Thursday, 23 September 2010

My experience using social bookmarking with medical students: #fail?

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Experience with Delicious...
I have about 300 second year medical students independently researching topics related to families who they are visiting. 2 years I ago I started using Delicious to share resources with them- often forums where patients were discussing topics such as living with diabetes or being a parent.The advantage was that Delicious was public. It made it easy to share a group of links in Blackboard. I encouraged students to sign up and share their own links so that they could develop ideas about curating and sharing, but this was a secondary aim.  I was aware of 15 students who actually signed up to Delicious, and about half of those saved at least one bookmark. But they didn't really understand tagging and obviously didn't find use in it for themselves as they haven't done so again.  I was also a little frustrated that I couldn't comment on or discuss with students why they had identified a particular source.

Interestingly I have showed Delicious to two of my personal tutees and they have continued to use it. But I introduced this to them in a one-to-one meeting. How can I manage to show the benefits of social bookmarking to 300 students in a lecture (in 5-10 minutes)?

...then Diigo....
Last year I decided to try Diigo. This was because it had richer features and would allow discussion around a topic. I am perhaps over-protective of students, but because this task was around the families they were visiting, I was keen to make this a private community so that if they did inadvertently break patient confidentiality then less harm was done. I've written more here about the the process of setting up the group and some of the hiccups along the way. Towards the end (after 3 months) some students (three!) did start saving bookmarks (one saved 7 to his diigo account, and shared 3 of these with the group, the other two only saved one bookmark each).
58 students signed up to Diigo - and these are the only ones who could access the 187 items that had been saved to the group- mostly by me. If I shared a link like this on Blackboard I was guaranteed to get a response from students saying that they couldn't access Diigo as they weren't a member. The process to join a closed group made it all more onerous.

Lessons learnt

  • The rich features of Diigo including the ability to use an avatar were not used by students.
  • A closed group makes things very much more complicated- and there was no evidence that students used the site in an inappropriate way- so open is better.
  • Few students saved links themselves, but it is very useful for me to be able to easily share materials with them.
This year?
I need to be clear about why I am introducing social bookmarking to students. This is not (yet) part of a programme in digital literacy. I started using Delicious in the course simply because it was an easy way for me to share information with students. My expectations then started increasing which was why I chose to use Diigo in a much more complex way the next year. I don't think that I can say that the use of Diigo was a success. I don't actually use it myself very much despite these rich features so it is hard to recommend to others.

Should I go back to using Delicious. Yes- students will need to set up a Yahoo account in order to save links- and the features are not as rich.
Or, I continue to use Diigo but open it up- it might take off this year.
Or, I try out using Scholar, a social-bookmarking tool which is built into our VLE. So far I don't understand it which means I am unlikely to use it. (Why did they pick a name so close to Google Scholar which is completely different??)

It is perhaps harsh to call this a failure. I didn't set out with the deliberate aim of teaching students about social bookmarking. If I was then I would probably force them to set up accounts and to save and comment on others links.But, I would like students to understand what social bookmarking is about- and to see that it might be useful to them. 

In this situation what would you do? I will report back!

EDIT: Martin Weller writes about similar issues in encouraging researchers to adopt social media here


  1. Hi Anne Marie. Thanks for the post. I'm in the process of experimenting with a range of social tools, also within a closed environment. I'm finding something similar among my students i.e. their interaction is limited when not a requirement of an assignment I've given them. Once the assignment is over, participation plummets. I'm hoping to do a focus group with users from both ends of the spectrum to try and identify why they didn't use more of the social features e.g. tagging, sharing resources, etc. I also conducted a project last year using wikis for collaborative learning, which didn't live up to my expectations. I've put a draft up at for public comment.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing Michael. I've come across more negative than positive stories about wikis especially.
    I know that I could treat the use of social bookmarking in two ways- as something for me to use to share a changing 'reading list'(well- it is more than that because of tagging), or something which I think it is important for students to contribute to. If is it all about access then it has to be open. The Diigo experience did not work. If it is about contribution then I need to sell it much better to the students just as I managed to when I talked to the two students who did take it up face to face. Perhaps I can do that by explaining how I use my own Delicious account in a screencast.

