Making Common Cause: Electronic Portfolios, Learning, and the Power of Community

by Kathleen Yancey, Barbara Cambridge and Darren Cambridge

In Electronic Portfolio 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact, edited by Darren Cambridge,  Barbara Cambridge, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, contributors from diverse institutions of higher education in sites across two continents share their research on electronic portfolios. Here, excerpting from the conclusion to this volume, we consider how electronic portfolios provide a vehicle for a transition into the future of higher education.

In 2003 the National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (NCEPR) was formed, its purpose focused on a single large question: what difference(s) might electronic portfolios actually be making in higher education–for instance, in student learning generally, in student learning in specific disciplines, and/or as reflected in specific measures like student retention? In forming this coalition, we thus intended to assist institutions engaging students, faculty, and staff in eportfolio projects with research that would catch up with their practices. Moreover, we expected the need for such research to grow. We anticipated that as the power of electronic portfolios became more and more apparent, practitioners would want to go to scale, a move that would require agreements both about learning outcomes supported through portfolios and about infusion of resources justified by evidence. We also understood that although many faculty members were asking excellent questions about their practices, there were few designed inquiries into those practices. The coalition, first nationally based and now internationally based, was thus established to bring together practitioners ready to ask insightful questions about their practices and ready to apply findings to improve their practices and those of others.

At this point in time, some five years later, and as we reflect upon the research documented by participants in the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, a sampling of which we report here, we see three transitions central to the future of eportfolio practice:

  1. moving research from a national focus to an international articulation;
  2. transforming accountability driven by testing into richer conversations around inquiry into learning; and
  3. opening a detached, hierarchical academy to engagement across the multiple knowledge spaces of the digital world.

As important, just as the work of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research has pointed towards the coming of these transitions, so too the continuing work of the coalition will move them forward.

Moving Research from a National Focus to an International Articulation
Our initial national focus on electronic portfolio research expanded early on to a more international perspective, at least in part because we understood that not only inside but also across national boundaries eportfolio educators face similar issues that can better be addressed by international dialogue. Members of the coalition from each of the four countries represented so far–Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US–have confronted very similar challenges, among them motivating learners and teachers, integrating eportfolio practice into programs, balancing learning and assessment, working across disciplinary and professional boundaries, and supporting and evaluating reflection. Presentations by European scholars and practitioners at the conferences on eportfolios organized by the European Institute for E-Learning each of the last five years reflect all of these themes, and preliminary results from a comprehensive survey of eportfolio practice in Australia show that these issues top the agenda there as well.1 In short, bringing participants from multiple contexts to explore these issues made international sense.

Very quickly, we have seen results from this coalition-sponsored international collaboration. For example, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, a member of Cohort III, is using in its research the developmental scales for assessing reflection developed by Alverno College, a US Cohort I member. Likewise, coalition members from Stanford University (Cohort I) and the University of Waterloo (Cohort III), along with colleagues from Scotland have published a shared conceptual framework for ways eportfolios can be used to support learning throughout life.2 At the same time, we are aware of the need to go truly global. While the work of the coalition, as well as most of the published work in eportfolios, has so far focused on the Europe and the Anglophone world, the use of eportfolios is now becoming a more thoroughly global phenomenon, with important work underway in dozens of countries, including Japan, Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, and South Africa. Because eportfolio scholarship and practice as we now know it reflects distinctively Western beliefs about individual identities and institutional dynamics, more research is needed to learn how the purposes and forms change in these new cultural contexts. Put simply, how will the idea of the portfolio be transformed by educators and learners worldwide? Since an ever increasing portion of students in higher education in most Western countries also come from non-Western cultures, the answers have the potential to help the educators in the West better embrace the diversity of their learners.

