Against Modules: Using Zotero As a Learner-centered Course Management Tool  

This post contains the draft text of a presentation I gave at the Florida Association for College and Research Libraries conference in October of 2018. I meant to edit it and submit for publication, but life got in the way. The content is now somewhat out of date, but I’ve been sitting on it for too long as it is.

Against Modules: Using Zotero As a Learner-centered Course Management Tool

Matthew E. Hunter

Digital Scholarship Technologist

Florida State University

A case for non-ordered content presentation


A strength of many current Learning Management Systems (LMSs) is their ability to organize course materials into a logical flow of information, carefully curated by an instructor, to most effectively achieve the intended learning outcomes. Organizing readings and assignments in an ordered way, determined by the instructor, imparts meaning to the content and aids in students’ knowledge formation. This process is often beneficial as it introduces foundational “Threshold Concepts” (as coined by Meyer and Land, 2003) before exploring ever more complex themes, deepening understanding through a model of sequencing. For many topics, this is a tried-and-true method, verified by countless studies that show the benefit of shepherding students from simple to more complex topics with resultant increased performance through a multitude of assessment metrics.

The creation of an ordered organizational schedule of a class, however, is just one of the plethora of factors that influence the knowledge imparted to students. Take into consideration the restrictions that must be introduced to feasibly complete a course: not only are instructors limited by the institutional constraints of academic year, semester, or quarter length, but also the number of those class meetings, the length of each class session, and the various other stimuli  that determine the shape and delivery of the course itself. So too do differing disciplines require different styles of learning which are impacted differently by these meta-limitations. Mathematics and English Literature instruction are necessarily different in the ways they present and order materials, and the ways they approach (and assess) learning are resultantly varied.

In order to teach a class on literature, for example, how might an instructor develop an order that progresses through a meaningful hierarchy of complexity? While chronological order would surely present thematic changes and trace a linear course of influence, what if a comparative approach of disparate genres or geographical areas is the main thrust of the class? The tension in this choice is often borne out through various synchronic and diachronic approaches in literature studies, and is one we should pay attention to as we approach course design ourselves. How can we order a set of modules in a way that is respectful of different thematic influences, chronological development, and while still presenting some form of hierarchical complexity?

I ask this as an obvious rhetorical question, since these types of classes are taught every year by countless practiced professionals to great success across the world. However, I ask to highlight the fact that a sequential order of class topics is, by its very nature, a resultant effect of not only the structural and technological limitations, but those of the diverse (and sometimes non-hierarchical) thematic nature of the content itself.

We must then also acknowledge that by constructing units and modules, by which we present ordered and sequenced morsels of course content, we are influenced by similar structural and technological restrictions. If one’s intent were to present basic arithmetic, the “addition” module would be almost universally separated from that of “long division,” and we would accept that this division was useful. How does this useful division practice scale, though, to more complex themes in the humanities? The decision for where an instructor should draw a line to separate “natural science” from “natural philosophy” is a potentially drastic influence on a student’s understanding of Isaac Newton as either a scientist or philosopher. At what point should we acknowledge and therefore critically examine these choices in division as intentional distinctions made by an instructor?

Modules also have the ability to unintentionally divorce thematic elements in course material from each other, potentially resulting in a cognitive break between (for example) a Module 1’s “Poetry” readings and a Module 3’s “Song lyrics.” While this may be important or even desired in some aspects, it must also be acknowledged that, if we are to ask students to analyse differences in these materials, we have already imposed an artificial divide between poetry and song that must be overcome in the student’s mind [VanLehn, 170]. Especially if we are interested in other thematic elements expressed through these works, distinction solely by something like “genre” is at best a distraction, and at worst a misdirection. As our organizational framework stands as an expression of our expertise and authority, we must take care to critically examine the ways in which our framework segregates these materials in separate modules.

Similarly, how should we, as designers of instructional materials, remain aware of what precisely our students are learning from the ordered, module-based system so prevalent in the LMS tools we use? While threshold concepts and hierarchical orders make perfect sense for certain concepts and many of the tasks on the lower half of Bloom’s taxonomy, the order we (and our tools) present content imbues it with meaning apart from that inherent in the text. If we are asking our students to analyze and evaluate relationships among the materials we present, we must account for the fact that introducing subliminal breaks in concepts (through modules and units) leads to yet more cognitive load for our students to overcome in performing those tasks.

I caution that uncritically accepting the module as one of the prime aspects of course management predisposes us into also accepting that separating course materials by some artificial divide into each module is an always and inevitable acceptable process. The ease of creating these modules in Canvas or Blackboard should not excuse questions of context or unintended meaning [Payne and Reinhard, 34-35]. Associative meaning imparted by the grouping of topics together into a module (especially in LMSs that present one module’s content separated from others) is inescapable, and we must be willing to deal with this when it arises, and be open to alternatives that reduce these contextual predispositions.

