Teaching with Zotero Groups, or Eating My Own Dog Food, Part 1

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This fall I, along with many others, will use Zotero groups in the classroom for the first time. With their unprecedented collaborative functionality, Zotero groups promise to transform the way that instructors and students interact with sources, particularly in research-intensive classes. Although the Zotero groups functionality is already well-established – there are currently over 3200 public and private groups active at zotero.org – over the course of the semester I fully expect to discover areas where we could add or improve features, and I also look forward to refining how best to integrate Zotero into what passes for my pedagogy.

I’ll be teaching History 499: The French Revolution, an undergraduate senior seminar that serves as a capstone for history majors. A relatively small body of students (approximately 20) will spend 15 weeks developing and realizing a focused research paper loosely organized around the Revolution. I assign relatively little reading, and reading assignments drop precipitously after the first few weeks as students immerse themselves in the necessary secondary and primary sources and then turn to the writing process. Since I have taught this course previously, I’ll have a good baseline for understanding how a Zotero group alters the classroom experience for the students (and of course for me). At the moment, I expect to see change in the following areas:

Presentations. I always reserve time at the end of the semester for students to share their findings, and students are usually very interested in each others’ work. But why should students have to wait until the end of the term to discover that they share common research interests, especially since they tend to cluster around four or five general areas? In a seminar on the French Revolution, it’s highly unlikely that twenty students will choose twenty wildly divergent research topics. Instead perhaps four will focus on gender, three on economic factors, five on symbols and iconography, two on the military, and so on. Each student registered for my course already has a Zotero collection in the class group library. From the outset they’ll immediately be able to add their own sources, grab those from each other, tag them, take notes, refine metadata, and more.

Reading responses. In the past I have asked students to prepare blog posts, but we will now use Zotero notes. I’m not sure that it will offer much of an improvement, especially since we’ll lose the ability to have threaded responses. On the other hand, threaded responses have been a bit of a bust in my experience. And as easy as it is to slap together a WordPress site, creating a Zotero group takes even less time. Perhaps because the responses will be tied directly into research software and notes, students (and their responses) will feel less disconnected from the course’s other texts?

Individual meetings. Normally I meet with students about 2/3 of the way through the semester to touch base regarding their research progress and to identify any serious problems or roadblocks. The best papers invariably begin early, but until I have had these in-depth meetings, it has been difficult to gauge the actual progress that students are achieving and the choices they are making regarding sources and scholarship. I still expect these meetings to remain critical, particularly for shaping the writing process, but I also believe I’ll have a much stronger sense of where the students already actually are in terms of progress. See also, “Panopticon.”

Evaluation. The last time I taught this course, I asked students to export a copy of their Zotero research collection to me as RDF and to deliver these files along with their final papers so that I could review the full body of research behind the written product. This time, because students’ research will already be in our Zotero group library, there will be no need for students to export their data and for me to reimport it on my end. And as noted regarding presentations, there will now be less incentive for students to pad their research collections at the last moment, since I should already have a good idea of how they have assembled sources.

Over the coming months, I’ll report back with my findings on the areas where Zotero makes the biggest difference. Until then, feel free to establish your own Zotero groups for your fall courses!

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