Monday, 11 March 2013

Creating dynamic reading lists in your VLE using Zotero

This, then is my experiment with reading lists this semester.  It has been driven in part by the extent to which referencing management tool Zotero has become so deeply embedded in my own way of working, and in part by the tentative initial evidence which suggests that the quality of referencing and consistency of criticality in students work can tangibly benefit by using it.

To begin with, I have created a group in Zotero called Newham University Centre.  I could, of course, create a separate group for each module I am teaching, but since this is a first-time experiment it seemed simpler to try a generic approach to begin with:

This group will now appear in my folder structure online, in my standalone version, or in my browser extension.  From here, I can now drag accross my folders with reading lists - or create my reading lists directly into the group library folders:

To manage the group members, I need to go to the Zotero website.  Clicking on the 'Groups' tab, there is an option under the header for 'manage members'.  At the bottom of this page is a link to 'Send More Invitations'.

Clicking on this will take me to a page where I can type in or paste the email addresses of the students I  want to invite to join.  There is an option for sending a personal message as well, which may be a good idea for those who might otherwise be baffled by the whole business:

Clicking 'Invite Members' will send an email inviting the recipients to join the group (if they are already a member) or to register (if they are not).  Once they have accepted the invitation then the group libraries will appear at the bottom of their own folder structures in Zotero.  From here they can create bibliographies and access any notes, attached files or tags which you have added.  Even better, I can now continually update my reading lists as I find new resources.

Creating a dynamic reading list in a VLE

Of course, not all students will want to use Zotero.  Some of the wee buggers will always want to be awkward and use somthing else - like paper.  So a neat way around this is to use the Zotero RSS option to create dynamic lists in your VLE.

Let me explain:

If I go to Zotero online again, and to my 'Groups' tab, there is an option to access the 'Group Library':

Clicking on this will take me to an online version of my Zotero group folder structure.  The key bit on this page is the link at the bottom which has the orange RSS logo, and the option 'Subscribe to this feed':

I need to make sure I have the particular folder I want highlighted, and then I click on the RSS feed button.  This takes me to a page which is like a text list of my Zotero entries, and looks like this:

What I really want from this page is the url address (in the address bar).  Once I have copied this, I can create my dynamic VLE page.  What I want to create now is an RSS widget.  There are lots of websites which do this - some of which charge, and others which let you use them for 30 days or so before blocking them and then making you pay.  Others though, are gloriously free.  I have been using FeedWind, although doubtless there are many others out there:

At this website, I can see a form to start customising my feed.  To begin with, I need to paste the url web address from the RSS page above into the 'Feed URL' box at the top of the form.  There is a preview of the widget on the right.  In the 'General' options, I can click on 'Advanced Options' to adjust the height and style of the widget.  A large number for the height - anything from 2000 to 4000 - suits my purposes:

In 'Entry Title' I can expand the number of words the title will display.  I tend to set this to around 400 - as some journal titles can be interminably long.  In the 'Entry Contents' the key option is for 'html tag'.  Selecting 'On' means that my book entries will include all the information about the sources.  Without this option, the number of words describing the source will be limited - which might be useful for creating a shorter page, but here I am throwing in the lot:

At the bottom of the page is the code which has been generated by the website.  When I have finished customising the widget, I simply select this code and copy it:

Now, its onwards to the VLE.  We use Moodle, but I would imagine most work in a similar way as far as this is concerned.  I am creating a 'page', in which I can add any content I want.  More importantly though, once I have the editing window for the page open I am clicking on the 'html' button, in order to switch into a coding form of entry for the page.  This sometimes shows as '< >' rather than 'html':

In the box that comes up, I simply paste the code I have copied from FeedWind:

 Click 'Update', then 'save'.  The page itself now looks like this:

 Handily now, every time I edit, add or delete an entry to my reading lists through Zotero, this page will automatically adjust to include those changes.  A dynamic reading list that means I can organise my reading lists through Zotero and have them sync with my students course pages on the VLE.