Trusting students as scholars

For students who already have a high base knowledge of content (such as those in postsecondary or even post-baccalaureate education), the decision for where modular breaks in course material should be introduced, and the contextual bias those choices represent should not be ignored – especially when weighted with the possibility of some form of influential proscription of “correct” hierarchy. An instructor-proscribed organizational structure implies to students that this content ought to be presented in this way and should be interpreted to have a meaning that is contingent on that organization. Concession to this method reinforces a teacher-student contradiction and perpetuates what Paulo Freire dubbed the “banking model” of education, in which “the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it” [Freire, 73].

Often in the humanities, scholars closely interrogate how meaning is ascribed to conceptually complex topics through the structure, organization, and relationships of and between particular content. In the case of post-baccalaureate and graduate student instruction, wherein “student” is often synonymous with “scholar-in-training,” the artificially-imposed content relationships necessitated by the LMS organizational structure precludes the chance for these students to have agency in developing an organizational structure that reveals something to them. Instead, the organization witnessed in many LMS course libraries are artefacts of the negotiation an instructor must make with realities such as course length or the User Interface design of a system, rather than those libraries serving as an opportunity for students to learn to decipher appropriate thematic relationships within the course materials.

What if the students could develop an organizational structure in dialogue with each other and the instructor? In this way, the students would not only regain some agency over the organization of the class, but also engage critically with the entire breadth of the course materials’ themes. By discoursing together in the Frierean vein, and being trusted to discourse together as experts in their own right, the entire classroom experiences generative growth – including the instructor.

So too must we be aware that, if the purpose of a particular course is to train future instructors to effectively construct an organizational structure such as the ones in our LMSs (and hopefully to critically examine them as much as we are), they must have the experience of encountering course materials in as agnostic a space as possible. This will allow them to practice the skills they will need as future scholars and educators in constructing their own courses, insulated (as much as possible) from the influence of our own preferred organizational structure. In these instances, it is important to provide a space to allow for students the opportunity to construct relationships they feel are effective and representative of the course materials, and to allow for experimentation and with as little input as possible from our own authoritative lense (until such time as we are requested to provide input).

It would be insincere to say that any presentation of course material is agnostic or neutral, and in reality all options for course organization will have some echo of a creator’s order expressed. I acknowledge this, and understand that it may seem as though I am criticising learning management systems for having some insidious role in the production of uncritical students. This is far from the case, and I do not aim to present Zotero as a panacea, nor to criticize the current crop of LMSs and dismiss their undeniable usefulness for our overloaded and undervalued educational workforce. I merely aim to remind us all to thoughtfully approach our role in the presentation of course materials, and call us to refuse to do so in uncritical ways. As succinctly stated by Payne and Reinhart, “The ubiquity of [LMSs] should not create a climate uncritical of their architectural assumptions.” [Payne and Reinhart, 2008, 34-35]


In this spirit of critical reflection, then, I will now recount two semesters’ worth of effort in creating a more convivial learning environment for students to regain agency on the organization of course materials in a nod to Freire. Caveat auditor that this is a conceptual application of a loose amalgamation of theories. It is still very much a work in progress, and the two experiences I’ve had with using a bibliographic assistant as a surrogate LMS are proofs of concept rather than any sort of definitive answer.

Using Zotero as a Course Management System

Comparative Methods course introduction & overview

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a faculty member in Florida State University’s Modern Languages department to develop an organizational schedule beneficial to the development of graduate students’ skills in producing scholarship. Influencing this development were a wide variety of factors, but the primary directive was to be as organizationally responsive as possible, and to reduce loading contextual meaning between course materials where we could. I acknowledge that this task seems rather backward in terms of most common best-practice for instructional design, but, it was a highly instructive approach that allowed now two full courses of “scholars-in-training” to develop skills through active learning by developing scholarly inquiry.


The primary drive of this course was to engage students in a pedagogical dialogue, inspired by Freire, and exercise trust that students would enact their own informed and insightful organizational impulses on a slew of course readings from the wide-ranging bibliography of a research methodology course. Based on initial conversations with professor Jeannine Murray-Román, comparative Caribbean literature scholar in the Modern Language department at FSU, and an expert in Franco- and Hispanophone, postcolonial, performative Caribbean literatures, this course was developed to be as consciously an-organizational from the instructor-side as possible.

