A Widget Onto the Future

They float around on desktops, populate home pages and bulge out of Facebook profiles. They aren’t exactly tangible, which is why they’re called widgets, but they’re real enough within the digital ether than some educators want to turn them into teaching tools.

The portable, Web-based gadgets are an ideal medium, they say, for creating interactive, individualized instructional materials that can live on a course Web site, a personal blog or even a mobile phone.

Already, some instructors are using them in their own courses, and the idea is catching on as others consider the possibilities.

As the latest versions of course management packages adopt module-based interfaces and as colleges’ Web portals cull together widget-like boxes for the latest news and e-mail, the objects are becoming more familiar to students — even if they don’t realize it yet.

“With a widget, you can give them more interactive chunks of Web content, more customized chunks … and with the page aggregators, the teacher or the student can arrange it in a way that teaches [them] well,” said Mark C. Marino, who teaches writing at the University of Southern California and who created a customized widget that instructs students in the use of “topoi,” a Greek concept used to better understand an idea.

Marino created an entire page, hosted by the Web service Pageflakes, that serves as a kind of home base for the topic. Students can visit the page and see a collection of modules: one that explains the topoi, another that encourages students to “rip” and share the topoi widget, another that serves as a Web-based notepad, and so on. It all revolves around the widget itself, a small interactive tool that walks students through the concept and links them to videos from class.

“What I see happening, as this moves away from course management systems, is [the ability to] embed a bunch of different gadgets, whether it’s a discussion gadget or a calendar gadget, to create a curriculum,” said Eileen McMahon, who uses widgets in one of her courses at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and is organizing the Nercomp meeting next year.

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By Andy Guess for Inside Higher Ed