Transforming Accountability Driven by Testing into Richer Conversations around Inquiry into Learning
Assessment, of course, is an integral part of the learning process. As learners develop, it is important that they receive feedback on their learning, identify how their learning occurs and progresses, and develop their own abilities as self-assessors. Formative assessments that literally help form students’ process and progress in learning are essential. Eportfolios as evidenced in Coalition projects provide opportunity for formative assessment in deep and extended ways. Through their own reflections students practice self assessment, and as students post learning objects and reflect on them, they invite response from peers, teachers, and other readers of their portfolios, both formally and informally. Then, through analyzing their own reflections and the feedback of others, students become more knowledgeable about the progress of their own learning. Eportfolios are, therefore, ideal vehicles for formative assessment.

Accountability, however, requires summative assessment, most often scaled to levels beyond the classroom or institution. Because scaling involves costs of administration, evaluation, and dissemination, governments, through a variety of accountability and accreditation systems, rely most often on one-time tests. Although literature about assessment and evaluation establishes that to be valid, assessments must be varied and multiple, one-time tests dominate both nationally and internationally. Policy decisions about funding and structuring of education are often made on insufficient data from such tests, which fail to reveal the extent or depth of student learning.

Eportfolios are an antidote to the inadequacies of testing. Even if testing is so entrenched that it is unlikely to be replaced soon, institutions and governments can build into accountability systems additional information for decision making. As described in Electronic Portfolio 2.0, several institutions–including the University of Georgia, IUPUI, and Portland State University in the United States–have demonstrated that eportfolios can provide multiple stakeholders with rich evidence of student learning that provides a compelling rationale for curricular, pedagogical, and budgetary decisions. Similarly, work in the state of Ohio to build an infrastructure that coordinates eportfolio use and availability of eportfolio evidence for decision making statewide is paralleled by the California State University system in a newer cohort of the Inter/National Coalition for Eportfolio Research. In the United Kingdom, eportfolios are a natural outgrowth of nationwide mandated Personal Development Plans. If foundation and governmental funding were channeled to support eportfolio system development in the same way that such funding has supported test development and implementation, eportfolios would emerge as essential complements to tests. More importantly, in the future they can replace testing as a more responsible method of documenting student learning, especially as institutional and governmental control of education continues to dissipate with ubiquitous sources and sites of learning.

This new world of distributed learning sites and multiple identities as teachers and learners also mandates investigation into how learning occurs in these new circumstances. One movement especially knowledgeable in such investigations, the scholarship of teaching and learning, includes as foundational practices a designed inquiry into important questions about learning with findings shared for critique and use. One reason that this movement has gained momentum internationally is that every discipline and educational environment must study the implications of new learning sites and modes in order to prosper. The growth of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning evinces the widespread commitment of educators to study and apply new knowledge concerning students’ lifelong and lifewide learning.

Educators are, however, not the only inquirers into student learning. Because they are at the center of such inquiry, students can become co-inquirers and, increasingly as they gain experience with reflection and integration, independent inquirers into learning processes and products. In their book The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons, Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings recommend that students have a greater role in discussions about learning.3 Eportfolios provide that greater role as students document, reflect on, and analyze what occurs during their own learning processes. As we see in Coalition research projects, students can participate in the intellectual work of discovering how they learn–through keeping a continuous record, making links among occasions and products of learning, and building on past experience as they move into deeper and deeper learning. When Huber and Hutchings call for “new genres and forms to document the work of teaching and learning,” they echo Peter Smith’s call for a new kind of learning passport that enables students to move among educational sites. The new genres and forms need to be transportable to many sites, understandable by multiple audiences, and guided by learners themselves, all features of electronic portfolios.

