Thing #15: Widgets

Widgets are all over the web (calendars, countdowns, weather, etc.), but I usually don’t think about them so I decided to take this opportunity to explore the concept in a little more depth. Web widgets, according to Wikipedia, are simply small applications that are embedded and executed within a web page. When used appropriately they can add important content and functionality to a web page and enhance user experiences by providing timely data. Significantly, a well-used widget can keep web content updated and avoid the image of an abandoned website which is a major deterrent for visitors. Also, according to the 23 Things for Archivists description, using widgets to combine all institutional content–such as Facebook and Twitter posts, Flickr uploads, and so forth–can be a good way to let users track all recent content from a single web space. This seems to be an excellent organizational use of these tools.

Meebo Widgets
I mentioned in my first 23 Things post that Meebo chat could be embedded into websites, which is an example of a highly functional widget. Adding a chat feature lets users contact you directly and increases interaction. This is obviously a great tool for instructors to use on course websites or for libraries to use on their main page. It connects users immediately to a live person, which may be a motivator for seeking help in the first place; this could be a good tool for information literacy instruction purposes since stand-alone sessions may leave unanswered questions and using face-to-face reference may be intimidating for some students. Of course, embedding chat in a website can trigger an abandoned website feeling in users if it is not staffed properly; it is only useful if someone connects regularly, perhaps leaving it open from 9-5 during the work week.

On a related note, I mentioned in a previous post that I had not seen the Meebo chat embedded in the 23 Things website opened at any point, day or night. To date this is still the case.

Social Networking Widgets
Widgets are common for sharing resources across websites, so much so that they have become embedded in the web landscape. Recent blog and Twitter updates are a fixture of many sites, and through this program I learned about several extremely useful tools. For starters, the 23 Things activities suggested adding a widget to an existing website, so I decided to add one of their featured tools. Since this blog is focused on Web 2.0 and information literacy it seemed like the perfect place to embed a widget from LibraryThing. I set up my widget to display books from my LibraryThing account (see My LibraryThing on the right), customizing it to fit the color scheme and design of my existing blog. The widget tool on LibraryThing prompts this personalization, with options to change collections, animations, font, spacing, etc. Entering this data generates code to copy and embed, which I did using the html/script gadget within Blogger. As you can see, I already had several Blogger-generated widgets along the side, however the LibraryThing addition is the first outside addition.

The other social networking widgets covered included Facebook tools for adding like and share buttons to web pages, which is useful for articles and professional blogs. It also covered adding your profile badge, or more usefully for institutions, a page badge that links to you Facebook content; an activity feed is also available to showcase recent posts. Similarly, the Twitter widgets will create a feed of your recent posts on your website of Facebook page. Flickr has a tool for sharing photo additions, as does Facebook. This, of course, covers only a few tools, but these websites are some of the main places that institutions regularly post content. Linking them is a smart idea for organizing that content.

It’s also worth noting that widgets can function on the computer desktop as well, and several of these web-based tools have desktop versions. For instance, Flickr has a desktop app that allows you to drag and drop photos without opening a web browser.

Applications for Information Literacy Instruction
As an instructor, I would use some of the available social networking widgets to share course-related content or information literacy tips on a class or IL website. This would give students a chance to benefit from Facebook or Twitter information literacy tips regardless of whether they decided to follow, friend, or like either me or the library. Assuming they found these posts useful, they might even decide to sign up for more regular status updates. Similarly, widgets posting content additions from delicious or CiteULike could offer students valuable links to reference resources. (The Widgetbox website contains these among many others.) The options include an “add this” widget so that others can mark your site in their own bookmarks; this could drive additional users to institutional IL pages.

Interactive experiences could also be facilitated using a number of different widgets. Incorporating only the particular applications I have already mentioned, it would be possible to encourage chat and sharing within an information literacy class environment. For instance, students could be assigned to keep a blog or create and maintain a personal website throughout the semester that included several widgets. They could be assigned to do any or all of the following, using widgets to share their activities with classmates:

  • Open a Twitter account and participate in “tweet” discussions assigned during class
  • Create an account with delicious and/or CiteUlike and bookmark useful resources, either on an assigned theme or a topic that they are researching individually
  • Use a LibraryThing account to catalog books, assigning them to specific categories–they can then share all or only certain categories using their widget

Students would then be required to review some or all of the class websites weekly and comment on the shared resources. This would allow students to learn about valuable resources from their peers in an interactive forum. This could potentially equip these students with dozens or even hundreds of useful information sources.