Tagged privacy

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Screenshot of University of Mary Washington Libraries Digital Collections homepage.
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What Do You Do with 11,000 Blogs? Preserving, Archiving, and Maintaining UMW Blogs—A Case Study

Abstract

What do you do with 11,000 blogs on a platform that is over a decade old? That is the question that the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) and the UMW Libraries are trying to answer. This essay outlines the challenges of maintaining a large WordPress multisite installation and offers potential solutions for preserving institutional digital history. Using a combination of data mining, personal outreach, and available web archiving tools, we show the importance of a systematic, collaborative approach to the challenges we didn’t expect to face in 2007 when UMW Blogs launched. Complicating matters is the increased awareness of digital privacy and the importance of maintaining ownership and control over one’s data online; the collaborative nature of a multisite and the life cycle of a student or even faculty member within an institution blurs the lines of who owns or controls the data found on one of these sites. The answers may seem obvious, but as each test case emerges, the situation becomes more and more complex. As an increasing number of institutions are dealing with legacy digital platforms that are housing intellectual property and scholarship, we believe that this essay will outline one potential path forward for the long-term sustainability and preservation.

As a leader in what is called the Digital Liberal Arts, we at the University of Mary Washington are facing the unique challenge of archiving our early digital output, namely, UMW Blogs. Started in 2007, UMW Blogs contains 11 years of digital history, learning, and archives. Although we are best known today as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW Blogs was a testcase for showing the viability of such a widely available online platform for faculty, staff, and students.

After three years in which Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) staff and a few UMW faculty experimented with blogs in and out of the classroom (Campbell 2009, 20), UMW Blogs launched in 2007. It provided the campus with a WordPress installation that allowed any student, faculty, or staff member to get their own subdomain (e.g. mygreatblog.umwblogs.org) and WordPress site, administered by DTLT. Since then, the 600 blogs of 2007 has grown to over 11,000 blogs and 13,000 users as of 2018! Each site has any number of themes, plugins, and widgets installed and running, creating a database that is exponentially larger and more cumbersome than the user numbers suggest at first glance.

The viability and popularity of a digital platform available to the UMW community convinced the administration that we should be providing faculty, students, and staff not only with a space on the web, but with their own web address, hosting capabilities, and “back-end” access to build on the web beyond a WordPress multisite installation. Domain of One’s Own was born, where anyone with a UMW NetID could claim their own domain name and server space on the web, and where they could install not just WordPress, but also platforms like Omeka, docuwiki, or even just a hand-coded HTML website.

As a result, we now have two “competing” platforms—one legacy, one current—to administer and maintain.

Maintaining UMW Blogs today can be quite a challenge, and as the administrators we frequently alternated between idyllic bliss and mass panic. It’s not very heavily used (most users have moved to Domain of One’s Own instead), but when something does go wrong, it goes really wrong, bringing down every site on the system. And with a number of sites that haven’t been updated since the twenty-aughts, there are many that are poised to cause such problems: too many sites using too many outdated themes and plugins, leaving too many security vulnerabilities, and impacting the overall performance of the platform.

And while there was the initial expectation that the sites would be left up on UMW Blogs forever, the changing nature of the web and our understanding of digital privacy and data ownership has evolved as well. We have an open, online platform featuring works by former faculty and students that are over a decade old, many of which are inaccessible to the original creator of the content to delete. Content they may no longer want on the web. How do we balance preservation and privacy?

Of course, we can’t just pull the plug—well, okay, we could, but for many faculty, this would be unacceptable. Some of our faculty and students are still using UMW Blogs, and many of the sites no longer being maintained are important to our institution and its history—whether it’s an innovative (for its time) course website, an example of awesome student collaboration, or an important piece of institutional history. Former students, as well, may still be using content they have created on UMW Blogs in their job search. We want to ensure the UMW Blogs system works and that those important pieces of our institutional history and students’ intellectual property don’t become digital flotsam.

With that in mind, DTLT in collaboration with UMW Libraries have embarked on a major project to ensure the stability of our legacy system and the long-term preservation of UMW’s digital history. We are going to chronicle some of those efforts, both for the benefit of the UMW community and for those at other institutions who find themselves in a similar situation, or soon will.

Outline of the Problem

UMW Blogs contains some stellar content. A group of students (some of whom are now UMW staff) catalogued historical markers and other landmarks throughout the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area, mostly from the Civil War, providing important historical context. A student wrote love letters to his girlfriend at another university regularly for several months, leaving her coded messages and invitations to dinner dates (“don’t forget the coupon!”). Two colleges on campus hosted their Faculty Senate sites there. Student government leaders (and campaigns) hosted sites on UMW Blogs. And there are historical sites from many student clubs, activists, and research groups. And who can forget Ermahgerd Sperts, or possibly the most creatively unimaginative username: umwblogs.umwblogs.org.

While most faculty, students, and staff have migrated to Domain of One’s Own (DoOO), there are always those who remain on the the platform they are most familiar with. As a public liberal arts, teaching-intensive institution, many upper-division courses are only taught on a three-year rotation, meaning that course sites built in UMW Blogs remain inactive for two or three years until the course itself is once again offered. While the course sites could (and often eventually are) migrated into DoOO, the way that faculty and students then interact with those sites inevitably shifts, causing some degree of anxiety from faculty members, who thus delay the migration process.

In other words, in the faculty’s mind, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Except, of course, it does break. Often. Leaving their course sites down.