Opening a Detached, Hierarchical Academy to Engagement across the Multiple Knowledge Spaces of the Digital World: Or, How Eportfolios Help Us All Learn
As explained by Carl Raschke in The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, precisely because of the digital revolution and Web 2.0, higher education risks a fatal irrelevance. Talking specifically about the spaces where knowledge is made, he notes that the university no longer holds the monopoly on such space. One question he raises, then, is how the postmodern university can continue to maintain its relevance and authority in the twenty-first century.4

As Coalition research demonstrates, eportfolios may be the most likely vehicle to help us make the transition to an academy of the future that is both relevant and authoritative. In such an academy, higher education will welcome students’ experience in increasingly significant and transformative ways. What’s relevant here, of course, is the promise of such an academy already: in Coalition projects where a key assumption underlying research reports is that student accounts of learning can help us all understand learning differently. In other words, we invite student accounts of learning, especially through reflection, because those accounts from a Vygotskian perspective promote and enhance student learning. Inside eportfolios, where they use multiple systems of representation to map learning in new ways, however, students also help faculty learn about how learning actually works such that we all understand learning in new ways.

A few current examples can help us see how the contours of such future practice might look. In one, accounting majors at the University of Waterloo articulate and show the distinction between two outcomes: mastering concepts, which students say is not difficult, and determining the relationships linking them, which they say is. Students explain this doubly, through verbal explanation and visual map, both inside of an eportfolio. Through student articulation, we literally see distinctions between novice and expert in new ways from a student vantage point. In a second, student teachers at Virginia Tech show us another aspect of learning: how they have adopted and adapted the theory of the classroom to the everyday realities of classroom practice, and what that adaptation means for their professional futures. Such knowledge can only be made by these former students, who help us see the value of our curriculum as they enact it in real world contexts. And as members of a community, these new teachers continue–two years beyond graduation–to engage in reflective practices together, committing to a profession that in the US loses fifty percent of its early professionals within five years. And in a third, in the blogs of the University of Wolverhampton students’ eportfolios we see Web 2.0 tools enriching eportfolio learning through documentation, dialogue, and community. These practices–documentation, dialogue, and community–are characteristics of the Coalition as well, a real and virtual community of learners working on institutional projects and on projects across a larger international network.

In Sum
Over the current lifespan of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, we can see a movement from the past to the present: from implementation to designed inquiry, from formal schooling to lifelong and lifewide learning, and from local contexts to larger contexts. This reflection, pointing from the present to the future, suggests that in the future, all learners will operate more and more in an international context; that designed inquiry will become even more the purview of learners themselves; and that the digital revolution will challenge formal schooling in even more ways. Eportfolios provide a unique way to feature student inquiry and knowledge, to benefit from what technology offers as a mode of and vehicle for learning, and to place each individual’s learning in the broadest of contexts.
1. S. Lambert, L. McAllister, and C. Brooks, “Audit of ePortfolio Practice in Higher Education in Australia: Methodology, Data and Trends” (paper,  Australian ePortfolio Symposium, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, February 7, 2008). [return to text]
2. D. Tosh,  B. Werdmuller, H. Chen, T. Penny Light, and J. Haywood, “The Learning Landscape: A Conceptual Framework for ePortfolios” in A. Jafari and C. Kauffman, Handbook of Research on ePortfolios (Idea Group, 2006), 24-32. [return to text]
3. M.  Huber and P. Hutchings, The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 119-120. [return to text]
4.  C. Raschke, The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, (London: Routledge Falmer, 2002). [return to text]

The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study on Technology and Learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project

This collection of essays from the Visible Knowledge Project is edited by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, who served together as the Project’s Co-Directors and Principal Investigators. The Visible Knowledge Project was a collaborative scholarship of teaching and learning project exploring the impact of technology on learning, primarily in the humanities.  In all, about seventy faculty from twenty-two institutions participated in the Visible Knowledge Project over five years. Participating campuses included five research universities (Vanderbilt University, the University of Alabama, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), four comprehensive public universities (Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, California State University (CSU)–Monterey Bay, CSU Sacramento, Ohio’s Youngstown State University, and participants from several four-year colleges in the City University of New York system, including City College, Lehman, and Baruch), and three community colleges (two from CUNY–Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College, and California’s Cerritos College). In addition to campus-based teams, a number of independent scholars participated from a half dozen other institutions, such as Arizona State and Lehigh University.

