did the assignments, but very few of them went above and beyond like the cryptography students who bookmarked more than the required number of resources.  The stats bookmarks were, on the whole, a little less interesting than the cryptography bookmarks.  And, in spite of spending class time showing selected bookmarks on the big screen and telling the students that their bookmarks might serve as fodder for their end-of-semester application projects, several students indicated on the course evaluations that the social bookmarking assignments weren’t useful.  The lack of interest in statistics was the real culprit here, of course, but next time I teach this course, I’ll be sure to integrate the social bookmarking assignments more explicitly with other course components.

I’m teaching the cryptography seminar again this fall, and I expect social bookmarking to be a healthy component of the course again.  I’m planning to take a page from my stats course playbook and give students weekly, focused social bookmarking assignments.  My bet is that with these 15 well-motivated students, they’ll jump right in and share resources that will really enhance the learning experience for the whole class—including me.

Social bookmarking is an example of a set of teaching practices sometimes called “social pedagogies.”  These are practices in which students construct knowledge by representing that knowledge for authentic audiences.  The instructor is rarely an authentic audience for student work—the fact that we make the assignments and dole out the grades means that we’re an important audience, but not a particularly authentic one.  Students can serve as each other’s authentic audience, however.  And when students have such an authentic audience for their work, they often do much better work.  Moreover, social bookmarking in a course setting helps students see that they are part of a real learning community, one in which everyone (not just the instructor) has useful ideas and perspectives to share. I want my courses to be learning communities, and I’m glad to have social bookmarking tools that help me create those communities.

Image: “bookmarks galore,” FlickrJunkie, Flickr (CC)

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