In addition to valuable contributions to UMW history, scholarship, and archives, UMW Blogs also contains about 700 sites that were last updated on the same date they were created. (“Hello, World!”… and nothing since.) A number of sites have “broken” since they were last maintained, mostly as a result of using themes and plugins that have not been updated by their developers to retain compatibility with upgrades to the WordPress core platform. And then there are sites that, while valuable to some at the time, have been neither updated nor visited in a long time. This leaves broken and vulnerable sites, compromising those who are currently using the platform.

One of the challenges we are facing in the process of archiving the sites is the ethos under which the project was created, of openness and experimentation. The original Terms of Service for UMW Blogs reads:

UMW Blogs is an intellectual and creative environment, owned and maintained by the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Users of the system are expected to abide by all relevant copyright and intellectual property laws as well as by the University’s Network and Computer Use Policy.

Users are encouraged to use UMW Blogs to explore the boundaries of Web publication in support of teaching and learning at the University, with the understanding that UMW may decide to remove at any time content that is found to be in violation of community standards, University policy, or applicable federal or state laws.

As participants in a public Web space, users must also understand that the work they publish on UMW Blogs generally may be browsed or viewed by anyone on the Web. Some features are available to users who wish to protect content or their own identity. Information about protecting content and/or your identity within the system can be found at the following address:[1]

While the TOS capture the ethos and spirit of UMW Blogs and prompt users to think about privacy, they don’t prompt users to address their own IP and copyright. This oversight is partially a reflection of the approach to the Web as open. Nevertheless, it leaves us, now, wondering what we can actually do with student work, former faculty and staff work, group blogs, long-term collaborative projects between faculty, staff, and students.

The intention was always that copyright would remain with the creator of the content (which was made explicit in the Domain of One’s Own Terms of Service). But as we archive sites, we have encountered a number of issues regarding whose permission we need to move these sites into the (public) archive, to which the original creators will no longer have access. This is particularly difficult for collaboratively created sites, where contributors to the site are not owners of the site.

There’s another related issue that has been weighing on our minds. Past members of DTLT (none of whom are still administering the platform) told users that their UMW Blogs sites would be hosted in perpetuity, but that presents a major data ownership and privacy issue. The internet is a different place than it was in 2007. According to Paul Mason, the entire internet in 2007 was smaller than Facebook is today (Mason 2015, 7)! And that’s to say nothing of the changing ways in which we view our personal data, even our public creative work, since GamerGate, Ferguson, and Cambridge Analytica. And as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW (and DTLT in particular) has focused increasingly over the past decade on the ownership aspect of writing and working on the web—empowering students to make critical decisions about what they put on the web, what they don’t put on the web, and what they delete from the web.

We’ve also received a number of requests from alumni asking us to remove their blog from UMW Blogs, to remove a specific post they created on a faculty course site, or even to remove specific comments they left on a classmate’s blog as part of an assignment. We are well aware of the vulnerabilities that working in public can create, as well as the ways in which we as people change and grow, leaving behind aspects of the (digital) identity that we once shared with the world.

And so, beyond the need to streamline the platform, we think it’s important that we take the initiative to remove old content from our public platform, and to pass it along to former students and faculty so they can decide what should be public and where it should be hosted.

After everything is archived locally and before anything is deleted from the platform, DTLT will be reaching out to those former students, faculty, and staff, letting them know our plans, and providing them the opportunity (and documentation) to export their data and preserve it publicly or privately, in a place of their choosing. This not only helps those currently on the platform have a better experience, but it helps our former community members once again reflect critically on their public digital identity and take a bit more ownership over their data and what’s done with it.

As proponents of “digital minimalism,” we often tell our students and colleagues that what we delete is as important a part of curating our digital identity as what we publish. We want to encourage students (and faculty and staff) to think about how large a digital footprint they are leaving, and help devise strategies everyone can use to minimize traces of themselves online. And our freedom to delete increases our freedom to experiment. As the attention economy and algorithmically driven content discovery have radically changed the internet since the early days of UMW Blogs, it’s worth rethinking both what we as an institution hold onto, and what we as individuals decide to keep in public venues.

Another challenge was that at the start of this project, we at UMW did not currently have any policies governing data storage, collection, and deletion. Alumni could keep their email addresses, the only time we ever deleted a course in the LMS was when we moved from one to another, and we do not have a enterprise-solution cloud-based shared digital storage space. We were starting from scratch.

The Process, DTLT

We identified over 5000 blogs on the platform that have not been updated since 2015 or earlier, are not administered by any current UMW community members, and have either not been visited at all in the last two years or have been visited less than 100 times in the entire time period for which we have analytics. That means essentially half the platform is inactive and no longer providing benefit to users, but is also open to vulnerabilities or “bit rot,” which can cause problems for the active sites.

However, some of the inactive sites we identified are also important pieces of institutional history. After analyzing the metadata for all 11,333 sites in the UMW Blogs database, we identified a list of over 5000 blogs that meet all of the following criteria:

  • The blog has not been updated since Jan 1, 2016.
  • None of the blog administrators are current members of the UMW community.
  • The site has either not been visited at all in the last two years, or has logged fewer than 100 visits all-time.

We then went through the entire list to identify sites important to our institutional history, as well as course websites that are less than five years old. (Some courses are offered every three or four years, and having relatively recent course websites live can be useful for faculty and students.) These are sites that we either think should be kept on the platform, or—more likely—that we think would be good candidates for UMW Libraries’ new Digital Archive. The latter will create a flat-file archive (a website with no databases or dynamic content, only HTML and CSS code) that will be far more future-proof and less likely to just break one day.

