Monday, April 13, 2009

Sharing Information in a Socially Networked World: ENVS is Delicious!

With the cross-disciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies (ENVS) Program and the nature of the Web, students are at risk of drowning in a sea of resources: scholarly articles, NGO websites, government documents, spatial data, archival images. The average Google search will return a vast amount of information; how can our students successfully navigate this ocean? How can they build and comment on a common database of useful resources?

Since ENVS tries to stay on the bleeding edge of instructional technology, we sought to adopt a more distributed, “Web 2.0” approach to situated research that would allow students to a) pool resources together into an easily accessible repository and b) decentralize the process of adding, browsing, and commenting. After experimenting with a number of different frameworks, ENVS eventually settled on Delicious: a free application that employs tagged bookmarks to organize information.

A Delicious bookmark is much like the ones you’d find on your own browser: a web address (URL) that points to some resource found on the Web. The key advantage of Delicious is that the bookmarks reside outside any one particular computer (i.e., they’re stored on Delicious’ server); essentially, ENVS has created its own “virtual database” of resources viewable by anybody, anytime. A tag is merely a keyword assigned to and associated with a specific bookmark that describes some of its attributes. When a student finds an interesting resource on the Web, she can add it into the ENVS pool of common information by bookmarking and tagging it in our Delicious account, making it available to other students who might be interested in the same topic. She can also add brief notes about the resource as a help to others.

Let’s say that while performing some research on Ecuador – one of ENVS’ situated research sites – I come across a really cool website examining the phenomenon of ecotourism in the city of Cuenca that I’d like share with others as a resource. By bookmarking its URL in the ENVS Delicious account, adding the tags “Ecuador,” “economy,” “landuse,” and “policy,” and creating a short note describing the resource, I can add this website into ENVS’ common pool of information. Later, a subsequent student doing research on same topic can go to the ENVS Delicious account and run a query using the keywords “Ecuador” and “policy.” My website will come up as a relevant resource; knowledge has been shared!

After checking out this particular website, let's then say that our hypothetical student decides it’s not as germane to her own research project as she originally thought; she could then choose to enter a short comment into the Delicious record noting that the resource focuses exclusively on, say, theoretical arguments and lacks any discussion on indigenous responses to ecotourism, her specific topic of interest. Now let's say that the following semester, a third student finds this particular resource on Delicious and notes the comments others have left. VoilĂ : information has been shared and annotated by numerous students over multiple semesters. Students no longer need to individually “reinvent the wheel” and start from scratch when doing research, but rather are able to stand on the shoulders of their peers. Knowledge has become social!

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