when the library comes to you

At the beginning of each school year, when I send my college students off to seek information to support their argument position essays, I include an exercise that puts them in the library. I’m always amazed at how many of them not only have not been in the library, but how many don’t even know how to get to it! I suppose I’m biased, as I was was always more interested in the library than the classroom.

Having said that, I’ll admit that the library is not the first place I go for current information, looking for support on the topics of our argument papers. However, merely conducting a Google search is not the answer, as the results are likely to be unfocused at best and overwhelming at worst. And while Wikipedia is great for an introduction to a topic, it’s much too thin for an in-depth investigation, and can’t be used as a reference anyway.

Lately I’ve become entranced with Google Alerts. When handing out your syllabus at the beginning of a semester, require your students to sign up for Google Alerts on each of the writing topics.

For instance, suppose you are writing on the topic of the FISA bill, the president’s desire for warrantless spying to combat terrorism vs. Constitutional rights to privacy. I instructed Google Alerts to inform me whenever there is a news article on the topic. Once a day, the relevant article links are delivered to my email. In a little over a week, I’ve received over 200 relevant links. By simply scrolling through the titles and accompanying excerpts, I can see which will be most useful, and which sources most credible.

Think about this. I’ve made no time-consuming trips to the library, maneuvering through traffic and parking or inclement weather. I haven’t spent endless hours searching through the library’s limited collection of newspapers or magazines. Nor have I invested all the change in my wallet for making copies.

What did I do? I went to bed. And the next morning the research I needed was collected in my email. Or, through text messages. Or, in a gadget on my Google homepage.

I still send my students to the bricks-and-mortar library. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that oftentimes they have a few things to teach me.

More on essays, research, and tools

input facilitates output

annotating the web

wikis unwrapped


annotating the web

Reader lhuff from Justread opens a dialog regarding tools students can use to place comments on web pages or their own work, much like we do when we handwrite notes next to text in books or on papers. There are two digital annotators that I highly recommend for classroom instruction: Diigo and Scrapbook.

The most useful tech tools for the classroom are those that have use in the analog world, and can be extended to the digital. One of my most popular tips for taking notes from textbooks relies on those extremely handy ‘sticky notes’, tiny pieces of paper in various shapes and colors which stick temporarily to a page. Many college students refuse to write or even highlight in expensive textbooks so they can sell the books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Of course, k-12 students are not allowed to write in books at all. I advise my students to stock up on sticky pads with a large enough surface to write short notes to themselves. The purpose of this note-taking is not to rewrite what the book says, but to paraphrase and add a brief comment, then place the sticky on the page where the annotation belongs. When they later refer to the notes while preparing to write an essay or report, the first pre-write is there in front of them on the sticky notes.

Today, however, much of the ‘text’ comes from the web, and more and more student essays are written and captured digitally. Diigo and Scrapbook are digital sticky pads, two tools with extensive capability to comment and annotate the web.

Diigo is a research tool on steroids. You can write comments in the margins and place moveable sticky notes on any web page, or highlight useful quotes. Diigo collects the pages and your notes, saving them for you to reference at any time. As the teacher, you might collect a set of annotated web pages for a project to present to your class. Diigo allows you to set up your annotated pages as a slideshow. Maybe you have divided the class into research teams. Give each team a Diigo account, and let them set up the permissions for editing and viewing by you and the rest of the class members. I have even used Diigo on published Google Documents, something you might want to consider as you read drafts of your students’ writing [Google Docs does have its own very limited comment feature]. Students can use Diigo comments and notes to assess each other’s writing.

The Diigo creators are highly motivated, constantly updating and innovating this powerful tool. A possible drawback to using it is that you’ll have to download a Diigo toolbar to each PC the students use. If you only access computers through a school lab, you may need to convince the tech people that this is a worthwhile download. The fact that it is free may help.

Another free tool is Scrapbook, whose primary usefulness may be for the teacher, as its captured pages are not accessible for web viewing. Scrapbook is a free extension to the Firefox browser. [Most school computers I’ve seen use Internet Explorer, not Firefox, though that should change as Firefox becomes better known.] Scrapbook is first and foremost a page-capture tool. Say you find a web page that you want to present to your students. You capture the page–or any portion of the page–by right-clicking. Are there ads on the page you’d prefer to delete? Scrapbook provides an eraser tool that allows you to do just that. You can highlight text and type comments in-line with the text. My favorite feature, though, is the moveable sticky note. While Scrapbook doesn’t have a slideshow option, I have used the captured pages in a similar fashion. Utilizing the tabs in the Firefox browser, I place captured pages on sequentially-tabbed screens, and simply flip from one to the other using the overhead projector in my classroom. Scrapbook comes in handy especially when your room doesn’t have internet access, since you can use your browser without connection. Even when the web is accessible, sometimes the school’s server is so slow that it takes forever to load websites. Using Scrapbook-captures on the browser tabs is an efficient way to present web pages.

Even as amazing as these tools are, I think we’re just seeing the beginning of web-annotation development. As web 2.0 morphs into education 2.0, the web becomes the textbook, and we will leave our marks all over it.

argument in the driver’s seat

When I taught a year of high school, I had my tenth graders write an argument essay about whether or not driving while talking on cell phones should be banned. We researched the topic, discussed our findings, held a classroom debate, and wrote the essay. It was a great assignment because the topic was something they cared deeply about, considering that most of them were close to getting their driver’s license.

For the debate, I made them memorize some of the facts and statistics from the research, so that their responses wouldn’t devolve into unsupported nonsense. It made a big difference, and I was impressed by their articulation backed by passion. By the time we held the debate, most students agreed that cell phones should be banned while driving, so I had to divide the class evenly to take each side. There was grumbling from those who couldn’t support their particular stand, but they all did a remarkable job defending the assigned positions. Even after the bell rang, I heard them out in the hallway pontificating.

One of the arguments in favor of talking on a cell phone while driving was that it was no different than talking to a passenger. I wish I had had the benefit of this study showing that not to be the case.

research on a budget

If you have access to journal articles through your university when attempting to do research, great. But if you don’t have university affiliation, and you still want to do great research, you need to be aware that there are many viable resources. Write to Done, an indispensable writer’s blog, provides wonderful information about open source journals and uncommon sources readily accessible. This is great stuff.