Now, we didn’t visit all 5000+ blogs manually! Rather, we looked carefully at the metadata—site titles, the person(s) attached to the sites as administrators, the administrator’s email address, and the dates the sites were created and last updated. This told us if the site was created by a student or faculty member, and if the site was a course website, collaborative student project, personal blog, etc. We identified almost 300 sites from this collection which we did check manually, often consulting with each other about them, before deciding on the 62 of these 5000+ sites that were important to keep public or submit to the UMW Digital Archive (more on that process below).

In the end, we determined that of the 11,333 blogs on the UMW Blogs platform, 6012 of them were important to keep actively published on the web (including about 50 which would best serve the UMW Community by being frozen in time and preserved publicly before “bit rot” and broken plugins bring them down). The other 5321 blogs, many of which were important in their time, are ready to be removed from the platform.

To be clear, we’re not talking about just deleting them! We are working with our hosting company, Reclaim Hosting, to create a flat-file archive and a WordPress XML export of each of those blogs, which DTLT will retain for 2 years before permanently deleting them. We are also preparing to email the administrators of those sites to let them know our plans so they can download their content before we remove anything from the platform (or, worst-case scenario, ask us to email them the backup archive after we purge the platform). But ultimately, it is important for the health of the platform to streamline the database and focus on supporting the more recent and active sites.

Through this process, we also identified a number of faculty and staff “power users” of UMW Blogs—those people who had more than 10 sites on UMW Blogs or had created a course site on the blog within the last two semesters. Once that handful of faculty were identified, we reached out to them to schedule one-on-one meetings with a member of DTLT to discuss the options for their UMW Blog site: deletion, personal archive, library archive, or migration to personal subdomain.

This was, admittedly, a fraught process for some of the faculty; these sites had become important and significant resources, examples, and case-studies of the viability and ultimate success of working openly on the web. They were sometimes years in the making, informed by countless hours of student and faculty work. To come in and say, “These sites aren’t viable in this space anymore” is intimidating.

One advantage of targeting the “power users” first is that we interacted frequently with these faculty members on a number of other projects, and thus had already developed a relationship with them, not to mention an understanding of their values, their work, and their pedagogy. We decided collectively which DTLT team member would work with each individual faculty member based on past relationships and interactions. We weren’t cold-calling these faculty; we were approaching colleagues with whom we had previously collaborated. Thus, we knew better how to discuss the issues with each individual faculty. While time consuming, we built on our relationships to tailor each interaction to the specific needs of the faculty member, allowing us to better explain and recommend options for their UMW Blog sites.

Explaining that our goal is, in fact, to preserve these websites in a more sustainable format, in order to celebrate and highlight their importance and significance to faculty, is key. We also want faculty to take more control over their data and their sites, understanding better how WordPress works and how the archival process will be of benefit to them. No technology, no matter how advanced, can survive this long without a lot of help, a lot of work, and some hard decisions about how we are going to invest our time, energy, and monetary resources.

We worked with faculty, then, to create a list of sites on UMW Blogs and categorized them based on how they wanted them to be preserved. Once that list was created and finalized, we passed the information along to the relevant people, including DTLT and UMW Archives staff, to make sure that all sites ended up in working order where they were supposed to be. When moving sites to Domain of One’s Own, we often had to replace themes and plugins, so that while the site might not look the way it did when initially created, we tried to ensure it would still retain its original functionality. The static library archive preserved the original link and function of the site in a static file.

The Process, UMW Libraries

UMW Libraries has been archiving the University’s web presence for several years now, primarily with established, automated web crawls and the occasional manual crawl to capture historical context during a special event, such as a university presidential inauguration. Our focus has been on archiving institutional sites, such as the main website, social media, UMW Athletics, or UMW News. Despite this effort, we were often missing the individual stories of the campus community.

We have a fantastic scrapbook collection in the University Archives. Stories from UMW (or MWC) students across the decades. Though students are still creating and donating scrapbooks, many are recording their college experience online, through Domain of One’s Own or UMW Blogs, rather than on paper. We also have detailed records of university business, such as meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications. The vast majority of this information is online today, with blogs or other platforms used to keep notes on committee work or to provide transparency on important campus issues, such as faculty governance or strategic planning. We must be proactive in not only preserving but providing access to these records for future students and researchers.

The UMW Archives appraisal process is an important step in beginning to archive this material. We not only need to make sure that the websites and digital projects we collect fit within our collection development policies, but we must also be confident in our abilities, through both technology and staff power, to preserve and provide access to the material we agree to accept. To help us with this process, we developed a set of criteria for appraisal:

  1. Scholarship that is new and impactful in its field.
  2. Highly innovative technical and/or creative aspects.
  3. Content that complements existing archival collections and subject areas of emphasis.
  4. Content that documents the history, administration, and/or culture of the University.
  5. Unique content that supports the research and curriculum needs of faculty.
  6. Content created, owned, or used by university departments, faculty, or students in carrying out university-related business, functions, or activities.
  7. Compatibility with SCUA’s preservation software.
  8. A faculty member’s statement of support for student-created websites.

This set of criteria will help us work through lists of current websites to determine what would be best suited for the UMW Archives. It is also published on the library website so that faculty, staff, and students can read through the list and determine if their website will be a good fit for the library’s collections. However, even if a UMW community member is unsure of where their website belongs, our hope is that the broad guidelines will encourage them to contact us and start a conversation. Even if a suggested website is not acquired by the archives, DTLT and UMW Archives staff will work with the creator to find other alternatives for migrating or archiving their content.