The project began in June 2000 and concluded in October 2005. We engaged in several methods for online collaboration to supplement our annual institutes, including an adaptation of the digital poster-tool created by Knowledge Media Lab (Carnegie Foundation), asynchronous discussion, and web-conferencing. For more detailed information, see the VKP galleries and archives at You can find pdf files formatted for printing attached at the end of each article.

Capturing the Visible Evidence of Invisible Learning

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This is a portrait of the new shape of learning with digital media, drawn around three core concepts: adaptive expertise, embodied learning, and socially situated pedagogies. These findings emerge from the classroom case studies of the Visible Knowledge Project, a six-year project engaging almost 70 faculty from 21 different institutions across higher education. Examining the scholarly work of VKP faculty across practices and technologies, it highlights key conceptual findings and their implications for pedagogical design.  Where any single classroom case study yields a snapshot of practice and insight, collectively these studies present a framework that bridges from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 technologies, building on many dimensions of learning that have previously been undervalued if not invisible in higher education.

Reading the Reader

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Many teachers wonder what happens (or doesn’t happen) when students read text. What knowledge do students need, gain, or seek when reading? Through VKP’s early emphasis on technology experimentation, Sharona Levy adapted a proven reading method of annotation from paper to computer. Through using the comment feature in Word, students’ reading processes became more transparent, explicit, and traceable, allowing her to diagnose gaps in understanding and to encourage effective reading strategies.

Close Reading, Associative Thinking, and Zones of Proximal Development in Hypertext

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How can we teach students to slow down their reading process and move beyond surface-level comprehension? Patricia O’Connor’s Appalachian Literature students co-constructed hypertexts which capture the connections readers make among assigned texts, reference documents, and multimedia sources. These hypertexts became more than artifacts of student work; rather, they became collaborative, exploratory spaces where implicit literary associations become explicit.

Inquiry, Image, and Emotion in the History Classroom

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With increased online access to historical sources, will students “read history” differently among such artifacts as text, image, or video? Questioning his own assumptions of students’ abilities to analyze historical sources, Peter Felten conducted pedagogical investigations to understand student interpretation of a variety of sources. Designing the use of visual artifacts in the classroom helped students learn not only how to interrogate and interpret primary sources, but also how to construct original arguments about history. Students’ understanding of history deepened while they became emotionally engaged with the material.

From Looking to Seeing: Student Learning in the Visual Turn

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Rather than simply using primary source images as illustrations for his course on Power, Race, and Culture in the U.S. City, David Jaffee wanted to teach his students how to interpret visual texts as a historian would. By paying close attention to his students’ readings of images, Jaffee was able to develop ways to scaffold their analysis, teaching them how to move beyond “looking” at isolated images to “seeing” historical context, connection and complexity.

Engaging Students as Researchers through Internet Use

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Effective habits of research begin early and should be practiced often. Unearthing discoveries, making connections, and evaluating judiciously are research traits valued by Taimi Olsen in her first-year composition course. Not only should these research habits exist in the library, but Olsen advocates the application of these habits in online archives hones students’ abilities to become expert researchers.

Trace Evidence: How New Media Can Change What We Know About Student Learning

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Clicker technology, often used in large-enrollment science courses, works well when every question has a single right answer. Lynne Adrian wanted to find out whether clickers could be used in disciplines which raise more questions than answers, and how illuminating the gray areas between “right” and “wrong” could help her students think critically about American studies. She found that the technology allowed her to preserve traces of the otherwise ephemeral class discussions, enabling her to analyze the types of questions she was asking in class and to track their effects on students’ written work throughout the semester.

Shaping a Culture of Conversation: The Discussion Board and Beyond

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What happens when the discussion board goes from being just an assignment to a springboard for intellectual community? Foreseeing many benefits to cultivating discussion among his English students, Ed Gallagher worked to develop frameworks to articulate why discussion is not only central to the learning process in the classroom but also beyond its walls. A higher level of critical analysis, reflection, and a synthesis of multiple perspectives turned class discussions into artful conversations.

