Leveraging Student Interests through Social Bookmarking

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)


Using with other class sites

This seems like such an amazing idea. With a 100-level class on evolution and extinction, there are a million and one things I would love to tell my students about but will never get the chance to. I love the idea of being able to let them decide on what makes a good site.

My one concern before I jump straight into this (which I am likely to do since I am getting all excited planning for the semester), is it's connectiveness to other site platforms. You mention Facebook and a blog, but I am currently still working with systems through our university- mainly Desire2Learn- and testing out expanding on the class using Piazza. From what I can tell, after a cursory look through course pages on both sites, there does not seem to be an easy way to add such a social bookmarking component to my class. Now, especially because I am simply a TA and do not have power over the direction of the course, I am wary of trying to add separate sites to my already compiling list of links for my students (2 is just terrifying, I cannot imagine what 3 would do). Any suggestions on this point? I am planning to go back and read up on Delicious, Pinterest, and Diigo through your links, but figured I could throw a question out there first.

Glad this sounds interesting,

Glad this sounds interesting, Deborah. I don't know D2L, but it's possible that it has a social bookmarking tool of some kind built in. My guess is that it would be as useful as Diigo, but it might do the trick. Or you might be able to pipe the RSS feed from Diigo into D2L. That woud make it easy for students to see each other's bookmarks, but they would still need to use (and learn to use) Diigo to save bookmarks. So perhaps that doesn't solve your quandary.

When I gave my stats students the choice of using Pinterest or Diigo, I did so for two reasons. One was that Pinterest is visually superior to Diigo, and I knew we were going to be bookmarking data visualizations during the course. The other reason (and the one more relevant to your question) was that I figured at least some of my students were already using Pinterest, so they could participate without needing to learn a new platform. That's one criterion you could use for platform selection: What's something that many of your students already know how to use?  A Facebook page isn't as robust a social bookmarking platform as Diigo is, but it might be one that your students could start using quickly and easily.

By the way, I wouldn't recommend giving students a choice for social bookmarking platforms. I'm glad I did so as an experiment, but I think there's more value in having them all save bookmarks in the same place, even if that means some of them have to learn a new platform.

I hope these thoughts are helpful! Let us know what you end up doing this fall.

Creating a learning community and learning through diversity

When I really try to use a constructivist learning approach in the classroom, there is a challenge that while the students are constructing their own understanding,  the instructor is still there and presumed to be holding "the answers."  This use of a social bookmarking tool can blur the distinction between instructor and student--everyone has more comparable contributions to make that are unfamiliar to the others and are based in their knowledge, experience and expertise.  In this way the dynamic could shift a bit from 'class and instructor' to a learning community. 

It also strikes me that explicitly encouraging students to find and bookmark examples that illustrate the assignment but from sites or on in contexts that are familiar or of interest to them, it can also make space to truly use the diversity of the classroom to enhance discussion.  When discussing various sites in class, it seems that doing so with an eye to the diversity in voices or perspectives might be a powerful way to go beyond creating an inclusive classroom to using the classroom diversity to enhance learning.

Really great points, Robin!

Really great points, Robin! In that cryptography class where students came to the subject with many different interests, those interests were manifested in the bookmarks they shared. The would-be computer hackers shared links about data security, the history buffs shared stories about cryptography use in past wars, and the Sherlock Holmes fan found some great examples of codes and ciphers in literature. Each student had a particular angle on the topic, and social bookmarking helped make their interests and expertise visible to the learning community.

Truly Learning through Diversity

Ok I think this is really cool because often people struggle with how to really create learning experiences that embody the CIRTL Learning-through-Diversity (LtD) core idea.  People want specific examples of classroom practices that leverage diverse experiences to enrich learning for all.  While LtD might not have been the point of using social bookmarking in your class, all the more powerful if it did so.