The lists of current websites that we are combing through and appraising do not contain the thousands of websites that DTLT started with on this project. For example, we removed from consideration sites that were created but never built out, don’t have any content, haven’t been accessed, etc. Other websites were also included because they were listed in previous university publications or suggested by a colleague. Our initial list of potential websites to archive is not all-inclusive, and it will be a continuous process as more URLs are recommended or discovered.

After websites are selected for archiving, the very important step of requesting permission follows. While the University Archives actively archives institutional websites, such as UMW Athletics or UMW Social Media, we feel strongly that we must receive permission before archiving individual blogs, websites, and other digital projects. DTLT and UMW Archives work together to reach out to the community to request permission from all creators and contributors of items that we want to archive. For those submitting archive requests, the copyright permission statement is published on the library’s website so that anyone can read and understand the terms before submission. Even if a faculty member recommends a website for archiving, the student still must provide permission before archiving takes place.

If permission is received to archive a website, the crawling can begin! UMW uses three tools for archiving websites: Preservica, Archive-It, and Webrecorder. Each web crawl is manually initiated by staff and student aides, as well as checked over for quality control after the crawl is complete. The crawl creates a WARC file, which is uploaded in the library’s digital preservation system. A metadata record in the form of Dublin Core is created for each WARC file, which includes creator(s), contributor(s), and two to three subject headings. Library staff used “Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group” to help determine metadata guidelines, in addition to local, unique needs (Dooley and Bowers 2018).

The final component to the archiving process is making the archived websites accessible. Once a WARC file is created and metadata is applied, the archival item is published in Digital Collections, the library’s digital preservation and access platform. Users of the platform are able to locate archived websites through search functions that use both metadata and full-text. The websites render within the browser itself, so users can navigate the website as it existed at the time of capture.

Conclusion: Further Challenges, looking forward, plan for it

This is only the beginning of a long process of preserving and protecting our legacy platform, UMW Blogs. The platform was a launch pad for Domain of One’s Own and put UMW on the map for innovative digital learning. At the time, there was no precedent, no best practices, no road map, no rules. Now, we hope the lessons shared in this essay help schools trying to maintain their own legacy, open, digital learning platforms.

Moving forward, we will likely confront similar issues with Domain of One’s Own, particularly concerning what we should preserve in our library archives. We are developing a process for students, faculty, and staff to submit a site for preservation consideration. But given the ethos of DoOO—that the work done on users’ website is theirs to do with as they like—we know there have already been some potentially important sites deleted, as is the prerogative of the user.

How, then do you balance the imperative to save, preserve, and keep digital artifacts of (potential) historical significance with the need for agency, privacy, and freedom of the student, staff, or faculty member to delete, let die, or decay? These are the questions we are now collectively grappling with, and will continue to moving forward.

Notes

[1] Much like this project itself is trying to illustrate in the preserving of historic or significant materials that lived online, the original links to these policies and information are broken and the original information is all but inaccessible.

Bibliography

Campbell, Gardner. 2009. “UMWeb 2.0: University of Mary Washington Webifies Its World.” University of Mary Washington Magazine, Fall/Winter 2017. https://archive.org/details/universityofmary33fwuniv.

Dooley, Jackie, and Kate Bowers. 2018. Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. https://doi.org/10.25333/C3005C.

Mason, Paul. 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

About the Authors

Angie Kemp is the Digital Resources Librarian at the University of Mary Washington. She works in Special Collections and University Archives, focusing on maintaining and expanding the university’s digital archives. She also oversees the Digital Archiving Lab, where campus and community members go to collaborate on digital collection projects and preservation. Her research interests include ethics and privacy in digital archives, as well as the long-term sustainability of digital projects.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. Previously, she was a Instructional Technology Specialist at DTLT at UMW working digital literacy and Domain of One’s Own. Her research interests include the intersections of technology and pedagogy, affect, and staff labor issues. Her writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Inside Higher Ed, ProfHacker, Women in Higher Education, and Popula. You can find her talking about everything on Twitter as @readywriting.

Kris Shaffer is a data scientist and Senior Computational Disinformation Analyst for New Knowledge. His book, Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published Spring 2019 by Apress. Kris also coauthored “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” a report prepared for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on social media. A former academic, Kris has worked as an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington and has taught courses in music theory and cognition, computer science, and digital studies at Yale University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Mary Washington, and Charleston Southern University. He holds a PhD from Yale University.

Can You Digg It?: Using Web Applications in Teaching the Research Process

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo, Old Dominion University

Abstract

Instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, throughout the research process. Using these technologies helps students learn various 21st Century technology and media literacies as well as promote diverse student learning methods and active learning pedagogies. The article provides examples of different type of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process and then ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.

 

 

Admit it, when you first search for something you use Google or check Wikipedia:

  • Of course!
  • What? Are you crazy! I can’t trust those sites.
  • I shout out to Facebook or Twitter.
  • Plead the fifth.

I don’t ask this question of my students; instead, I ask this question of my colleagues when I do workshops about teaching with technology (especially when teaching big end-of-semester term or research papers). Can you guess the results? If we admit that we are just as “guilty” of using Google or referring to Wikipedia and other online “friends” when seeking out information, isn’t it time we accept these as legitimate steps for research in the 21st century. Therefore, if going to the web is the one of the first steps for research, we should “digg” using various web applications when teaching research skills.

