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Online Game Teaches Citation Skills

University of Michigan researchers are hoping a new game they developed will help students with the dreaded academic task of crafting a bibliography—and make it more fun.

The game, BiblioBouts, turns collecting citations into a competitive event, pitting students against their classmates.

Students are rewarded for their research skills and their ability to differentiate between good and bad material. To play, they find sources, which are judged by their peers for relevance and credibility, and then measure the worth of sources their classmates find. They gain more points the more sources they assess accurately and the better their own sources are judged.

Karen Markey, a professor in the School of Information who led the research, says the game, which was created with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies, addresses a common student problem.

“One of the most difficult things for students to do is their research,” she says. “After they exhaust things like Google and the Web, they don’t know where to turn.”

The game will be released in beta form next week to participating colleges, and Ms. Markey says she hopes to make it more widely available in the future, perhaps even as a tool in learning-management systems.

Catherine Johnson, coordinator of library instruction at the University of Baltimore’s main library, used an earlier version of BiblioBouts in a required freshman information-literacy class she taught last spring.

Despite some initial problems with registration, which Ms. Markey says have been fixed in the latest version, Ms. Johnson says students enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game, and it drove them to find better sources.

“Suddenly I had a room of college freshmen trying to access high-quality databases,” Ms. Johnson says. “That doesn’t happen too often.”

Ms. Johnson says she sees the game as a complement to, not replacement for, instruction by a professor or a librarian in locating and evaluating sources.

The game uses Zotero, a research tool that allows students to pull citations from online sources, store full texts, and automatically generate exportable bibliographies.

Sean Takats, director of research projects at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media and a co-developer of Zotero, says the timing was perfect when he was contacted by Ms. Markey in early 2008 to participate in the project.

His team had been planning upgrades to the program to allow users to access their Zotero-stored citations from any computer and share these libraries with other users, functions that were essential to BiblioBouts. “It was good motivation for us to know that there was an audience,” he says.

Ms. Markey says further research will explore whether students actually choose better sources as they move along in the game and whether success in the game is connected to higher paper grades.

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