Monday, November 8, 2010

Contingency in use of Digital Tools

Once again, on the theme of implicit digital literacies...
I have been talking with students recently about reference management software. Amongst others, the students can choose between:
  1. Endnote
  2. Endnote Web
  3. Zotero
The first two are 'supported' at Cardiff University: there are 'styles' for both the School's in-house Harvard as well as Cardiff University's variant. Option 1 is expensive while Option 2 is quite clumsy to use (requires signup on-campus and 'nasty' passwords). Zotero is a dream to use and it's free, although the School's house style for Harvard is not available currently (another job for muggins perhaps).
However, with the recent demise of drop.io, it could be argued that recommending the open source, unsupported Zotero exposes students to an unacceptable risk. What happens when the student fails to submit coursework on time because Zotero failed? Of course, couching recommendations with cautionary remarks chill-off students from engaging with and benefiting from a tool that is unlikely to fail.
Expert use of tools like Zoterio and drop.io will have incurred a certain amount of investigation into the robustness/life expectancy of the tool. An expert will have a sense of whether it is necessary to devise a contingency plan in the event of the tool's unavailability, whether temporary (read a book for a bit) or permanent (start looking for an alternative that might be compatible with your archive).
Whether using email, online filestore, collaboration spaces, blog, mindmapping, bookmark sharing or reference management, all of them may suffer 'outages'. But this is something users have come to live with, it is implicitly part of working in these ways.
It is easy to demonstrate the benefits of Zotero. Communicating the 'small print' is far more tricky. But I am at a loss as to how to convey the 'tool appraisal' and 'back-up and rescue' skills mentioned above without completely losing my audience.

2 comments:

donater said...

What happens when the student fails to submit coursework on time because Zotero failed?

This would seem to apply to any reference manager. To single out zotero is nothing but FUD.


But I am at a loss as to how to convey the 'tool appraisal' and 'back-up and rescue' skills mentioned above without completely losing my audience.

Convey them as you would with EndNote: the issues are no different!

Mike said...

Many thanks for taking the trouble to read/comment. You're right, we do need to make these fault lines explicit, whichever tool we're looking at. However, turning that into a 'Networked Learner competence' is what my post was really about. Perhaps it only comes with experience, good or bad. But then, how will students come to the point of having those experiences, and have enough of them to start reaping the rewards of engaging...?
'This would seem to apply to any reference manager. To single out zotero is nothing but FUD.'
FUD perhaps, and, as I said, I prefer Zotero and tell students this. But, where the University explicity fully supports Endnote, that's a world apart in my mind from the sense of being cast adrift on (albeit brilliant) 'unsupported' software. I see institutional support levels as a barrier/carrier to adoption.