Digg is the catchy title for thinking about using web applications in research. On the one hand, I believe instructors do not use social bookmarking tools, like Digg, nearly enough while teaching basic research skills, especially in First Year Composition courses. However, I do not use Digg, nor ask my students to use Digg, because it has been repeatedly critiqued for the gender, age, and socioeconomic bias of the users who curate the materials (Lo 2006; Solis 2009; Weinberg 2006). Digg’s biased user population is representative of the promise and peril of the internet in general. If anyone can post on Digg, and I choose to use such a web application in my research, how does the bias of the application impact my research process and product. However, is that not the case with almost any research process and product we suggest for our students? In short, part of what we are teaching our students about research is to just be plain critical, of everything, including the tools we use (Selfe 1999).

Critical engagement with the technologies they use is a powerful motivator for having students work with various web applications. Learning how to use different technologies, learn new technologies and critically engage with technologies prepares students for staying successfully employed in the 21st century. The majority of lists citing the key skills needed to succeed in the 21st century include “information literacy” as well as “consume and compose multimedia.”(AT&T 2010; CWPA 2008; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d; NCTE 2008; Kamenetz 2010).

Lankshear and Knobel (2007) claim that:

The more a literacy practice that is mediated by digital encoding privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, do-it-yourself creative production over professional service delivery, and so on, the more sense we think it makes to regard it as a new literacy. (228)

If the Web 2.0 world is promoting these types of changes, researching in the Web 2.0 world might need to be considered a new literacy.

This article argues that instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications. The article discusses how these applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, are a way to meet 21st Century Literacies learning objectives as well as diversify student learning methods and facilitate active learning pedagogies. The article then provides examples of different types of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process, and ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.

Why Digg It?

Once you get out into the real world you won’t have your textbooks with you, so having experience using IT as a learning tool helps prepare people for life after textbooks.
–An undergraduate student, 2010 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology (Smith and Caruso 2010, 27)

The obvious first reason for teaching students to use web applications in research is “if you can’t beat them, join them.” I know students are going to use Google; therefore, I embrace that default and enjoy introducing them to specialized Google search engines like Google Scholar (Google’s search engine that focuses on returning results from scholarly books and journals), Google Books (Google’s search engine that returns results from Google’s book scanning project), and Google News (Google’s search engine that returns results from news outlets as far back as the 19th century). I enjoy their “shock” in learning about these specialized search engines.

Since 2004, college students responding to the annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology have rated themselves highly for the ability to “use the Internet effectively and efficiently search for information” (Smith and Caruso 2010, 66). Specifically in 2010, 80.7% gave themselves “high marks (expert or very skilled)” and over 56% gave themselves high marks for “evaluating reliability and credibility” (69). However, if students are as information literate as they think, then why does it feel like there is a “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies? Although it feels like the “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies is restricted to the 21st century, the heart of this crisis is wrapped up in various techno-literacies and the various media or techno-literacy crises have been rampant for over 40 years. Since the National Council of Teacher’s of English (NCTE) published the “Resolution on Media Literacy” in 1970, it has followed up with a variety of other related lists and position statements about techno-, media, and 21st century literacies.

Many other educational organizations produce lists and policy statements that include things like:

  • using technology to gather, analyze, and synthesize information (ASCD 2008; Association of Colleges and Research Libraries 2000; Council of Writing Program Administrators [CWPA] 2008; National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE] 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) as well as
  • describe, explain, and persuade with technology (Conference on College Composition and Communication 2004; CWPA 2008; Intel n.d.; NCTE 2005; NCTE 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.).

Forbes’s top 10 list of “skills that will get you hired in 2013” listed “computers and electronics” as number five; the top two skills listed were “critical thinking” and “complex problem solving” (Casserly 2012)—both required of major research and writing projects. Teaching research processes through and with web 2.0 technologies combines these skills. In a study of basic writing students, Vance (2012) found that although students do want the interactivity that comes with Web 2.0 technologies, they also want more stable, instructor vetted and delivered content as well. This desire hints at the fact students do want and need help identifying and using digital information. Instructors are being hailed by both (the overestimation of) their students as well as (the underestimation of) their colleagues to help students become better technologically-mediated researchers and communicators.

Getting students to understand that there is more to Googling than just Google not only helps develop more critical digital research skills, it builds upon what they already know and do. Most individuals do some form of research every day, and more often than not, Google does get the job done. Starting with what the students already do works not only because we are going with the flow; actually, it is because it is going with their flow. Brain research demonstrates that students learn best when what they learn is connected to something they already know or do (Leamnson 1999; Zull 2002). The process of teaching research skills needs to be built upon students’ existing processes. Instead of trying to completely rewire students–as science instructors often attempt to do when they continually repeat that seasons are based on the position of the earth’s axis and not its proximity to the sun–help them adapt and expand their already hardwired “Google it” response. A number of scholars have published that various Web 2.0 applications support research-related activities like reading (Won Park 2013) and finding and evaluating information (Magnuson 2013), and are compatible with learning pedagogies such as constructivism (Paily 2013), connectivism (Del Moral, Cernea, and Villalusttre 2013), and problem-based learning (Tambouris et al. 2012).

Increasingly, both scholarly as well as more plebian research resources are only available in digital formats, usually accessible through the web. Students not only need to learn how to (systematically) search for these resources, they need to learn to critically consume different types of resources, some with no written words. Once students find and read these resources, they also need help collecting, archiving, and analyzing them as well. Finally, with the variety of available digital publication media, students can contribute back by producing multimedia projects as they report out on their research process and product.

