Professor Chuck Robertson, PhD, often experiments with new technological tools in the classroom. For instance, Robertson communicates with his students through blogs and instant messaging and encourages them to use RSS feeds ("Really Simple Syndication," — a way to keep track of blog posts without checking Web sites every day).
While some of Robertson's teaching experiments fall flat-such as online tests and quizzes-the professor says that his recent use of a new Web tool known as social bookmarking is proving to be popular and educational.
Social bookmarking allows users to save Web sites, much as Internet users might save personal favorites on their Web browser for easy recall later. However, with a program that piggybacks onto Web browsers, users can "tag" sites with categories or keywords and share their collections with others. For example, in the case of Robertson's Learning and Cognition class, students are instructed to tag Web sites they wish to share with "cog3310." Anyone can then access the list of Web sites tagged with this term, allowing every student, as well as Robertson, to view the shared sites.
In Robertson's class, students find links for each of the topics they discuss in class. They do so using one of the most popular social bookmarking services, del.icio.us, which Robertson recommends because it is free and easy to teach to new users, although some users might prefer other software such as Simpy or Furl. The students then attach comments to the links, critiquing the Web sites' usefulness.
Students can apply additional tags to a Web site to subcategorize one of the "cog3310" articles with labels such as "brain" or "memory". That enables all del.icio.us users to look at all of the pages on a given topic and use them to study for exams. The students also comment on the content and value of each page.
"We take the general collection of knowledge available [online] and filter it through a group of people who are only sharing things of quality," Robertson explains.
Students' work on this project makes up 15 percent of their total course grade. They find at least two Web sites for each textbook chapter Robertson reviews during his lecture. He then grades the students based on their reasons for tagging the pages and the comments they make on other pages, which demonstrate their understanding of the material.
While few of his students have previous experience with social bookmarking, they catch on quickly, says Robertson. Once they grasp the basics, the students turn the often lengthy and imprecise results returned by common search engines into a manageable set of educational articles, he notes.
The articles Robertson's class has found have been useful not just to the students but to Robertson himself, who has found information online that he probably would have otherwise missed.
"There would be almost no way as a teacher to keep up with so many Web links," he says. "It would be impossible to stay on top of it all."
Despite the benefits of bookmarking, the practice has not become widespread yet, says Robertson. However, that may be changing: After sharing his new teaching tool at APA's 2007 Annual Convention, Robertson spoke with several professors who wanted to try it with their students. By combining forces and classes, they may begin to create an unprecedented league of indexers, working to comb the Internet for resources on learning and cognition.
"The more researchers and students collaborating, the easier it will be to look at all of the information available," Robertson says.