    I will have a full read at your document later. Many thanks for sharing.

  3. I would continue to use Diigo. You could probably set an online bookmark + discussion task/activity to be completed within the first week of the programme, make it compulsory and ask them to write a short reflection at the end which you could mark... too much?

  4. Hello Annalisa,
    There is no time to change the assessment for this year, but in any case it would be a lot of work to assess the reflections of 286 students. And would it be worth it?
    My gut feeling is that I am not making clear to them how social bookmarking is useful- if it is. How many people do really use the 'social' part of social bookmarking, rather than just have it as a useful way to find their OWN links again. I'm not convinced that it is so useful that I must make students use it... yet!

    Thanks again:)

  5. Sadly, we have given up trying to encourage students to use social bookmarking - due to lack of uptake. We have replaced if with a people-centred PLN approach oN Friendfeed. This suffers from lack of permanence, but the uptake is much higher. If I was going to try again, I would: 1) Use the simplest system I could find. That used to be delicious but Yahoo is steadily degrading it with extra "features"; 2) Make and required course reading before you start.

  6. Alan,
    Social bookmarking was useful to me with students because the permanence allowed me to build up resources.
    I didn't really set out to convince students of the merits- that was secondary. If I can't get over to them why it is useful then I don't blame them for not using it.
    Do you think that many people can manage to make the 'social' in social bookmarking work?

  7. Disclosure: I don't like Diigo. Never have. Not entirely sure why, it's just too complicated for me. It's a gut reaction similar to my feelings about Mendeley. I love delicious (and CiteULike), have excellent networks there that feed me good stuff all the time. Clearly most people don't make the jump from isolated to social though. That's the problem.

  8. This reminded me a lot of this paper:
    "Crafting The Initial User Experience to Achieve Community Goals" -
    Basically it suggests that if you force them to go through the process of tagging some things as the first step, you are much more likely to see them 'get it' and then use it. Really fascinating, counter-intuitive paper worth reading.

  9. @ajcann Diigo- through groups- automatically has the advantage of feeling more social. But I agree that the groups interface can make things more complicated. I have still to decide on this! Rolling Diigo over into next year would mean that I lose none of the content from this year. But I will not force you to join!
    Even when students did share resources to the group they were not so good at tagging but it was easy for me to add 'group' tags so that the could still be found again.
    Still thinking!

    @Benjamin Thank you very much for sending this. It is very interesting. How did you find this post? Thanks again.

  10. I like the annotation and highlighting features of Diigo (which you don't find on delicious)and it's good for getting learners to reflect on what they're bookmarking. Some ways to spark their interest might be to assign a reference-based scavenger hunt and require students to bookmark pages and annotate sections that answer your questions (and also ask them to provide more thoughtful answers as comments, which Diigo also allows). As part of the task, you might also require students to comment on at least 2 pages bookmarked by other students.

    You could also have them use the Group to create a collection of patient resources. That might help students understand the social value of bookmarking. (You can have students take screenshots of their Diigo pages and post it to your VLE to facilitate grading.)

    (I'm not quite sure why they find sign-ups and private groups so difficult. It's quite interesting that tagging as concept may need to be taught. You might try the semi-private option of "Apply to join - moderator approval required.")

  11. when I have had success it is because people a) suddenly appreciate that the barrier to use is lower than they expected and b) they can see immediate application. So for example at a recent staff workshop I demonstrated creating video and slidecasts and academics could see immediately that they could do it and they could use it in their teaching.
    The problem with social bookmarking, particularly for undergrads, is that it is a solution to a problem they don't know they have.
    The other difficulty with a lot of social media is that it takes time for it to be of benefit. Building up your network, archiving your own thoughts, etc - the payback on these can be months, if not years down the line. Which is difficult to get across.

  12. Hello Diane,

    Thanks for your comment! Do you have experience of using social bookmarking with medical students? Annotation and highlighting can be useful features I agree, but are they 'social'? Are we talking about personal bookmarking here?
    I am working with almost 300 students so don't want to introduce any extra assessment burden. As I said, it is my own personal interest to explore social bookmarking because it is an interest- although I have found very, very few doctors using it to record clinical information. I have written a few blogposts on this before.

