On Zotero , Research & the LMS

I love doing research consultations with students. I take pleasure in helping them narrow broad topics that could sustain six dissertations into reasonable research morsels for 10 and 20 page papers or successful Division III independent projects.

How do students go from topics that can sustain six dissertations to topics appropriate for a senior project or 20 page research paper? Often, students can begin to narrow and refine their topics once they do some reading. However, one of the persistent roadblocks students encounter during this phase is how to find the first source they need to address their topic. I find that for many students, finding the first relevant source is always the hardest part.

To surmount that obstacle, one of my common recommendations is for students to pick a reading from their course syllabus and look it up in the library catalog – or in an article databases like JStor or Project Muse – to see what the subject headings and/or the keywords are. Then, the student can click on the most relevant word or heading and voila, instant sources!

But locating that interesting reading from the syllabus and remembering which saved pdf it was on the cluttered desktop can be a challenge for many students in the age of the learning management system. When I was in college ten years ago, I read from the trusty course pack, a giant set of readings that I kept in one place and could easily reference. These days, many students download readings to their desktops; some do so with an organizational scheme, others without one. Watching students deal with information overload these past few semesters, I started thinking about how their course readings, research, the LMS, and Zotero could intersect in powerful ways to empower students to successfully manage research over the course of semesters.

This year, I am very excited to be on a Kahn Liberal Arts Institute short project called “From HyperCities to Big Data and #ALT-AC: Debated in the Digital Humanities.” As part of the project, the organizers assigned participants reading that we could download from Smith College’s LMS. Great! I could download the pdfs to Dropbox, open them in iBooks and read. Then I realized that if I did that, these pdfs would just live in the pdf graveyard that is my iBooks library on my iPad. Many of the readings were excerpts, decontextualized for their full citations in the library. How could I connect the citations to the excerpt so I could easily keep track of both?

Answer: Zotero.

So, I saved the citations from Moodle into Zotero, downloaded the pdfs to Dropbox, attached them to the citations in Zotero, read and annotated PDFs on my iPad. Great!

Which got me thinking about students and research. I evangelize about Zotero in my research education classes about using it to collect and manage citations for research projects. But what about using it to manage their coursework, too? That way, when prompted for an example of a class reading that resonated, that could put them on the path towards successful source gathering, they could have it right there in the library?

I know for me, keeping professional reading I do in Zotero, always on the ready to generate bibliographies to share with colleagues has been a boon to productivity and my personal knowledge management. Now, to evangelize about this workflow for managing course assets!