Personal tagging in Zotero Groups: A ‘messy’ but collaborative resource list for BA Design students

A creative illustration of Sarah Charalambides using mixed material on paper.

Sarah Charalambides is a PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in the department of Visual Cultures. In this post Sarah describes how students might use Zotero to curate multimodal and collaborative resource lists, whilst drawing attention to some barriers for participation. The reflection is based on a project with Antonia Lewis and Sarah Pennington.


While technology can make teaching more flexible, accessible and reliable, allowing people to learn anywhere and anytime, it is important to acknowledge the barriers that discourage some students from taking part in online activities (Selwyn, 2017). Located in the constructivist approach, our project aims to create a student-centred, active, engaging, and authentic learning environment.

Our technology-­enhanced teaching artefact for third year BA Design students consists of a web-based activity to be embedded into the curriculum of the Context Report Module. For their final independent project the students need to develop a so called ‘context report’. This is a written and visually designed manuscript that presents a substantial piece of research into a particular design-related topic that defines the context for the student’s studio-based practice (Image 1).


Image 1. The context report as a material as well as narrative document.

Because the report can be approached from a wide range of written and visual angles, we wanted to develop an artefact that draws attention to the process of searching for interesting and useful examples to inspire the content as well as the layout of the document. Rather than taking a didactic approach, we looked for a web-­based technology that could accommodate and encourage the sharing of references amongst students in a collaborative way.

The compiling of this multimodal resource list would be a collective effort, and at the same time function as an exercise in ‘focused research’: the process of finding relevant textual and visual materials for the context report. For our online collaborative resource list, we decided to turn to Zotero, a free, open-­source reference management system and an easy-­to-use tool to help collect, organise, cite, and share research. Combining social networking, group libraries, and remote access with robust citation management software, Zotero meets the criteria for integrating technology and pedagogy to maximise learning. As Michael Fullan states, it is ‘irresistibly engaging; elegantly efficient; technologically ubiquitous; and steeped in real-­life problem solving’ (Fullan, 2012: 33). Intrigued by the sharing capabilities of Zotero Groups, we set up a web-­based bibliography for the context report module, transforming the work of gathering and citing sources into a social knowledge creation project that invites students to build valuable clusters of sources, rather than focus primarily on formatting conventions (Image 2).

This is image 2. It shows Zotero groups and tags.

Image 2. Prototype context report group library in Zotero Groups.

According to David Jaques and Gilly Salmon, learning in groups in an online environment allows students to have greater scope to negotiate meaning and express themselves and their own ideas. It also helps them to establish more effective relationships and can play a central role in developing professional skills like team working (Jaques & Salmon, 2007). The dynamic process of organising a group library with others could get everyone’s intellectual juices going and stimulate discussion over the logic of certain hierarchies or groupings of material. This sort of engagement also allows learners to think critically from multiple perspectives and familiarises them with fellow students’ points of view (Galarza, 2011). Furthermore, it encourages students to connect with peers working on similar topics; bringing dispersed learners and their diverse voices together, whilst promoting the formation of ‘sub-­communities’ with corresponding research interests (Honeychurch et al., 2016: 36).

Rather than enforcing a pre-­conceived controlled vocabulary, either by using teachers’ classifications or forcing students to tag their materials from established thesauri, our teaching artefact allows students to apply their own verbal descriptors to resources.”

Our online activity would be introduced as a Context Report Treasure or Scavenger Hunt, asking students to find at least two examples of what they think a context report is or could be. As part of this process, students would need to think about what information is needed in order to submit their resources. They are also required to annotate their contributions, explaining why a particular example is of interest or useful. In addition, students have to tag the items they add to the list. Tagging, like many other indexing methods, resorts to multiple terms to describe the ‘aboutness’ of documents (Kipp & Campbell, 2007: 9). The tagging pattern emerging in our Zotero Group might constitute an entirely new method of information organisation, one which can scale in ways that conventional systems cannot. Rather than enforcing a pre-­conceived controlled vocabulary, either by using teachers’ classifications or forcing students to tag their materials from established thesauri, our teaching artefact allows students to apply their own verbal descriptors to resources.

However, through prototyping our teaching artefact, we realised there are some issues here. For example, if there are 100 students who each submit two references we could possibly end up with 200 tags. Because students are mostly untrained in indexing methods, they cannot always create tags which cohere into useful patterns, at least not to the extent that would justify dispensing with controlled vocabularies and faceted browsing schemes (Kipp & Campbell, 2007: 3). Whilst we should not mistake the personal tagging practices on our Zotero group for a professional indexing system, perhaps there needs to be a (semi-­)controlled vocabulary in place. Because to some extent, adding labels for the purpose of identification needs to happen in a consistent way.

On the other hand, tags that express a response rather than a statement of the ‘aboutness’ of a document – such as ‘interesting’ or ‘to read’ – suggest an active engagement with the object, in which the student is linking the perceived subject matter with a specific task or set of interests. As opposed to conventional indexing, personal tagging provides interesting evidence of the energy that an individual user throws against a knowledge structure, and may lead to new ways of modelling subject access (Kipp & Campbell, 2007: 16). Because I believe each student has valuable experience from their own context to bring to the (online) classroom, part of the point of this technology-­enhanced teaching artefact is for students to understand that they can build from their own knowledge and experiences (Haraway, 1988) and not always have to rely on ideas and concepts that others have developed previously. As such this project aligns with my teaching philosophy that accepts and even embraces the uncertainties, unpredictability, and messiness of collaborative learning in online environments.


Fullan, M. Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada, 2012.

Galarza, A. ‘Collaboration in Zotero’. Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative, 4 February 2011. Accessed 16 May 2018.­‐in-­‐zotero/

Haraway, Donna. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’. Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.

Honeychurch, S., Stewart, B., Hogue, R., Bali, M., & Cormier, D.. ‘How the Community Became More than the Curriculum: Participant Experiences in #RHIZO14’. Current Issues in Emerging E-­‐learning, vol. 3, no. 1 (26 April 2016): 26-­41.

Jaques, D., and G. Salmon. Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Face-­‐to-­‐Face and Online Environments. Routledge Ltd, 2007.

Kipp, M., and D. Campbell. ‘Patterns and Inconsistencies in Collaborative Tagging Systems: An Examination of Tagging Practices’. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, vol 43, no. 1 (10 October 2007): 1–18.

Selwyn, N. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.


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