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“This topic is impossible!”: Social Media as Research Panacea? (Part II)

In my previous post, I chronicled my own experience with using digital resources for research, note-taking, and writing, and how those experiences and my attitude toward those resources differed from my students’ interactions with similar tools. This post will hopefully offer more concrete ideas about ways to improve student research via various social media tools.

As I’m presently in the process of reconceptualizing and restructuring my courses for the upcoming school year, I’ve given a lot of thought about what specific tools and resources that I’ve gleaned from my PLN could be effectively integrated into my class and how those could help my students improve as researchers. While I’ve lobbied on behalf of Zotero in the past, I think a more immediately accessible and useful resource from the students’ perspective would be Diigo. Although both Zotero and Diigo enable people to share libraries and offer Cloud-based access to one’s notes and sources, I see Diigo as be more immediately structured in a social media-esque fashion that would be familiar to students who already know and use Facebook. Moreover, Diigo’s annotation feature would encourage students to avoid printing all potentially useful documents they encounter, and instead preview (and then hopefully read closely) those documents that are pertinent, annotating them as they went along — all through the web-browser.

However, perhaps the most exciting element of Diigo from my perspective, is the insight it will give me as a teacher into the students’ research process. Rather than having vague status-update conversations with students, where I’m typically assured that everything is “going well” (a response which, in its vagueness, I can neither confirm nor deny), I, by virtue of being connected to my students’ Diigo networks, would be able to look at their sources, and more importantly, their annotations for those sources, and give them specific feedback about their level of engagement and depth of research. Not only would this ability allow me to see what progress they’ve made on their research, but it will also help students develop a clearer sense of what constitutes valuable active reading and how one distinguishes salient, useful information from that which is less valuable.

Moreover, as I imagine that all students will be connected to one another’s Diigo networks, those working on related topics would be able to share ideas, sources, and insights about their progress. At present, I sense that each student perceives his or her research process to be a very isolated one that is disconnected from his or her peers. By employing a network where students could see the notes their peers have made about the sources they’re reading (though Diigo does offer a “private note” feature, which keeps one’s comments hidden from view by others) as well as those that might be potentially useful, the students will hopefully feel less disconnected and despondent about their progress when they hit a speed bump, and instead will look to their peers for guidance and insight.

Additionally, these collaborative ventures between students and their sources do not necessarily need to be face-to-face, but instead could occur entirely electronically (and, therefore, beyond the walls of the school) as students explored their peers’ sources, libraries, and annotations. Hopefully, students would be prompted to then ask their peers (via Twitter, Skype, TinyChat, or any other host of communications media) about why they chose the sources they did, how they might use them, and if they knew of other related sources that would help improve their final products. Ideally, incorporating these technological resources would help shift the dynamic of the research process away from being teacher-centric and help move it toward a dynamic whereby students understand themselves to be a part of, and a vital contributor, to a community of scholars. Having the ability to see the depth of his or her peers’ work, a student would hopefully be able to gague his or her level of engagement with a topic by comparing his or her range of sources and quantity and depth of notes. Presently, all this information is accessible to me only when students turn in work for a deadline (but not really at other times, unless I specifically ask, and then the responses tend to be like the one mentioned above); however, students do not have access to this information about their peers unless they specifically ask one another about these issues. Diigo, therefore, would allow me to check up on the students’ progress (at least the progress that’s visible through sources and notes) at times other than major deadlines and would allow students to individually gain a sense of how well they were doing in comparison to their peers — all via passive browsing of one another’s Diigo pages.

While I recognize that much of this summer-time classroom-quarterbacking (is that a logical equivalent to the “Monday Morning Quarterback”? Well, if not, I hope that this parenthetical aside has now clarified my botched analogy) seems Pollyannaish in its optimism, I haven’t neglected considering the potential downsides altogether. I imagine the first line of skeptical inquiry might have to do with the issue of plagiarism and whether or not encouraging students to look at one another’s notes constituted “cheating.” While the term “cheating” would, of course, need to be clearly defined, in this instance, I think that examining a peer’s Diigo library is not cheating, unless the active reading notes are copied verbatim or two students have an identical set sources. In those cases, the transparency of annotations makes catching blatant plagiarism and copying very easy, which I think would serve as a deterrent for students. Ultimately, providing access to one’s sources and the notes on those sources is a fairly close approximation of how footnotes function in scholarly publications. Therefore, sharing this type of information (e.g. insights into one’s research process and how one read and interpreted various sources) would give students an authentic sense of how scholars operate in terms of considering not only the information provided by a given source, but also how that author’s perspective, insights, and analysis shaped his or her argument.

The other concern, and perhaps the one that seems more valid, has to do with the effect that encouraging students to compare their work with one another will have on students of varying levels of sophistication — both intellectually and in terms of maturity. Certainly, a teacher does not want to create a situation where a student feels that he or she has been made out to be a negative example due to his or her lack of work or less-substantive annotations or something else similarly visible and easy for students to compare via Diigo. By the same token, a teacher does not want to make the more driven, hard-working students feel that their efforts are free for the taking by their less hard-working peers, which would lead those students to essentially feel that Diigo’s transparency had allowed their classmates to enjoy the fruits of their intellectual labor. However, I think that by contextualizing Diigo (and all other social media tools that a teacher incorporates into his or her class) as a tool that furthers the ethic of collaboration and reinforces the idea that the classroom is a place for collective learning, many of these problems can be avoided.

Pragmatically, the most obvious downside with Diigo in comparison to Zotero involves its lack of citation exporting — something that would be useful for students as they assemble their bibliographies for various research projects. However, perhaps once students begin to recognize how Diigo lacks this feature, and how they would very much like to have the ability to more easily generate citations and bibliographies, I can imagine that some students would begin experimenting with Zotero and incorporating it into their suite of research tools. By introducing them to Diigo first, I’ll hopefully get students to understand the value of reading and taking notes on sources online, which will make them comfortable doing research via this medium (something they already seem inclined to do) and encourage them to try new, and ever-more-sophisticated online resources in the future.

Well, once I have some actual students to test out these grand theories on and gather some empirical evidence about how they respond to Diigo (and other online tools) I’ll post a follow-up. In the meantime, I suppose, I’ll just keep game theorizing student behavior.

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11 thoughts on ““This topic is impossible!”: Social Media as Research Panacea? (Part II)

  1. Wow, thanks for this detailed post on the way you see Diigo working for your students. Looking forward, my favorite aspect of Diigo will be the “insight it will give me as a teacher into the students’ research process,” as you put it. See my Diigo sticky for more 🙂

  2. Nate says:

    Thanks for the RT and your own concise, insightful presentation, Russ (see: http://bit.ly/15wtc1). As your annotation mentioned, I’ve tried (without success, unsurprisingly) to check notecards to gauge student understanding and progress on research, but hope (and expect that) Diigo will be much more effective. I look forward to hearing about your experience with it this upcoming school year.

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  6. Nate, I totally get what you’re saying here and conceptually agree with everything you’ve said about the benefits. If students are more exposed to tools in HS then perhaps they wouldn’t be so anti-tool a few years later. Or at least that’s what I see — students either already think they know what they like/don’t like/want to use, not wanting to change to something else, not wanting to try at all, etc. But that’s me dwelling on the negatives. The positives for the students, if implemented at a good stage of their academic life, are numerous.

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