The Question of Expert Learners
One of the great mistakes we make when we think about teaching with technology is our failure to consider what we mean by teaching, period. In other words, before we can think about teaching with technology, we need to think about teaching. Further, before we can think about teaching, we need to think about learning, about what it is we want our students to learn and why: an approach to learning that Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call “backward design” (13). Much of my own understanding about learning is informed by How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, a comprehensive look at what recent cognitive and developmental research tells us about learning. Co-authored by John Bransford, Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking, How People Learn is underwritten by a very simple fact: experts in any given field are not experts because of what they know but, rather, because of how they learn. Experts are not experts so much as they are expert learners. They know how to learn. The gap between novice and expert learners is vast, but the substantial research synthesized in How People Learn demonstrates there are several essential differences: expert learners notice meaningful information overlooked by novices; experts organize their knowledge associatively rather than sequentially; and experts recognize that the applicability of their skills and knowledge depends on circumstances, while novices bluntly apply their smaller skill set to every problem, even when profoundly inappropriate (Bransford et al. 19).
All of my teaching—with or without technology—is geared toward moving students along the path from novice learner to expert learner. Along the way I stress three principals, sometimes implicitly, but often explicitly:
By intentionality, I mean an attentiveness to the work at hand and deliberation about how to approach that work. Reflection comes into play as the students think through what happened as they tried to reach those goals. It’s about knowing what worked, what did not, and why. As for accountability, I believe that teachers and students alike should accept ownership over their intellectual work, and recognize that the humanities classroom, in its most ideal (though seldom fully-realized) form is a forum to exchange and revise ideas, a potential Habermasian public sphere. I want my students to realize that what they think and what they say and what they write matters—to me, to them, to their classmates and, quite possibly, to the world.
One need not turn to digital media to foster these principles of intentionality, reflection, and accountability. Nor is digital media necessary to transform novice learners into expert learners. But I do believe that if one is going to teach with digital media, these three principles must be in the foreground, guiding our intention as teachers, which is to help students become better learners—even expert learners. We should not ask students to blog unless we know why we want students to blog. If our own intentions are not clear, how can we expect our students’ to be? Likewise, we should not ask students to be reflective unless we ourselves are ready to reflect upon our own failings in the classrooms as well as our unexpected successes. If we see something does not work, whether it’s a reading, an assignment or a technology, we must be prepared to either tweak it, change it, or get rid of it entirely. Learning is not a reflex of technology. If a particular technology does not help our students learn, then it’s a technology we shouldn’t be using.
When it comes to technology, one promising approach to the problem of creating better learners is to teach students to become critical practitioners of the technology itself. This involves asking: What is the difference between a “user” and a “critical practitioner”? We might think of different levels of proficiency with any kind of tool or technology, ranging from inability to comfortability to expert ability. I want to argue, though, that being an expert does not necessarily mean one is a critical practitioner. In How We Learn, Bransford et al. point out the distinction between artisans and virtuosos. Artisans are highly competent experts in their field, and they approach problems “as opportunities to use their existing expertise to do familiar tasks more efficiently” (34). They focus on the immediate project at hand and delight in exercising their “routinized” skills. Virtuosos are experts as well, but they delight in pushing their craft beyond the accepted, beyond the familiar. Virtuosos approach problems as “as opportunities to explore and expand their current levels of expertise” (34). There’s an element of playfulness with virtuosity, in the sense that Salen and Zimmerman mean in Rules of Play: “free movement within a more rigid structure” (304).
Play in this sense pushes the boundaries of what can be done with any given system or tool. When I think about how I want my students to use technology, I think of this kind of virtuoso performance. A critical practitioner knows the technology so intimately that he or she can make it do things it was never designed to do. The critical practitioner knows the limits of a tool—its technological, pedagogical, ideological limits—and then knows how to exceed those limits. Of course, it’s not immediately evident how one goes about creating virtuosos. How do you turn naïve users of a digital tool into expert users? And how do you turn expert users into virtuoso users?
I want to introduce a pedagogical strategy that I see as essential in the transformation of a beginning learner into an expert leaner, called guided inquiry or cognitive apprenticeship. It’s the idea that the teacher—the expert learner—creates an open but guided experience for the novice learner, apprenticing the student in the same kind of authentic tasks an expert in the field undertakes. A cognitive apprenticeship begins with the teacher modeling the learning activity, then the student attempting it with just the right level of scaffolding provided by the teacher, and finally, as the student becomes more proficient, the teacher gradually steps back, providing less scaffolding, a process called “fading” (Collins, Brown and Holum 8).
