The Pitfalls of Link-a-toriums

The recent T.H.E. Journal article 20 Technology Skills Every Educator Should Have has already bounced around the blogs I scan, many with some strong opinions about the value or lack value in such a list. The Edtech Posse Podcast #3 gave it a thorough roundup, and I concur with their skepticism about such lists which are narrowly focused on tools rather than the craft.

I am not writing strictly about the list but cannot resist a few barks… When it first passed through my feed reader I passed up looking deeper– Come on, is it truly essential to know how to use a Zip disk? I have a whole drawer full of dusty zips. Much of the “skills” listed are going to have a shelf life of maybe another year or two.

What is more important are the skills in being able to re-skill oneself or to move away from “mastery” to knowing where to find fellow practitioners. There was a gaping hole in terms of the social networking tools, the personal creation tools, the information consumption skills that are to me much more important, much more relevant now than how to create a spreadsheet to average numbers.

Getting back to where I hope to go– it is not about the value of the list I write. I happened to click back on this article following the RSS feed from the entry by Gardner Campbell which led me back to Webliminalblog’s claim of good tutorial links (this information navigation trail is something not on T.H.E. L.I.S.T.)

And in away, Ernie was right on. The T.H.E. article contains a decent set of good reference lists for each of the skills, stuff I may not use myself but found worth delicious-ing for perhaps future referral. Heck, one my links was actually in the list.

But it triggered a deja vu feeling about the amount of time and energy put into creating link lists, or what my colleague Donna Rebadow often calls the “Link-a-torium” approach. I had seen this 10 years ago as a pretty much the first level activity that faculty took on upon discovering the web– reviewing web sites, and manually creating resource lists for their students. It’s not a bad idea at all, and I went down that road myself. Several times.

There are hidden pitfalls to building lists of links. It is a manual process. Links must be found, annotated, and dressed up in HTML. Links change without notice, or are just completely yanked leaving you with error messages, or many once valuable educational URLs are left to lapse only to be scooped up and turned into porn sites. Even beyond that, lists are never really universally complete– there is no way to truly capture the “best” set of links. Yup, lists of links is time consuming, inefficient, and tedious work. And there are only so many different ways to build a list of Introductory Chemistry Resource sites, but there must be thousands of re-invented wheels rolling around the web.

Here is another tangent. Stick with me.

It was partly seeing this and some other early practices that generated an idea some colleagues and I concocted for a mid 1990s online workshop called What a Site! designed to help faculty find, evaluate, and integrate educational web resources. For the in person workshops we did, we created a warm-up activity based on the notion that for faculty to learn how to use web content, it is useful for them to first act like students to understand the experience. Keep in mind that this was a time when the web was completely foreign, not something we reach for to use as a dictionary or to bid on an auction of Elvis coffee mugs. This was also a time when navigating web browsers, multiple windows and web sites themselves sites were new, so an exploration activity worked well to get people navigating without dull steps like “Click here to go to another page. Click here to go home. Click here to… zzzzzzz”

Anyhow, the twist was that we set up four mock sites, some loosely based on actual ones we had seen, that were really bad, awful web sites. Except we did not tell the participants that these were bad, awful sites, as we wanted them to come to the conclusion. All of them start out with reasonably stated objectives, but are horribly executed. Or should be executed.

One bad site was a poorly designed activity that intends to have students research and learn some foreign language skills, but is a dumb idea (“use a web search engine to find a food recipe in spanish, print it out, and turn it in”). The directions are bad, the colors are bad, it is browser specific… The best part in the workshop was that despite such terrible directions, typically 75% of the group was able to succeed in producing acceptable work.

Another one was meant to illustrate that the web is not a book— it was a long chunk of scrolling text full of jargon, with little context, a meaningless activity, and with a terrible set of color choices. The fun part was telling them it was a chapter from my Masters thesis in Geology. Oh joy.

And then there was the multimedia extravaganza, full of bad design, overly used trinkets, links to platform specific browser technology that does not work– well it is a work of bad art.

And one that brings me back to the long winded point of this post, the Virtual Cyber Art Gallery Tour, which is really a long bad list of links. Beyond the horrid colors and a tacky blink tag, what we did here was to grab the list of links from Yahoo back then, and purposely mangle the first 10 or 20 links to be bad or link to irrelevant content. The links are not annotated, and some are listed as vague things such as “Art”, “gallery”, “art museum”. There was no logical grouping or order to the lists, no context, and no annotation.

Now in a face to face workshop, we were able to set up this activity and lead a follow-up discussion. Nearly 100% of the audience got it after a few minutes that these were non-examples. But the irony of leaving this online, is that every few months I get an email form someone who has missed the subtle point, e.g.:

Since you requested feedback for when I was misdirected I am posting this message. Generally I would not have posted as I wouldn’t have wanted to issue a complaint about a site that obviously cares so much about education and creativy. I tried to use the warmup for ART and was misdirected when I used the “enter here”. I then tried to open some of the hyperlinks and had problems as well.

and for the bad multimedia site:

I couldn’t locate the gimpzap site for the plugin to see the “opinions of a business expert” after the link did not connect. Do you know where it is located or can I open it somehow with another application?

It’s easy to laugh at an innocent online mistake, and I always take the time to explain by email the subtle aspect they missed. While they usually accept it, there is reservation and concern about sharing it as training materials, but I insist the point of the whole exercise would be lost if I tipped my hand.

So back to lists… don’t people still spend a lot of time trying to maintain manual lists of links? They create resource web pages, hang up resource sets inside their CMS, still doing the linkatorium game.

And so I find with the T.H.E. tutorial links for the 20 things article — they are good, but in some categories, I would certainly have other sites included. My meandering question is are we not using enough of other modern, say Web 2.0 approaches and the social networking tools to do this sort of activity? After all, a collective resource building activity is something that screams for being done in a wiki. Loudly screams. Am I alone in hearing the screams? (Am I screaming?)

I had produced one of these list things recently for a presentation “Living at the Crossroads of Instructional Technology and Instructional Design” that tried (and fell short) to help people more on the designer end of the intersection to “Beef up their IT” and vice versa, a way for the techies to “Beef Up Their ID”… by no means meant to be exhaustive, authoritative, or even accurate. But if you scroll down, you will see that I had tossed up the list onto a PBwiki site that particpants were provided the password (doubtful if anyone really took the bait).

There are ways to use social bookmarking sites to collectively tag and build resource collections. It is a matter of developing a unique tag, and trying to get others to add sites using that tag. That can be an uphill battle unless you have friends the size of the WikiPedia audience.

And one of the most overlooked simple methods is the lowly Google link– rather than doing an exhaustive manual list, pick 1-2 most relevant and then provide a link the replicates a specific Google search… this is the ultimate Low Threshold Application since it will automatically evolve over time as the web evolves… e.g., in addition to the list sites for Spreadsheet tutorials, add a “see more…” via http://www.google.com/search?q=Spreadsheets+Skills+%2Btutorial.

So at the end here of this rambling banter, I think there is still a whole lot of manual link lists being laboriously slaved over and not as much lifting the sheet from the newer tools for collaborative resource building. The web is too big for one person to create T.H.E. L.I.S.T.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. I am moving away from lists of links and trying to move towards social bookmarking or something like playlists. But the technology skills list I found both interesting and frustrating. I think people should know what kinds of things one might find under the “File” menu item (I get people in workshops all the time who don’t know that “save” is usually under there). I think people should, as you say, be able to adapt to new systems, new programs, new ways of doing things. At least the list gave me something to think about.

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