What are You Digging With?

Scholarship in composition and literacy studies has demonstrated as a field composition studies supports using web-based interactive communication applications, many referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, in the teaching and learning of writing. Strickland (2009) claims “writers should be able to use all available technology to help them discover what and how to say what needs to be written” (p. 12). Many of these web-based applications either “count” as the multimodal compositions that scholars like Takayoshi and Selfe (2007) as well as organizations like NCTE (2005) and CCCC (2004) promote or help produce those same multimedia texts. Even English education programs, like the one discussed in Doering, Beach and O’Brien (2007) promote teaching future English teachers about using different web-based applications. Most of the time, however, these discussions about using various web-based technologies are focused on the product of a student’s major research project. Many of these technologies can also support the writing process as well as the research process. The mistake that many instructors make in thinking about incorporating multimedia and web applications in the research process is only focusing on the products of research—the primary, secondary, or tertiary resources incorporated into research or the “report” out of the research. Successful 21st century researchers need to think about using various web applications and embracing multimedia throughout the entire research process:

  • Identifying a Topic
  • Finding & Collecting Resources
  • Critically Reading & Evaluating Resources
  • Synthesizing Ideas & Resources
  • Drafting & (Peer) Reviewing
  • Presenting Final Results

For example, instructors may only think that YouTube (a video repository where individuals can make accounts and upload videos to share) is only good for finding questionable resources and presenting final projects in video form. However watching videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or TED might help students struggling to find a topic that interests them or see how people are currently talking about a specific topic. It is definitely time to rethink “YouTube is a bad resource” just because anyone can post a video; will anyone question the scholarly veracity of one of Michael Wesch’s digital anthropology videos? YouTube can also help solve common formatting problems as well. Instead of using time in class showing students how to do headers and hanging indents in their final research papers; assign as homework a YouTube video demonstrating how to do the formatting functions in different version of MS Word or OpenOffice.

Ultimately the goal for this article is to outline examples of what types of web applications might be incorporated at various points within a traditional (primarily secondary) research process. First, getting students to produce and share texts through the research process helps them keep connected with an audience. Second, producing digitized final projects that are published to the web, especially multimedia projects, makes students’ work refrigerator door worthy; you know, like the finger paintings we brought home from preschool. And Facebook is the new refrigerator door, instantly giving students a real audience with real feedback that they care about.

Applications to Help Identify a Topic

Getting students started on a research project is always more difficult than expected. At the beginning of a research project students generally need to identify a topic that is engaging to them as well as narrow it down to something unique. In both cases, students need help thinking differently about their interests. As Brooke (2009) suggests, researchers should understand search results as “departure points, that bring potentially distant topics and ideas in proximity both with each other and the user” (83). Sometimes it just helps to provide them with a variety of alternative search engines (anything besides the general Google search engine) and media repositories (image, audio, video, and text) to help identify what interests them. Many students do not pay attention to the variety of ways they may filter search results in the left hand menu of a Google search results page nor know that Google has specialized search engines like Scholar, Books, and News. Although the web is full of personal rants and raves, those non-scholarly resources, like personal blogs and wikis (including Wikipedia), can be extremely useful in helping students further narrow a topic to something manageable and with a unique angle as well as analyze what they already know or believe about the topic. Using search engines that present the search results visually (for example: Cluuz, Hashtagify, Search-Cube, or TouchGraph) can also help with narrowing a topic as well as preparing a list of future search terms (figure 1).

rodrigo

Figure 1: Results from a Cluuz search; multiple visual cluster maps presented on the right side of the page.

In short, the varied web resources provide students the opportunities to both explore as well as narrow their research topics. Introducing students to advanced search pages or results filters will not only help them identity interesting, focused research topics, it will help them find relevant secondary resources as well.

Applications to Help Find & Collect Resources

Teaching students to find resources is generally easier than helping students collect the resources they find. Based on my experience, robust citation management applications like Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote have a steep learning curve for users to understand both the citation management as well as note taking functionalities. The time to learn the various aspects of the applications usually requires more time than available in freshman and sophomore level classes with major research projects. Instead of using these more complex applications, students can use social bookmarking sites, like Delicious and Diigo (usually easier to learn than full resource collecting programs), to keep track of their resources. Social bookmarking sites collect users saved webpage URLs. Except, instead of being restricted to one computer, like when saved using My Favorites in the Internet Explorer browser, social bookmarking sites save the list of links to a server the user can access from any computer connected to the web. Most social bookmarking sites also allow the user to associate notes with each bookmarked webpage.

Even if students are collecting books they found at the library or journal articles they found in a library database (resources that are not normally associated with a webpage), they can bookmark WorldCat’s or the library’s webpage representing the book (figure 2) and link to the permalink, or deeplink, into a library database resource. Johnson (2009) explicitly argues that using different Web 2.0 technologies, like blogs and social bookmarking, allow students to more readily collect both their secondary as well as primary resources. The amount of detail included with the bookmarked resource is only limited to the assignment requirements given to a student. An instructor can ask a student to include information like a bibliographic citation, summary, and source evaluation in the “notes” area of the social bookmark for each resource (figure 2).

Rodrigo2

Figure 2: An example of a robust annotated bibliography entry in the social bookmarking application Diigo.

