When I first heard about social bookmarking (del.icio.us, to be precise) just before this course began, I got really excited. Finally, a way to access my bookmarks from any computer hooked to the web! I tend to work at several different computers-- my home office, the school library, Jim's office, my parents' home. Last Thanksgiving, I created an email with the links I felt I would most likely need to complete assignments for my TL-DL class and sent it to myself so I'd have it during my visit to Calgary. How much more efficient to have them online!
I was able to import my bookmarks from my browser easily, and was impressed with the ease of tagging them. They all started out tagged with the name of the folder they had been in (a good place to start), and I enjoyed adding tags to make each link easier to find, for myself and others. I appreciated how intuitive it was to find other sites with the same tags: a simple search box at the top of the page, or click on the tags themselves which act as links.
However, I immediately started to wonder: is the tag 'inquiry' the same and the tag 'Inquiry?' What about homonyms? How many baseball links will my students have to sift through to find out about the one mammal that can fly? And what about well-meaning taggers that can't spell?
I did some playing around and found that del.icio.us had taken care of some of my concerns: tags don't appear to be case sensitive, adding a '-' before a term makes sure it isn't included in search results so students can search "bats -baseball" to refine results. Searches can also be refined with the boolean terms and and or. The seach box searches for terms not just as tag, but also in notes and descriptions, to provide a wider range of results.
What I like best about social bookmarking is how one keyword can lead to many: this would be particularly useful for students doing research as it helps them discover search terms they may not have considered. How far we've come from the old card catalogue days when a student would look up one subject term and not finding anything, give up!
While in my enthusiasm I was initially tempted to suggest students use a social bookmarking site to search for information before using a search engine, I don't think we're quite there yet. For example, a simple search for dogs turns up all kinds of useless links... students would need to be quite proficient at using booleans to narrow their results. My temptation came from my excitement that each of the links tagged on a social bookmarking site have been put there by a real person who has already judged the site to be useful, instead of a computer simply counting external links and looking for keywords without any context. I think this usefulness will only increase as the number of users increase. Tim O'Reilly, while discussing open source code back in 2003 calls this phenomenon the "architecture of participation" and Hammond, Hannay, Lund and Scott explain in their article Social bookmarking tools: A general review how "the result of this approach is that the best applications become more useful for all participants the more that people make use of them." In fact, I think web2.0 takes a lot from open source code: the idea that users can be in control of content and features, that ordinary individuals can make the web a better place.
The networking feature on del.icio.us could also prove to be uniquely empowering to students in the social bookmarking process. A student finds a link they find interesting or useful, and is able to easily pass it on to friends and classmates within a network, making possible the the student creation of pathfinders. Librarians can start the process, but students can now, with a single mouse click and a few typed in tags, add their own discoveries to a pathfinder. That same collaborative approach could be very powerful for educators, as teachers can create networks to easily share site that are useful to their subject, school, district, etc. Professionals can also find others with similar interests and expertise through networks and find out what other sites may be good to check out!
The Educause Learning Initiative in its 7 Things you should know about... Social bookmarking lists some of the downsides of social bookmarking, and they are worth considering. While tagging is powerful because it is done by ordinary people, that same feature makes it unpredictable and inconsisent. This goes back to my concerns over language conventions. Educause also discusses how social bookmarking, like all other web2.0 tools can be abused-- "Because social bookmarking reflects the values of the community of users, there is a risk of presenting a skewed view of the value of any particular topic." This could, however, be another valuable lesson for our students in the critical evaluation of resources on the web.
I wonder if social bookmarking could be another realm for teachers to create a parallel system for the unique needs of students and school? Would it be more useful to have a social bookmarking equivalent to TeacherTube? After all, there are already social bookmarking systems geared more towards scientists (Connotea) and academic researchers (Citeulike), why not one for educational professionals?
I'm looking forward to further exploring this tool!