The idea was to present a class in which students could experience an initial crop of curated course materials (readings, videos, artwork, and audio recordings) and have a direct, collaborative impact on defining the relationships between them, as well as augment the library with other relevant works. This was intended to be an experimental approach in which the students could recreate a simulacrum of the “scholarly experience,” sussing out research questions from a wide variety of interdisciplinary materials, much as they would do as Caribbean studies faculty in their hopeful future careers. Professor Murray-Román was interested, primarily, in having the class serve as a microcosm of a transdisciplinary scholarly community, and for students to embrace their roles as “scholars-in-training,” developing and refining research questions in dialogue with their peers. All annotations, notes, discussions, and papers generated in relation to the works presented in the course library were to be a synecdoche of the scholarly commons. This multi-faceted approach to re-creating (and hosting) the interconnected commons was an important factor in designing the course’s organization, and the prime reason for not utilizing FSU’s Canvas system.

This class, consisting of 12 thesis-track MA and advanced Ph.D. students from specializations across the Modern Languages department such as Spanish and Hispanophone and French and Francophone studies, was designed to utilize the user-contributed organizational features of Zotero’s group library system as it stood circa late 2017. Second only to the group-sharing feature of the library that allowed for the entire class to access full-text materials “hosted” via Professor Murray-Román’s Zotero account, the primary draw of Zotero was the ability for users to self-moderate keyword tags and item relationship information used to enrich the Zotero-captured metadata.

The overarching assignments for this class were to have students read assigned course materials and to discuss interesting comparative relationships between them each class session. To facilitate these discussions (and as a result of them), students were also asked to classify materials with several substantive tags during their reading that related to an observed important aspect of the work, and to use Zotero’s “related” feature to make links between works that were seen to be related in some way – whether inspirational, derivative, or thematic. Students were also asked, as they were reading and analyzing the course materials, to create annotations and sometimes translations (using Zotero’s notes feature) to be shared with the rest of the class, to facilitate the class discussions. Students were assigned particular readings to contribute annotations and/or translations based on their language (and/or topic) of specialization, so student’s expertise could contribute to the richness of overall discourse in the class. To synthesize all the class discussions and work done to enrich the class library’s relational metadata, students were also assigned to write a final term paper based on a topic of interest, utilizing the tags, relations, and annotations to trace a thread of interest through the cross-disciplinary, multi-lingual, and multi-generic selection of works.

As Zotero allows for users to filter by tag and relationship data, the organizational structure useful for one student could simultaneously exist with alternative tagged content. This could not be done in a dictated organizational structure like hierarchical or modular ones present in the Canvas LMS. This flexibility was intentionally leveraged as an answer to the organizational assignments, as we wanted the class to have as many simultaneous organizational avenues as possible to experiment and explore with relationships. We felt that the non-linearity of presenting all materials together at once, and allowing students to create and explore these relationships, was vital to the learning process of the students and well-simulated the scholarship process.

Now, all of these factors were discovered to be useful throughout the course of the semester, but the selection of Zotero as the primary vehicle for the course was a decision that only arose out of several discussions between Professor Murray-Román and myself. Only after experimenting with several organizational modes and looking into theoretical analyses of LMS and an-organization was this the result. Based on some initial readings, I understood that discussion and reflexive organization were going to be the driving factors of this course library. As the library representative for this class, and the one who would be the non-subject expert technical advisor for the class completely divorced from the course discussion, I endeavored to provide an intuitive and functional space that required the minimum amount of intervention possible.

Zotero organizational schema development

The decision to use Zotero was originally influenced by the fact that both Professor Murray-Román and I are avid users of the program, and have become endeared to the ease of use of its synching abilities, full-text document access, organized annotation capabilities, and word processor integration. Due to our familiarity and comfort with the interface and capabilities of Zotero, we decided to attempt an organizational structure that would adequately handle the un-organization of the proposed course. We were not married to Zotero at the outset, but after experiments on my end, we agreed that it served as a suitable replacement for the structures we wished to create outside of the LMSs used by Florida State at the time, namely Canvas and Blackboard.

In the experimentation phase, much like as in any development brief, I was given a set of features needed in the final organizational schema used in our instance of Zotero. This list of features included first: a way to share course materials with students with no imposed organization beyond the collection of the materials themselves. These materials included scanned articles and book chapters, born-digital texts on websites, videos, and audio clips and needed to be able to handle all of these formats competently. Secondly, the library had to allow for some manner by which the students in the class could develop their own organizational structure and experiment in organizing differently based on whatever linking facet they could identify. Third, the collection would need to serve as a repository in some manner for annotations and notes about the works, as students would be taking notes collaboratively based on their lingual skills. The final design requirement was that the library would need to be able to still function within the confines of the class’s administrative structure, and would need to allow for the communication of assignments and weekly reading schedules within the same tool used to provide access to the materials themselves.