    I think I am moving back to thinking of this as being a convenient way for me to save resources to share with them, and if they want to join in then that is great.

    Thanks Martin,
    What about the social aspects of social bookmarking? Do you use feel it really is social? I don't want to put a lot of effort in to trying to convince students to use something that most people don't think is particularly useful.
    I agree that the benefits can take a while to accrue. And to be honest, I'm not sure that we know what they are for medicine. But we;re working on it!
    Many thanks!

  13. I haven't kicked the tires of social bookmarking with medical students but adult learners will generally buy into it, at least for the purpose of a course, if there's some gradable element to it (...sad but true...). However, the 300 student issue is quite daunting! Maybe you could consider creating student teams of ten and have the teams create their own personal Diigo Groups to place online materials in and to comment. That way you're "down to" 30 gradable objects. The rubric could be pretty basic: do the resources address a particular question you've asked or problem you've wanted students to solve?

    I do think annotation and highlighting are social because the annotated/highlighted sections will show up on the group pages under the bookmarked link, so fellow students will get to see what others have focused on as the most important points of a page and where students have raised issues/questions/comments that others might answer.

  14. Hello everyone, I have had exactly the same experience using Delicious with midwifery students. One of the conclusions I came to is that even though they were supposed to be digital natives, they didn't understand social networking...or at least, not for "learning".

    So I am now taking the approach that AJCann has taken in his work (check out his latest blog post: & headed back to Facebook. I know the thoughts about the 'creepy treehouse' but the 'young' students understand why struggle with things they do not understand?

  15. I should add, with reference to my comment on grading, social bookmarking won't have staying power, as you've noted, unless students can clearly see the "What's in it for me" aspect. Of course the "what's in it for me" may be the opportunity to participate in a social community in a way that helps you learn, etc.

    Sounds like this is a bit of a hard sell to medical students...I'm wondering if that's because pre-med studies are so inherently individualistic and competitive. (May be overgeneralizing...what do you think? I went into science initially and obtained a PhD and remember the pressures on my pre-med friends.)

  16. Anne Marie-

    Another nice and thought provoking post. I'm finding that with social media in general, since my clerkship is only 4 weeks out of the 2 years of medical school, that students don't have enough time on my rotation to get used to it and see the potential benefits before they rotate off, and then as you said, participation plummets even for the few who I did get to participate. I've often thought that I would have more success if I could convince other rotations to use the same tools in the same way (obviously with different content) that then we could start to make some headway. I haven't been able to convince any other clerkship directors to adopt something similar yet. But if use of social media or bookmarking could be used longitudianlly (perhaps even folded into a more formal course on how to live as a physician in the web 2.0->3.0 era) this would help immensely. I also agree that adding a gradable element or extra credit would help. I did get a student to help out with a wiki I made of our neurology course readings by baiting them with extra credit.

    The thing I am experimenting with now is having the students join a Facebook Fanpage (you can make it by invitation only if you want), although I have mine public right now (you can search for OHSU Virtual Neurology Clerkship on Facebook to find it). The advantage I saw was that this is a platform most of them are familiar with using, so you don't have to teach any new skills. I'm posting interesting articles or links on the page. This is somewhat similar to a bookmarking site like Delicious. I've just started a few months ago and only have about 10 signed up so far, but I'll let you know how it goes. So far I have no gradable attachment to it, and with only a few fans, it is mainly me posting things. I did put a BIG disclaimer on it saying this is not for protected patient information, and it does require frequent monitoring. I'll let you know how it goes.

  17. Sounds like the workflow of bookmarking in Delicious put them off, more than not getting it. It wasn't "natural" for them to browse and bookmark as they went. Did you get them to install browser toolbars, extensions, etc. to help them out? Were they able to install them on University PCs? Sounds also like the Yahoo! account is an issue, and something I despised while working with Flickr. If they could sign in with Facebook, for example, and have a "share" button similar to those that are on my Android phone I'm sure you'd increase uptake. My thoughts: it's just not very intuitive to use Delicious. I know, because I have the extension in Google Chrome and it stays relatively untouched.

