My method revolved around the keywords approach used for the course. I designed 480 to be a study of the issues in computers and writing through key concepts like code, usability, images, and metadata. We spent a week on most concepts. Del.icio.us lends itself to this orientation, but it would work for courses which were more traditionally organized.
As I built the course, I tagged all the readings and resources I thought about using with “480”. I selected the keywords I was going to use for the course from my overall list of tags. I then divided the course into three large units by adding the tags “writing”, “community”, or “media”. As I narrowed down the readings, I added these tags to items in my del.icio.us, and moved a few things around, so that by using tag unions, I could easily display a week’s worth of readings. For example: http://del.icio.us/dilger/480+writing+code.
This created a matrix which could be used in several ways. In addition to the weekly tag units, students could see all the readings and things I thought were relevant to the course by browsing my “480” tag. To see the readings for the community unit, they would choose the tag union “480+community”. Students didn’t have to type out the URLs; they were clickable from the course schedule as well as from del.icio.us. But I showed them that they could tweak the URLs and get a smaller set of links to deal with.
But the large scale of del.icio.us is what made this interesting. Students could easily use find more links I’d bookmarked for a given topic, facilitating further reading which might be relevant to their semester project. And they could also see what all del.icio.us users had bookmarked for a given tag. Again, students could do this either by changing the URLs displayed in the course schedule or through the del.icio.us interface, and I showed them both methods. I think this method gave students a leg up on the age-old problem of “outside research” by putting some good “outside” stuff one click away. Further connections to outside research are possible by using the tags themselves as search queries in Google or specialized databases like the MLA Bibliography. I found that students frequently looked up a concept in Wikipedia to get a quick introduction to it or to see if anything related popped up.
It would be easy to manage required and recommended reading for a course by adding tags to that effect. I now use the “wrong” tags for things which I save in del.icio.us because I disagree with them; adding that would help students, too; since they’d know from an item’s tag which stuff I thought we should challenge. You do have to pay attention when browsing del.icio.us to see all the tags, but that’s a small price to pay for the added flexibility.
This method requires that you think about your tagging practices a bit. I had to modify and un-tag a few things to get weeks of readings to be exclusive, and once or twice as I added items to del.icio.us in my usual doings, I added an reading assignment to the course. (Not necessarily a bad thing, but you can bet the students noticed!) I am careful to use multiple tags instead of combinations. For example, I avoid tags like “web-accessibility” or “nyc-vacation” but use two tags instead. As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, tags don’t require that you decide if something should be in this or that folder; it can be in both places at once, so there’s nothing wrong with multiple tags. And as far as I can tell, del.icio.us doesn’t limit the number of tags used for a single item.
I also clean up my tags every now and then: in the course of making links, it’s easy, to end up with blogs and weblogs, comp and composition, or tech and technology. Short tags are fine, but consistency is a plus if you’re going to try something like this.