Since they are social, social bookmarking sites are by default public and make it easy for students to share resources with one another, or their instructors. Social bookmarking sites will also help students find more resources. They can find individuals who have bookmarked the same resources and identify other resources. Students can also identify how individuals tagged resources with identifying keywords, like indexing, and use those tags as alternative key words in more searches in databases and other locations. As web-based applications, social bookmarking sites also address some access issues; students who do not have regular access to the same computer can still store all of their collected resources in one online repository that they can get to from any computer with an Internet connection.

Applications to Help Critically Read & Evaluate Resources

More sophisticated social bookmarking tools like Diigo also allow students to read and annotate web resources (applications like A.nnotate and Internote also allow web page annotations). Diigo allows users to highlight and leave post-it styles notes on most webpages (figure 3).

Rodrigo3Figure 3: Example of Diigo highlight and “post-it” note style annotation tools.

Having the ability to take notes does not inherently prompt students to be critical readers, instead a functionality that enables commenting might prompt students to ask what type of questions and comments should the annotated on their resources. English faculty, or librarians, can provide students with a list of resource evaluation questions that students might then answer by highlighting and taking notes on the page. Since Diigo is a web application, students can share their annotated resource with other students or the instructor.

Applications to Help Synthesize Ideas & Resources

Once students’ notes are digital, it is easy for them to slide them around, looking for connections to help synthesize ideas and resources. Again, these web applications do not inherently make students engage their resource materials in more sophisticated ways; instead, these resources provide students with the opportunity to engage with and connect their resources differently. Writing instructors have asked students to make mind or cluster maps of their research topic, resources, and ideas for decades; however, having students make these in a web application allows for more detailed information associated with each node. Many of the digital mind map applications (like Mindomo and Popplet) allow users to include text, images, videos, even attachments to each individual node of information. Many mind map applications also allow users to collaborate, sometime even synchronously, within the same document. A team of students working on a research project could collaboratively construct a mind map with the different resources each individual located. Timeline and geographical mapping applications, web applications that allow users to map information as a point in time or geo-spatially, also allow students to interact with their resources and data in different ways (figure 4).

Rodrigo4

Figure 4: Example of a timeline showing various organizational statements about 21st Century Literacies.

Having students play with their resources and data forces them to spend time with their resources and data. Ultimately, it is that time with the data that helps students the most in synthesizing information in a meaningful way.

Applications to Help Draft & (Peer) Review

Students should be drafting and getting feedback along the entire research process. One of the standard functions of various Web 2.0 applications, also regularly referred to as read/write web, is some form of interaction between the many kinds of readers and writers (Dilager 2010). Even as early in the process as identifying and narrowing a topic, students should be able to share their narrowed topic or research question and possibly make a research plan. In either case, students will want feedback about their work. Microblogs, like Twitter and the Facebook Status Update, give students the opportunity to gather quick feedback on material as small as a research question or thesis statement.

There are a variety of read/write web applications students might use to report out and invite feedback of all amounts during their research projects. Blogs, wikis, and document sharing applications like Google Drive would allow students to document large portions of their research process and product. These popular applications are also probably the best known and most written about web applications to support the teaching of writing, especially as a way to expand audience feedback and participation with a given project (Alexander 2008; Johnson 2009; Nakamura 2011). Blogs, wikis and document sharing are usually structured to facilitate some form of a social network that invites “replies” to any posted work. Some advanced feedback applications allow readers to respond to specific sections of a draft. For example, the CommentPress Core plugin for a WordPress blog allows readers to comment on individual paragraphs as well as an entire posting. Similarly, VoiceThread allows viewers to comment on individual presentation slides as well as draw on an individual slide to reference a specific area of a visual.

Not just text based web applications facilitate replies to content; even the more visual Web 2.0 applications where students might post parts of their research usually include spaces for readers to make comments. Most image and video repositories usually have reply features. Even if students are publishing their work in progress or request for feedback in different locations, using microblogs can help them to send out requests for feedback with links to where ever the material is residing. In short, there is no technological reason not to request and receive feedback throughout the entire research process.

Applications to Help Present Final Results

Many of the applications mentioned above might also be used as final presentation formats or media. Document sharing would allow for easy publishing of traditional paper style presentations. And if students were blogging their entire research process, they can post their final presentation as the last post (however, the first visible to visitors) on their research blogs. Students might use alternative visual presentations applications like Prezi to distinguish themselves from the masses that use PowerPoint. However, there are a many Web 2.0 applications not discussed in this article that would allow students to get really creative with their final product. With all the freely available web 2.0 applications mentioned in this article or listed at websites like Go2Web20 and Discovery’s Web 2.0 Tools, students could produce a variety of media including audio or video files, timelines or maps, digital collages or mind maps.

Asking students to produce their final presentations in these alternative formats does not necessarily relieve them of the rhetorical responsibilities of a composition class (Takayoshi and Selfe 2007). Asking students to write cover memo identifying their purpose, audience, and other rhetorical factors as well as discussing how their project meets those rhetorical factors reengages students with their rhetorical responsibilities.

How to Digg It?

Beyond thinking about how to use the technologies, many instructors have two major concerns about incorporating any technology into their assignments: access and support. Although these are both legitimate concerns, the digital divide is alive and well in the second decade of the 21st century (Jansen 2010), the need to creatively overcome these concerns meets the objective of making our students more technologically savvy. In other words, most individuals face some form of technological access and support issue on any digital project. Putting students into groups for assignments, even if they are just support and peer review groups for research projects, resolves a lot of access and support issues. Constructing student groups as collaborative learning communities empowers them to share knowledge and resources, including “access” to specific types of needed hardware and software and the skills to use it. Having students understand that finding and learning how to use a specific technological application is both another example of research as well as a skill they will need to continue to hone with how fast both hardware and software updates and evolves. If a given Web 2.0 application’s help page is not helpful, and the group can’t figure it out how to use the program, YouTube is always a good place to look for help with any “how-to” question. And if there is still no answer on YouTube, maybe it is time for instructors to make a few “how-to” videos and post them up to YouTube.

