Mendeley for Classroom Collaboration

This semester I’ve been working on a technology project with Dr. Pam Eddy, Associate Professor of Higher Education.  She decided to use Mendeley, a reference management application, to allow students in her graduate-level Educational Policy class to interact with the assigned readings collaboratively while gaining experience with a useful online research tool.  The social dimension of Mendeley allows users to create interest groups where members may exchange documents, usually in PDF format, and highlight or annotate with comments.  The beauty of the application is that it operates with both a desktop version and online repository, so that group members can keep the documents they are discussing on their own computers, but sync with the online version to update annotations.

Some Users’ Thoughts on Using Mendeley

Here’s an example of a collection of group documents in Mendeley.

Dr. Eddy explains, “Graduate students need to acquire skills in synthesizing and critiquing information and Mendeley provides a resource for this work. Students can work collaboratively on critiquing an article and the joint process can provide modeling of this research skill.”  In addition, learning to manage references will help students preparing to write their master’s theses and dissertations.

Tehmina Khwaja, a doctoral graduate assistant, collaborator on the project, and member of Dr. Eddy’s class, has found Mendeley to be helpful, but offers a caveat for its use:  “It is very useful in a small group, but in a larger group some technical issues kept cropping up that made it difficult to use. What I like the most about Mendeley is the citation tool that exports the bibliography to Word documents. Mendeley has a few kinks that need to be worked out but its value as a collaborative and research tool is undeniable.”

But There Are a Few Kinks

Some of the “kinks” we discovered had to do with the public versus private nature of the groups.  In public groups, the documents can be viewed, but not downloaded, by other group members.  This means that only the owner of the document can annotate — not exactly what Dr. Eddy wanted to accomplish.  However, private groups allow exactly the sort of collaboration we were hoping for — for a monthly fee.

There were also a few instances of annotations that remained hidden from group members for no apparent reason.  This was an intermittent problem, but it proved frustrating for the students who encountered it.

Tips for If You’re Interested in Using Mendeley

The Mendeley web site offers very good tutorials to help new users get started.  However, for those who’d like to try creating groups for classroom collaboration, here are few specific tips:

  • Play with Mendeley to learn how the desktop and online versions interact with each other, including what each can (or cannot) do.
  • If creating private groups of more than three users (the limit on free accounts), remember that the account holder will appear as a member of each group.  So, if you will need space for five students per group, buy a license for six collaborators.
  • Full articles must be uploaded to Mendeley online to be shared with the group; otherwise only the reference information is shared.
  • Annotate on the downloaded document with Mendeley Desktop.
  • Sync your library often as you read and annotate; sync periodically, even if you haven’t recently added annotations, because this will allow you to see comments from other group members.

As a result of her experience this semester, Dr. Eddy suggests using Mendeley with pairs of students rather than small groups.  Each free account will allow the user to create one private group with up to three collaborators.  If the professor is included as the third member, he or she will be able to monitor the discussion between students – as Dr. Eddy did in this class – but many of the technical difficulties will likely be avoided.  This pilot project in group collaboration was valuable, however, and will be presented at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech, February 6-8 2013.