A year ago, Susan Lester and I used Netvibes with our students as their platform for creating information dashboards as part of their personal learning environment to support their inquiry into issues veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are facing.  Students loved the ability to personalize their Netvibes portals (themes, templates, layouts) as well as the pre-existing widgets available in Netvibes; they also liked that they could pretty much embed any kind of content in a way that the content really lived on their pages.  Students liked the visual appeal of Netvibes and that for each widget, content was dynamic and visually interesting.

Susan and I loved that students could organize their Netvibes portals in a way that made sense to them and that a page could contain a diverse range of information streams:  a webpage, an embedded document, a RSS feed, a database widget, the link tool that made a webpage “live” within the Netvibes page.  Not only could students organize information, but they could also publish content they were creating through tools like Google Docs and VoiceThread as well as original works, such as artwork and videos.  We also liked that students could easily publish their Netvibes pages and share public links to these pages with anyone.   In addition, we liked that students could share tabs through social media or email.

What we found problematic with Netvibes, particularly toward the end of our unit in late April and early May, was that Netvibes did not play happily in our network environment in which student rights are restricted in Internet Explorer, the only browser  accessible to students; consequently, these restrictions impacted students’ ability (or lack thereof) to manage add-ons needed for Netvibes to load properly.  I think if students had access to manage these add-ons, Netvibes would cooperate more consistently for them, but for now, those policies are not going to change.  In addition, I did not find the tech support from Netvibes very helpful or responsive in a timely manner when the few times I contacted them for assistance.

Consequently, I needed to start thinking about other options for an information dashboard.  While I haven’t yet discovered another free tool that will do all that Netvibes does and in the manner Netvibes does it, I decided to revisit Symbaloo, which I first discovered about a year or so ago through my colleague and friend Wendy Drexler. While an information dashboard/portal is not a formal requirement of this year’s digital research project (more coming soon about that here on the blog) on veterans’ issues, I decided today that students still needed some kind of information dashboard to manage all of their information streams for the upcoming project.  I had already ruled out iGoogle because we had problems with it last semester (again–the limitations on students’ ability to manage add-ons).  Preliminary testing I did of Symbaloo under a “test” student login indicated it would function in a stable, normal manner in our network environment for students, so I settled on Symbaloo as my tool of choice for this spring.

I decided to create a base information dashboard (which I called Media 21 Tools) for this project with the key information sources/streams that would be daily “go to” tools and to then publish that “webmix”  as a public webmix the students could easily search, discover, and then add as a webmix to their own Symbaloo accounts. The idea of having one site to log into daily and then a pre-constructed  dashboard of all the learning tools and spaces available to us seemed appealing to the 7th period students today.   What I do like about Symbaloo is that if I make any updates to this webmix, students receive the updates as well!  I only wish that students could edit the webmix in their own accounts (and if they can, I haven’t discovered how yet), but that is really a minor wrinkle for us at this point; I also wish I could publish the webmix with a public URL accessible to non-Symbaloo users.  A real winning aspect of Symbaloo is that students can easily post an information source from Academic Search Complete and Gale Opposing Viewpoints into their Symbaloo webmixes; since these are two primary databases we’ll be using for our research, the ease of posting content/bookmarks/permalinks to specific sources the students find in these databases is a huge selling point for me (and I think for the students, too).

Many students in the first class that tried Symbaloo today commented that they liked the clean, visual interface of Symbaloo and the ease of adding content; they also liked that they could customize the “tiles” they were adding and that their webmixes loaded quickly.  I encouraged students to use their accounts as an information dashboard for “professional” or school interests as well as personal passions.  We also discussed that as they begin to work in inquiry circles next week and to collaborate on their digital research projects, they can create, publish, and share their topic webmixes with their peers so that they can collaborate and discover information sources through this form of networking/information sharing–I find this possibility exciting for the students, and they seemed impressed by this concept as well.

I do wish students could mix and match RSS feeds with hyperlinked tiles in Symbaloo; I also wish they could embed the content in this space the way you can in Netvibes although SymbalooEDU is going to Skype with me next week to see if we can make that happen since students being able to post content they’ve created is important to me.  However, my main priority is for students to have a tool they can use to organize their information streams and to create their own topic webmixes, and from what I’ve seen so far, Symbaloo definitely will meet those needs.

As we begin venturing into our research the next two weeks and students begin developing their Symbaloo webmixes, I’ll continue to collect feedback from students on how this learning tool is working for them and how they are using it for themselves as well as within their groups–I’m excited to see what will happen.  I may also informally introduce Symbaloo to some of last year’s Media 21 students and get their feedback on how they think Symbaloo compares to Netvibes and what their preferences are as students.   In the meantime, I’ve created a working LibGuides portal on Symbaloo for our students; please feel free to browse the resources in this guide.  I also encourage you to check out the videos and blog posts at SymbalooEDU to see how other educators are using this tool to support student learning.

Correction:  March 21, 2011:  You CAN publish a Symbaloo mix (and share via email, Facebook, or Twitter)!  Take a peek at the one I’ve created for my Media 21 peeps to have at their fingertips when they log into Symbaloo at the beginning of class each day now.