To answer these questions, I developed four potential alternative structures, each centered around the use of Zotero’s group library feature and the collection, tag, and relationship features in different ways. By fiddling with the usage of tags and relations, I was able develop what became the final structure: a pair of top-level collections that contained 1) the entirety of the course materials (dubbed “Objects of Analysis” here), with no separation of materials, and 2) an administrative collection of documents Zotero dubs “Standalone Notes,” each containing weekly readings, assignments, and syllabus material. Within the split structure, administrative materials were quarantined away from the thematic course reading material, only related based on the information contained within and through Zotero relationships that would allow students to filter readings by assignments to find what they were to accomplish for each class meeting. To prime students for tagging materials, a handful of objects were given tags based on genre, format, one or two themes, and language information. Students were then instructed to, through the course of the semester’s readings and annotations, assign tags and relate works together based on criteria they thought would be useful.

Using the schema

To assist students in their efforts to interact with this new course structure, Professor Murray-Román invited me to teach during the second class meeting. While there I presented generally about Zotero’s features, and included information on how to use the program beyond the class (such as the word processor integration, etc.). However, the thrust of the hour-long session was to familiarize students with the structure, and emphasize how they were expected to engage with the organizational efforts shared by the class. Unfortunately, this was the last time I was to present in the class about Zotero, and I was otherwise not be present for class meetings. Other than via email or through consultations at the library, I was therefore unfortunately not immediately available to students who were having issues with Zotero. I was able to provide documentation within the Zotero library’s administrative collection. As the semester progressed, I could still also check in on the library, being a member of the group. Unfortunately the original instance of the class did not go exactly as we had hoped, and students did not engage with the organizational assignments how we originally intended.

I believe that this was a result of many factors. The first of which was the fact that introducing an entirely new organizational concept within an also brand-new technology poses risks of adoption. Professor Murray-Román and I had hoped that this would be mitigated in some way by the fact that a major final assignment required at least an attempt at organization, and we did see a good effort made by students to submit their tags. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the tagging was to be “for credit” and Zotero does not provide a way to see who added what tag, when, tags had to be listed in note documents submitted into the Course Administration collection.

I am also led to believe by further discussions with Professor Murray-Román that the technology aspect was also a rather large hurdle in terms of making clear expectations for assignments. Primarily, this seemed to stem from a lack of a notification capability for new reading sign-ups or annotation uploads. This asynchronicity in the content enrichment process may have led to students not engaging with the out-of-class dialogue that was developing, and this would lead to less overall engagement as well.

However, this first experiment was far from a failure, and much went well (even beyond the “teachable moments” just expressed). Primarily, Professor Murray-Román and I were pleasantly surprised with the way students eventually did come to an overlapping web of organizations, and students seemed to respond well to the conceptual idea of the course. Students also were successful in tagging and annotating sources, though annotation far outweighed the tagging or relationship assignations. The inclusion of student papers as standalone notes, near the end of the semester, was also a promising sign, as students seemed to engage in a group library setting with the rest of the Objects of Analysis, and contributing their work into that library was a promising development. The most fruitful benefit of this project, however, was the fact that Professor Murray-Román and I have continued the partnership to develop this idea and have refined the class organization for a new attempt this Fall semester.

Fall 2018, future directions, and suggestions

Based on the experiences we’ve had and the ability to reflect over the Spring and Summer, Professor Murray-Román and I developed a similarly structured course to be led in the Fall of 2018. Similar to the previous instance, this course is filled with graduate students, though this semester there are a higher number of masters students. Just as before, there is a healthy split between francophone and hispanophone interests, and the course is designed to play these strengths in compliment. However, one difference is that this semester is not about the research process as encountered by scholars, but intended to cover a smaller intellectual scope: an analysis of revolutionary manifestos and the ways in which they influenced culture in the countries in which they were produced, such as the French response to the revolutionary actions in May of 1968.

This class is organized similarly within Zotero, with two main folders: the course administration collection, and the “sources” collection. Here, the sources also consist of works of art, film, images, and text documents. The main change in this aspect is that the students are not expected to create the organizational structure, but only to interact with the materials through the loosely organized collections. They are instead meant to follow relationships between manifestoes and works generated in response to the cultural movements associated with them. This is to be accomplished by following the relationships between works, and by relationships between administrative Standalone Notes, or by searching for the works as listed in those same Standalone Notes.

To deal with the issue originally encountered with the assignment documentation, Professor Murray-Román and I decided to utilize Google Docs for each assignment signup, and provided a Standalone Note in the administrative collection with persistent links to those documents. Based on our previous experience, I believe the main interest this semester is to define whether or not the organization *assignment* was an appropriate task for inaugural users of the technology, and further refine our attempts at using Zotero for class delivery, while still giving students the opportunity to engage with the materials in the way they choose.

In the future, I would still like to explore other options for Zotero or similar tools to be used as course management systems, so as to provide students the opportunity to regain their agency in interacting with course materials. It is my belief that the multivariate entry points to course materials in classes like those led by Professor Murray-Román would lead to increased engagement with the highly interdisciplinary materials, and would allow students to leverage their own prior knowledge to encounter the works selected for class in a way that is beneficial.


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