Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Redesigning the Research Assignment

On my way to parent's weekend at my son's college, I pulled into a cute little town around noontime, and discovered the best homestyle cooking. I used a proven research technique for quickly finding a good restaurant in a new town; I asked a couple experts at the gas station on the corner. Both times I got the same answer. When I drove in I noticed a long line and thought "hmm that's a good sign".

Social bookmarking tools such as and Furl allow students to use the same ‘proven’ techniques for their research assignments while also allowing teachers to redesign research assignments requiring higher levels of critical thinking (high on the list of 21st century skills) Instead of searching the “whole web” to find websites that contain “statistics about teens and alcohol”, searching FURL or brings you to a list of websites other users found worth bookmarking about the topic. Does that guarantee that a site that’s been bookmarked by 944 other users contains the information you’re looking for? Not anymore than the long line out the restaurant door guarantees a prime dining experience; but I’d be willing to bet that “people’s choice” provide me more useful results more often than “search engine optimization” results for many research projects.

I can almost hear the MOANS… great, not only do my students have an easier time plagiarizing because of the WWW, but now someone else can do their research for them? But wait, working smarter might be the “hook’ to engage your students into using these tools, but the REAL reason I’d advocate using social bookmarking tools is that they allow teachers to redesign assignments in ways that require higher critical thinking skills.

Following the advice of Alan November that teachers redesign the assignment, Vermont middle school teachers, Melissa Haberman and Deb McCarthy, have redesigned the research phase leading to their students creating of public service announcements on Teen Issues. By using “cut and paste” and the “notes” feature of along with the ability to TAG, these middle school students are totally engaged by the ability to work ‘smarter’ and skip some of the tedium associated with traditional research methods. Meanwhile, teachers are clicking on the ‘tags’ with the students name and reading the “notes” sections to assess their students’ critical thinking skills in being able to include relevant data from each bookmarked websites that answers the “guiding question”. One student came back to class the next day and said “I installed at home last night; is it okay if I use it for other things besides this project, like can I bookmark websites about “puppies”. Thumbs up to these teachers for engaging their students with technology tools that require higher critical thinking skills; thumbs up to the students for transferring the skills to life outside the classroom.

Athough ‘redesigning research” is one potential use of social bookmarking sites, the potential uses to these tool in education increases as each adds new features. (The Social Bookmarking FaceOff post on Read/Write/Web) Although I was surprised, that this review did not mention one of my favorite features of FURL as a research tool (the ability to export a selected list of sites in APA or MLA format). Do I hear another MOAN…”you mean my students don’t have to suffer through correctly punctuating their Works Cited page like I did ”… SIGH!