So, in the end the Zotero assignment worked very well on the Zotero side, and less well on the information literacy side. So I’m spending this week revising it and designing some new activities. A few quick takeaways:
The assignment was trying to do too much. It was the main way to assess:
- Students’ ability to recognize different source types and explain where the fit into the scholarly process.
- Students’ ability to track down those different source types.
- Students’ understanding of what the scholarly and creative output of their department (and by extension the scope of intellectual activity within their discipline).
- Students’ ability to use research tools to organize and manage their sources.
Way too much. Illustrated mainly by the fact that there were a few students to managed to do all of those things in their work. That made it very clear what others were missing and made me want to figure out a way for all students to be able to get to where the few did in this class.
So here’s the thing – the first two outcomes up there were the problem, not the technology or logistics of syncing libraries and the like. The bibliography project should really be about the 3rd and 4th outcomes. The collaborative nature of the bibliography (and ability to see the breadth of what our faculty produces) was lost on students who had to work to hard to meet all of the format requirements that were in place to measure the first two outcomes. All of the format requirements I put in to meet the first two outcomes took away from the authenticity of the experience, and of the evaluation and contextualization I had hoped the students would be able to do.
So this term, I am planning to get at those first two outcomes in different ways, and then make some changes to the bibliography assignment:
- drop the number of sources required in the annotated bibliography from 5 to 3.
- increase the emphasis on evaluation (and multiple methods of evaluation) in the annotations.
- change the workflow a bit – have students create a broad, pre-evaluated body of resources in a personal library and then have them select their 3 sources from that larger pool, annotate them and add them to the collaborative bibliography.
- build in a required conference so that I talk directly to each student about the process fairly early on.
- drop the format requirements altogether and allow students to add any 3 resources they want (while increasing their responsibility to justify those choices in multiple ways in their annotations).
- push the due date for the sources up a week, add a week between the final sources due date and the final reflection due date, and target and focus the scope final reflection essay significantly.
(Big hat tip to my students. Many of these changes were also articulated by them when I asked them to help – in some cases their input was what really allowed me to put my finger on the problems).
What about the tech?
In the end, syncing did cause problems for a few, and Zotero hurdles did cause problems for a few. Students who were, for whatever reason, not able to spend a focused amount of time at some point earlier in the term learning the mechanics of Zotero found it very challenging to manage finding sources and figuring out Zotero in the context of a last-minute scramble.
I had thought that my students would have to do the bulk of their Zotero work at home because of having to re-download and sync Zotero every time in the classroom. MY Zotero library was still very difficult to sync in the classroom (I assume the hugeness is a factor) but the students rarely had to wait for more than 2-3 minutes. Clearly, I can and should rely a lot more on classroom time as a place where students can be working with Zotero.
Most students were very positive about Zotero. A few found it cumbersome. There was a clear pattern though that I found interesting, but troubling in that there is nothing I can do with it. The pattern was this — those students who had reason to use Zotero for real, for a real research project, during the term were much, much clearer in their evaluation of its value. And by extension, I believe that they are the ones most likely to keep using it.
My class is a 1-credit class. I can’t assign an authentic student-y scholarly research project that would take that little work. But whether or not they have reason to use it in another class is nothing I can control. It’s troubling because it points to a deeper issue about this class’ place within the major – issues we all know about but aren’t sure how to fix.