  18. I'm fascinated and very surprised to read about the lack of social media use - for learning purposes at least - amongst medical students.
    I had come across some librarians/information professionals in the UK who wanted to use social media to convey info but had problems with accessing social media websites on university or NHS networks - or with people who decided on such matters seeing social web tools as inherently unsafe.

  19. @Dianne
    I'm sure I could get students to 'but in' to socail book-marking if I assessed it, but the bigger question is why do this? I'm getting the impression that most people who use 'social' bookmaking tools, actually use them as personal web-based bookmarking tools. In a sense this is what I am doing as well when I choose to share something a link like on a discussion board in Blackboard as an easy way of getting things started for a student with problems finding resources. I'm really questioning whether I should be making any kind of big deal about social- eg encouraging them to sign up and join my network on Delicious, or encouraging them to share links to the Diigo group- if that isn't how most people use these bookmarking tools anyway. Do you see my point?

    A key issue is that students are all researching different topics, so although I can see what would be appropriate tags as I can see themes recurring over the years, if 300 students really were saving 15-20 links each it probably would turn into an incoherent mess. And as the task is not group-based it probably would be hard for them to see WHY they should do it. (I do also work with smaller groups of students working on a shared task and for them Delicious/Diigo or CiteuLike/Mendeley/Zotero may be really useful tools).

    I don't find medical students to be particularly competitive. But if they are working on an individual task it might be harder for them to see the value in sharing- just as it is for most faculty!

    @Sarah Thanks! Interesting to see that you too have given up on teaching social bookmarking. Have you given up on using it too? I don't think we can convince students to value that which we don't value ourselves. I'm also using Facebook- will have to be a seperate post!- but just like FriendFeed I think this is a completely different kind of tool for a different purpose.

    @ohsuneuro Thank you! I'm aware of your FB page from the #smime blog and I do promise to blog about my own experiences very soon. Maybe later! My hope is that by talking about what we are doing and why with the use of social media in medical education, then we can start to figure out how it would be sensible to integrate into the curriculum.

  20. @Mark No, I think most people just don't get why they should bother using any social bookmarking tool. I'm not sure that it has to do with workflow issues- what made you think that? Next, with regards to instruction my approach was 'no-one has to be taught to use eBay' as you often say. I thought that they would probably figure it out. The one thing I did try and help them understand was how to actually sign-up to the Diigo group...
    The fact that someone as web 2 savvy as you finds no value in social bookmarking (in current form) gives more weight to my current hunch that I shouldn't worry about trying to convince students. I rarely save directly to Delicous now as I tweet just about any link I find interesting so booksmarks it to Delicious for me. Works well.

    @Janet Now, I'm not saying that medical students don't use social media for learning. I have no evidence for that at all. All I can say is that they are under-whelmed by social bookmarking... but wider discussion shows that most of the people who use social bookmarking don't really use it socially, and I'd bet that not a very high large percentage of the people I know on twitter use social bookmarking at all! So medical students rejection may just reflect the ambivalence of the general population.

    Next, you are right that sites such as Facebook are often blocked by NHS firewalls. I don't have a problem with not being able to access Facebook from the practice I work in, because I can't yet see a reason it would help me with my work. In fact I haven't found any social media tools to be useful to my work as a GP. Does that surprise you?
    Thank you very much for dropping by the blog!

    And a big thank you to all of you for the great conversation!

  21. @Anne Marie Yes, I use Delicious and I feed it into courses I teach so students can follow the resources I find...but this is a one-way process as I found the collaborative approach hasn't worked.

  22. @AM I think it has a lot to do with workflow. And, you can't really compare it to eBay in this instance. Let's take a look at the workflow of bookmarking on Delicious *without* a browser extension:

    1) Visit a website, copy the URL. (Assuming students know how to copy URLs, and understand that the URL is the part you need to copy.)
    2) Open a new tab, or navigate to
    3) Log in to using remembered username/password, if needed.
    4) Click "Save a new bookmark" button. (Assuming students know where to find that button.)
    5) Paste in copied URL. (Assuming students know what a URL is.)
    6) Add all relevant meta-data, and click Save.
    7) Go back to browsing the Internet.
    8) Repeat.

