and teaching

Bill Thompson asked me to write a bit about how I used my to manage readings for ENG 480, the Computers and Writing course I taught in Fall 2005. So here’s a start.

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. 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, and moved a few things around, so that by using tag unions, I could easily display a week’s worth of readings. For example:

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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.

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10 Responses to and teaching

  1. senioritis says:

    Thanks so much for this account; I’m really going to have to think about these possibilities for my fall courses.

  2. John says:

    Yes, thank you. This is very cool and helpful.

  3. Daniel says:

    Nice to see this example of applying social software to teaching. Stepping away from old habits is such a challenge, for me. Was there any sense that students felt like they were wrestling with a whole new way of knowledge making, or was it more along the lines of convenient/cool way of researching? Also, did you find that the process was one in which students eventually took over the activity, doing most of the tagging? Did they do anything group related as well with tags?

  4. cbd says:

    More on the convenient and cool side, I think. Students didn’t do much tagging since it was my and not too many of them started their own accounts. (Is there a group version of Quite a few were skeptical, too, about setting aside classification; reaction to Clay Shirky’s “Ontology is Overrated” was very mixed. We’ll be working more with tagging in my New Media course this semester, when we do digital photography, and I’ll be interested to see what happens there.

  5. Daniel says:

    I’ve had somewhat of a mixed reaction to the Shirky as well. On one level, it feels like a fundamental epistemological shift is underway–at least that’s the feeling I get from Shirky, but then in practice the tagging sort of just feels like an extension of keywording/moving through information. I’ve been thinking about this with the categories options for drupal, wondering what value might come from asking students to make and then populate the categories, but I’m also just not sure I have a handle on the whole process.

  6. cbd says:

    Yeah, it’s not that different. But solves a problem I’ve had for a long time—keeping one repository of bookmarks, given that I work on quite a few different computers over the course of a day. This provides the exigence to actually use it all the time, and that adds the kind of value that students can extract when they look through my tags. It’s easy to use and lends itself to all kinds of integration with other things through its RSS feeds. So it is an extension, but a very profound one.

    One thing I should add: I’ve also thought about URLs I type in instead of pull up through bookmarks (and there are quite a lot of them). Should I spend the time to add these to my

  7. Chuck says:

    Thanks for bringing this cool webapp to my attention. I’ve been looking for something to round up all my loose bookmarks on various work and personal machines. This was just the ticket. The fact that it’s highly modular and programmable brings tears to my eyes.

    Now if only I can collect my tags into a sensible format and not into something that resembles my cd collection.

  8. Dean says:

    ENG 480 (G). That was first graduate class when I was studying for my first M.S. It was taught by Bruce Leland. How can I forget those Mickey and Minnie socks he wore?

    Glad to see the class still has interest. I learned a lot from the readings. I still have the link to the syllaweb.


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