11 April 2008

Basic Skills, Basic Bookmarking.

We often miss the simplest things. If we are to help students navigate their way through the world, it is really a good idea to show them how. But for reasons that I'm just not sure of, we usually choose not to do this.

We do not really even teach students to effectively use spellcheckers or grammar checkers. I'm constantly amazed that teachers never show struggling writers how to use Auto-Correct in Microsoft Word. We don't teach them about on-line dictionaries. We don't teach them how to evaluate information in Wikipedia. We don't teach them how to truly use Google or Google Maps. We don't teach them how to find or use the learning support tools available for Firefox. I could write posts about all of these things - and I will do that, but first I want to write about this:

We do not even teach them how to effectively use web browsers and we do not help them to know what web sites we consider important.

We don't do any of that. Instead we just complain.

Years ago... 1996 or 1997 perhaps, I set up a computer network in a high school. One of the first things that I built into the 'image' loaded to all the computers was a custom bookmark bar in Netscape. Right across the top of the browser we had links to local and major state universities, to libraries, to state and local governments, to job search sites. Also to early versions of search engines, citation machines, map programs. And to resources such as the CIA World Factbook, major newspapers, and more.

Yes, there were pages of those resources on the school library's website. Of course there were. But it was obvious from the start that the bookmarks were easier to use, more likely to be used, and thus, far more useful.

Today when I set up lab machines I line the bookmark toolbar with folders: Libraries, Job Search, Web Search, Universities, Newspapers, Maps, Research Tools, and Digital Texts. Each folder becomes a drop-down menu with a single click. Libraries brings links to local public, state, and university library homepages. Maps offers Google Maps and Mapquest, along with mass transit guides. And on and on. Users need never hunt around - the links are always right in front of them.

But usability is only one feature - teaching is another. First, we are demonstrating how to effectively individualize a browser to support what you need to do. Second, we are showing all these users what web sites we think are both important and valid.

So what's in your bookmark bar?
Google Scholar
Google Maps
New York Public Library
Library of Congress
Fordham University History Sourcebook
Your nearest university library
Project Gutenberg
The New York Times
The Guardian
The Times of London
Le Monde (and newspaper sites from around the world and in any language spoken or taught in your school)
University of Virginia E-book Library

I'm certain that you can build from this list.

- Ira Socol

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Lunchbox said...

Interesting idea here. However, it seems to me that in an age where students are increasingly tech savvy, actual instruction on the use of web browsers would be useful at the primary or secondary level, but by the time they get to the university level one would hope that students already possess these basic skills. What education bracket are you specifically targeting here? Of course, as I write this I think about the students in the class I currently TA for and wonder if they'd have any clue as to how to efficiently organize their browser.

The other question this post raised for me is how to decide which classes to provide this sort of instruction. In the university setting, does one do the basics on the first day of class (so it's not the throw-away it often turns out to be) especially in survey courses? Should one wait until teaching upper-level courses where one can provide resources that would benefit students in their other classes? Or is it a mixture of the two - a touch-and-go situation where the issue is addressed ad hoc?

Personally, I think that technology is a critical component of pedagogy that is only now really starting to work it's way into the college classroom. At the same time, this semester in particular, I've witnessed the complications that technology brings as well. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

narrator said...


I'd like to think this kind of awareness, built through making sure that browsers are set up effectively, would begin in the primary grades. As I noted, I first set this up in a high school, which I think is important, if late. By university time I'd hope that browser set-ups would "stick" with their student's log-ins (or that students would dominantly be using their own computers), so the importance fades -yet - directly indicating the most useful tools through bookmarks seems logical anywhere.

As for "when to teach" - I think you always need to let it be integrated. When I demonstrate anything my computer always does the things I want students to know about - from bookmarking to all of the right-click tools I use - to grabbing stuff in Google Notebook - to utilizing text-to-speech - to doing searches. The more they see it, I figure, the more likely they are to try it themselves.