    If they visit eBay, they're there because they want to buy something. Which is different, because it only involves one website, not two i.e. the site they want to bookmark and Again, you are coming from a biased position because you understand the necessity of the steps above. And, yes, they will be reduced with cookies enabled after they've signed in once. With a browser extension, even less. Did you consider the multiple ways in which "social" bookmarks are created?

  23. @Sarah Thanks. That is the way that I am using SB in teaching. But is that really 'social' bookmarking? To me it is 'personal' web-based bookmarking, in public. Does public make it social? The questions are growing for me!

    @Mark I suppose I was basing my comment on the basis that most students just don't sign up for the service so they haven't yet figured out how awkward it is to use. So far, I presume that I am not convincing students that this is something that is worth exploring. It's true that I haven't tried very hard.

    When you used the eBay analogy before I used to think that you meant that if something has value to you then you will figure out how to use it... I can see that you perhaps meant something more about usability. That was what I meant when I said that I approached it in this way... my job is to try and teach the value of social bookmarking through demonstrating what it can do, and then the students can make it work for themselves if they are interested.
    If someone can not see how something would be of value to them then I don't think it matters much how much you teach them about HOW to use the tool. Do you think that is right? Of course there are times when you think that something is really wonderful and you still can't figure out how to do it and then you ask for help. A few students alerted me to difficulties in signing up with Diigo - and I think they thought it was an important thing to do because I had sent them a link that they could only access once they had signed up. But in general students weren't feeding back that it was too complicated to use- so I presumed that it was just that they don't see the value.
    As I say, a lot of my peers don't miss much by not engaging in 'social' bookmarking so the students may well be right.

  24. Thank you for your post. I have a similar experience, in my case not with social bookmarking but with online discussion forums and an online platform to promote debate social issues. Because this was embedded in a wider programme including presentational sessions, all the around 600 students register, but numbers of participation were low and indirectly proportional to the time distance from the presentational sessions.
    So what have I learned from this experience?
    Although students use facebook, twitter, amazon, ebay and others, that does not mean they will immediately "get hook" to other online activity just because we think it's amazing. Clearly all the above mentioned websites are highly popular because one way or another they solve problems or answer to people’s needs. If these are real needs, or just need their "evil marking genius" have created in order to would be along discussion and probably the conclusion is a bit of both.
    To get students to engage, they need to feel that what you're offering solves a problem they have.
    B) Changing is an INVESTMENT you expect RETURN/PROFIT
    Humans are animals of habits, students are not exception! Exploring something new takes time and need mental availability, this means when you are learning how a new discussion forum works, you're making an investment. And like all the investments you expect to get something in return, some profit! Beware the bigger the investment you ask for, the bigger the expected return. If you put all your money in a savings bank account and (after the previously agreed period) there is no return, or the return is just too far from the expected, what do you do? Do not put more money in that bank and you would take your money elsewhere. We all do the same with our time, and if you want students to invest in "you" they have to know clearly "what is in it for them? and when are they going to get it?".
    C) THEY FEEL JUDGED more often them we anticipate
    This was a interesting finding from the focus groups, students said they felt they couldn't just write they had to think carefully about what they were writing. Our students were 1st years, the impact might be different in further years, but I find interesting this idea that we must not forget the power relationship that exists between the students and the programmes set-up by the school or groups or teachers (I do this more often than I should). They might be told times and times again that no one is going to judge their comments, that we are all just having a "chat", apparently they do not believe.
    D) TIME DOES MAKE a Difference
    This is more a personal insight, but if A and B are there, then you have the opportunity to make sure they believe it’s not an assessment, because they see it!
    Time does helps, new activities become habits, and them your are at the other side of the fence...along with facebooks, and ebays !!

  25. Hello Ana Linda,
    That is an excellent comment. Many thanks. I have decided to try Diigo again- but to make the group public- so I will report back on progress.

    Thank you again!


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