Another concern that faculty, administrators, and scholars have about using web applications in classes is privacy, especially in relation to legal issues like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA (Diaz 2010; Ellison and Wu 2008; Rodriguez 2011). Although many of the web applications I discuss above have privacy options, more conservative interpretations of FERPA argue that students rights are not protected since the school does not have an officially signed legal contract with the application provider. There is no one easy solution to the FERPA issue; however, honesty is the best policy. I have discussed using these types of applications with the legal personnel associated with my institution. With their help, I’ve added a section to my syllabus about using web applications (Appendix). In short, this section notifies students of their legal rights to privacy and legal responsibilities like copyright infringement; it also provides them an alternative option that is not posted to the Internet. Of course, the alternative option is the traditional research process and paper; however, to date, I have never had a student take the alternative option. I have had an increasing number, still a very small number, choose to password protect their work; however, no one has refused to use the web application.

Long-term access and archiving are final concerns with using web applications for academic assignments. It is true that individuals or companies maintaining different web applications go out of business and can no longer support the website. For example, I once had a student construct a beautifully researched and documented timeline and then the company supporting the timeline application stop supporting the service. Similarly, I’ve had classes of students develop mind maps in mindmeister for free before mindmeister canceled their free accounts; those mind maps are now inaccessible (unless the student pays for them). Again, instead of using this as an excuse, it can be a “learning moment” to have discussions with students about archiving their work in an alternative format. At minimum, it is relatively easy to either take static or dynamic screen captures to save images or video of student work. Consider having students use free screen capture software, like Jing or Screencast-O-matic, to report out and reflect upon their work as a part of their assignment. The could make a five minute video, or two, that introduces the project, discusses their rhetorical choices, and reflects upon the process of constructing the text. This reflective screen capture video assignment does double-duty in archiving their work in an alternative format.

Interestingly enough, many educational institutions or educational technology companies have tried to address issue like FERPA and archiving by developing their own versions of Web 2.0 applications, like Purdue University’s relatively successful Hotseat and Blackboard’s incorporation of blogs, wikis, and social media like interfaces into their learning management system software. However, I agree with Jenkins (2008) and Dilager (2010) that replicating services is generally not a good idea. Most homegrown technologies never work as well as the “original” and other institutional issues about continued command, control, and support emerge. Instead, Dilager argues for a “critical engagement with Web 2.0” (24), implying that both faculty and students should consider the original purpose and authors/companies producing the Web 2.0 applications they are using. For example, Facebook is a service for profile application (the service is free because the application mines profile information and sells it to other companies). Faculty should understand Facebook’s commercial element before requiring students to use the application. This type of critical engagement brings us full circle to the issue of user/curator bias in Digg, just as with evaluating research resources, faculty and students should evaluate the technologies they choose to use.

Although there are a variety of reasons that might make it difficult to incorporate different interactive web-based, Web 2.0, applications into undergraduate research courses, the benefit of having more engaged students as well as more critical and complex researched projects is worth the work. Providing students with a scaffolded project that asks them to engage with these different technologies helps prepare them for the variety of research processes they will undertake in their future academic, professional, and civic lives.

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Appendix: Sample Syllabus Language

This is the syllabus language I have negotiated with the lawyers at my former institution. To be legally “binding,” I have to obtain some form of “signed” response.

We will be using a web-based timeline application (TimeGlider) for academic use in ENG101, First Year Composition, section #####, Fall 2009. By default, the timeline is open to the public for the purpose of sharing your work with the larger Internet community; specifically, using the timeline application will:

    • provide an opportunity to present information in a variety of modalities,
    • allow students to conceptualize their projects in a chronological manner,
    • provide an opportunity to collaborate on large scale projects, and
    • engage a larger audience who may provide feedback on the project.

To use the timeline application responsibly please observe all laws, MCC, and MCCCD policy that are incorporated into the Codes of Conduct and Academic Integrity. Some specific aspects of law and policy that might be well to remember are prohibitions against copyright infringement, plagiarism, harassment or interferences with the underlying technical code of the software. Some resources to remind yourself about MCC and MCCCD policies as well as laws about copyright and fair use:

As a student using the timeline application certain rights accrue to you. Any original work that you make tangible belongs to you as a matter of copyright law. You also have a right to the privacy of your educational records as a matter of federal law and may choose to set your timeline privacy settings to private and only share with the instructor and your classmates. Your construction of a timeline constitutes an educational record. By constructing a timeline, and not taking other options available to you in this course equivalent to this assignment that would not be posted publicly on the Internet, you consent to the collaborative use of this material as well as to the disclosure of it in this course and potentially for the use of future courses.

 

 

About the Author

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & (New) Media at Old Dominion University. She was as a full time faculty member for nine years in English and film studies at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Shelley researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, more specifically teaching and learning. As well as co-authoring the first and second editions of The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Shelley was also co-editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press). Her work has also appeared in Computers and Composition, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Journal of Advancing Technology, Flow¸ as well as various edited collections.

 

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