Sharing Research with Zotero
I’ve incorporated a scaffolding model into an assignment I use with Zotero. Before I explain the assignment and how it might develop expert learners of the subject matter as well as critical practitioners of the software itself, I ought to describe Zotero, an open-source reference manager developed by the Center of History and New Media at George Mason University. Integrated tightly into the web browsing experience, Zotero can quickly capture the citation of an online catalog reference or e-journal article. Zotero can also easily grab metadata from popular sites such as YouTube, Flickr, or the New York Times. Once citations are in Zotero’s database, it’s possible to edit them, search them, tag them with keywords, associate them with notes and PDFs, and even incorporate them directly into a word processing document in the appropriate citation style.
When Zotero was first released, it did not appear to fill an existing need. Reference managers have been available for Macs and PCs since at least the early nineties. EndNote was and remains one of the most prominent examples, but there are many similar applications available, including RefWorks and BibTeX. While Zotero shares many of the same features as EndNote or RefWorks, the application is substantively different from these other reference managers. It’s transformatively different, in fact. Zotero has the potential to drastically change how citations are managed, and even more importantly, how research is shared.
Zotero, both in code and practice, cultivates an ethos of openness. The latest version allows scholars and students to “publish” their Zotero collection, so that anybody can see the sources in those collections (and optionally, the notes about those sources). In my own case, I have not only shared my research collection on the Zotero site but also updated the main sidebar on my blog with a feed of my “Recently Zoteroed” books and articles. As I gather and annotate sources for my teaching and research, the newest additions appear there, with links back to the full bibliographic record in the online version of my Zotero collection. The implications of this sharing are astonishing. Imagine publishing your research notes — and only the notes — shorn of context or rhetoric or (especially) the sense of a conclusion we like to build into our papers. Imagine sharing only your Works Cited. Or, imagine sharing the loosest, most chaotic collection of sources, expanded way beyond the shallows of Works Cited, past the nebulous Works Consulted, deep into the fathomless Works Out There.
This is not the way scholars or students usually conduct research in the humanities. We are used to keeping our collection of sources private for as long as possible, holding them close to our chest as if we were gamblers in the great poker game of academia. Proprietary software like Endnote, which by default encloses research libraries within a walled garden, reinforces this notion, that the engine of scholarship is competition rather than collaboration. Zotero flips this notion on its head. Sharing is at the heart of Zotero.
Looked at prosaically, shared Zotero libraries might seem to be the equivalent of a give-a-penny, take-a-penny bowl at a local store—a quick way to discover a new reference without extensive digging through databases. This convenience alone would be useful, but the creators of Zotero are much more inspired than that. They know that sharing a library is crowdsourcing a library. The more people who know what we’re researching before we’re done with the research, the better. Better for the researchers, better for the research. Collaboration begins at the source, literally. As more researchers—and students—share their libraries, we’re going to achieve what the visionaries in the Center for History and New Media call the Zotero Commons, a collective, networked repository of shareable, annotatable material that will facilitate collaboration and the discovery of hidden connections across disciplines, fields, genres and periods.
Zotero and Annotated Bibliographies
I’ve started using Zotero to transform what has come to be rite of passage for our advanced undergraduate or graduate students: the annotated bibliography. The annotated bibliography is a rite that should be questioned, as I’ve found little correspondence between the students’ ability to annotate relevant sources and their ability to contextualize those sources within a larger scholarly conversation, let alone work them into their own contribution to that conversation. Unimpressed with the flat, disengaged annotated bibliographies my own students had done in the past, I took the idea and added several twists. My Zotero annotated bibliography assignment uses the affordances of Zotero to (1) make the students’ annotations public and shareable and (2) create a three-tiered scaffolding for the assignment, in which each successive tier requires greater engagement with the material. In Tier One, students tag eight potential sources with keywords. Of those eight, students write annotations for four as Tier Two. Finally, Tier Three is an extended review of a single article from the previous step. This engagement is guided by several prompts from me, directing students to notice the article’s context, methodology, and possible relevance to their own research interests.
The three tier process is obviously influenced by my belief in cognitive apprenticeship and in letting students perform the kind of work a scholar in the field might perform as second nature. I’ve found these annotated bibliographies to be both more useful and more doable for students than the unstructured bibliographies we usually ask them to assemble. Furthermore, because students are given the freedom to hone in on what they find most compelling, they feel a sense of investment and ownership over their bibliographies in a way I have never seen before. Finally, because the annotations are aggregated publicly in a collective online library, they form an academic commons for our class, a shared resource that represents our intellectual labor that becomes the basis for future scholarship, for both ourselves and the wider community.
The Zotero Annotated Bibliography Assignment
This assignment serves several purposes: it is an opportunity for you to begin exploring possible questions for your final paper; it is a way to see what kinds of conversations go on amongst scholars of contemporary literature; it is a chance to rehearse the steps involved in a research project; and finally, it is an introduction to Zotero, a browser extension that simplifies the process of recording, annotating, formatting, and sharing bibliographies.
Begin the assignment by settling upon a research topic or problem. Ideally this topic could lead to your final research paper, but it doesn’t have to. The topic might be a specific writer or a specific novel, but it could also be something more general, say, trauma theory, dystopian literature, or apocalypticism in the postmodern world.
Locate eight works of criticism or scholarship that might be relevant to your topic. Find a mixture of books and journal articles. Avail yourself of the various research databases our library has access to: the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, the MLA International Bibliography, JStor, Project Muse, etc. Once you’ve found one or two articles, consider “mining” their own bibliographies for possible appropriate sources.
Use Zotero to record the bibliographic information of each of your eight sources. If you’re using any of the library’s databases or online catalogs, it is supremely easy for Zotero to “grab” the citation information (and associated PDF files as well). Store your eight citations in a new Zotero collection (so that they will easily stand out from any existing citations you have gathered in the past).
We will have a three-tier system of annotations, in which each successive level requires deeper engagement with fewer sources:
Tier One: Use Zotero’s tagging feature to tag all eight sources with 5-10 relevant tags, or keywords. Base your tags on the title, author, subject, abstract, or other pieces of metadata you find associated with the source.
Tier Two: Decide which four sources sound the most promising or interesting and look at them up close. You don’t need to read these four books or articles all the way through. Look at introductions and conclusions and skim through the rest. Try to get a sense of the argument and approach of each of the pieces of scholarship. Synthesize what you learn about each of the texts, and record your findings as an annotation in the Notes tab for each citation in Zotero. These annotations should be no longer than several sentences. Think of them as your capsule description of the book or article, highlighting what is most worth mentioning about the piece of scholarship. They should give you (or another researcher looking at your bibliography) a snapshot of the source.
Tier Three: Out of the four sources you annotated, select one article (not book) to read thoroughly. Write a two-page response to the article in which you consider these questions:
- Who is the article’s intended audience? That is, specialists, the general public, scholars with certain interests, something else entirely?
- What is the central claim or question of the article?
- What is your response to the article’s argument—do you find it persuasive, unpersuasive, interesting, uninteresting? Explain your response.
- What do you notice about the article’s methodology—the kinds of evidence the writer draws on and the critical approach the writer takes in framing a question or problem to analyze?
- How does the scholar situate his or her argument in relationship to other critics? That is, does the scholar write to undercut x’s argument, or to build on y’s argument, or in agreement with z’s argument? How does the argument signal its participation in a larger critical conversation?
- What questions come to mind as you read the article?
We will use Zotero’s Group feature to share our resources with each other online. After you have finished the first three parts of the assignment, you can drag your eight sources from the Zotero collection on your computer to an online Group that I will set up for the class.
Also, export your Zotero collection of eight sources as a Zotero RDF file (be sure to include the notes and files when the option comes up). Email the resulting file to me. Also email your response to the single article as well. This material is all due Tuesday, November 24.
Once I have everyone’s annotated bibliography via Zotero, I will compile all the citations from all the students into one large bibliography, which I will post online, and which we can begin using as a shared resource.
Reflections upon the Zotero Assignment
I have used versions of the above assignment with both undergraduate and graduate students, and I continue to refine it. While most of my revisions have so far focused on tweaking the third tier questions, what seems most promising for the future is making greater use of the final, shared bibliography—that aggregation of twenty-five or so individual student bibliographies. Imagine students compiling a shared bibliography, with annotations, early in the semester. How might the class respond to and build upon such a pool of research as the semester goes on? Even more tantalizing: how might the class’s shared bibliography contribute to the broader community of students and scholars addressing the same research questions? How might students use Zotero to form connections between themselves and other researchers, a pivotal moment in the gradual transition from novice to expert learner, and a step as well in the transition from user of Zotero to critical practitioner of Zotero? These questions and others like them should be in the foreground as we incorporate Zotero and other social media experiences into our pedagogy. Intentional design and reflecting upon the results of that design is essential if, as professors, we also want to become critical practitioners of the tools we use in our teaching.
Bransford, John D. et al., Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.
Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum. “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible.” American Educator 15.3 (1991): 6–11.
Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.
 Zotero can be freely downloaded from <http://www.zotero.org/>. While the current version of Zotero is a plug-in for Mozilla’s Firefox browser, a new version called Zotero Everywhere will be a cross-platform standalone application, featuring integration with the other major web browsers, including Chrome and Safari.
 See the following sites for information about these other reference management software packages: EndNote <http://www.endnote.com/>; BibTeX <http://www.bibtex.org/>; and RefWorks <http://www.refworks.com/>.
 For an example of a group bibliography from one of my own classes, imported from Zotero into MIT’s Citeline interface, see <http://www.samplereality.com/gmu/spring2009/660/classbibliography.html>.