The Importance of Conversation in Learning and the Value of Web-based Discussion Tools

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In this essay Heidi Elemendorf and John Ottenhoff discuss the central role that intellectual communities should play in a liberal education and the value of conversation for our students, and we explore the ways in which web-based conversational forums can be best designed to fully support these ambitious learning goals. Coming from very different fields (Biology and English Literature) and in different course contexts (Microbiology course for non-majors and Shakespeare seminar), they nonetheless discover core values and design issues by looking closely at the discourse produced from online discussions. Centrally, they connect what they identify as expert-like behavior to the complexities of intellectual development in conversational contexts.

Why Sophie Dances: Electronic Discussions and Student Engagement with the Arts

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Paula Berggren struggled to engage her students in critical thinking about unfamiliar art forms, until she posed a simple question on the class’s online discussion board: “Why do people dance?” She found that the students’ responses, rather than being just less-polished versions of what they might write in formal essays, warranted close analysis in their own right. In subsequent teaching, Berggren continues to incorporate some version of a middle space for student work, which not only increases students’ engagement but also allows her to observe and document their thought processes.

Connecting the Dots: Learning, Media, Community

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Sometimes the research question you ask isn’t the one you end up answering. Elizabeth Stephen recounts how a debate about the use of films in a freshman seminar led to an experiment in forming a community of scholars which could be sustained over time and across distances. Creating online spaces for students in this group to share their reflections with one another strengthened the ties among them, while allowing Stephen to analyze the multiple elements, both academic and social, which made this a successful learning community.

Focusing on Process: Exploring Participatory Strategies to Enhance Student Learning

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Confronting the challenge of improving student writing in a large sociology class, Juan José Gutiérrez developed a software-based peer review process. He required students to evaluate one another’s papers based on specific criteria and to provide constructive feedback. He found that not only did this process help with the logistics of paper-grading, but it also allowed him to adapt his teaching to address specific concerns indicated by qualitative and quantitative analysis of the peer reviews.

Theorizing Through Digital Stories: The Art of “Writing Back” and “Writing For”

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Discovering how digital stories engage students in critical, theoretical frameworks lives at the center of Rina Benmayor’s work. Through her course, Latina Life Stories, Rina asked each student to tell his or her own life story digitally and then situate the story within a theoretical context. While this process engaged students to theorize creatively, it also allowed her to document methods to recognize the quality of student work resulting in a flexible and intuitive rubric to use beyond this experience.

Video Killed the Term Paper Star? Two Views

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Two instructors from separate disciplines discuss what happens when alternative multimedia assignments replace traditional papers. Peter Burkholder found the level of engagement to change dramatically in his history courses while Anne Cross experienced new avenues for talking about sensitive subjects in sociology. Together, both professors explore the advantages and opportunities for video assignments that challenge students to synthesize information in critical and innovative ways.

Producing Audiovisual Knowledge: Documentary Video Production and Student Learning in the American Studies Classroom

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Traditionally, academic institutions have segregated multimedia production from disciplinary study. Bernie Cook wondered what his American Studies students would learn from working collaboratively to produce documentary films based on primary sources, and what he in turn might find out about their learning in the process. Students created documentary films on local history, and wrote reflections on their creative and critical process. Not only did students report tremendous engagement with the topics and sources for their projects, they also indicated satisfaction at being able to screen their work for an audience. By allowing his students to become producers of content, Cook enables them to participate fully in the intellectual work of American Studies and Film Studies.

Multimedia as Composition: Research, Writing, and Creativity

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Viet Thanh Nguyen reflects on a three-year experiment in assigning multimedia projects in courses designed around the question “How do we tell stories about America?” Determined to integrate multimedia conceptually into his courses, rather than tacking it onto existing syllabi, Nguyen views multimedia as primarily a pedagogical strategy and secondarily a set of tools. Exploring challenges and opportunities for both students and teachers in using multimedia, he outlines principles for teaching with multimedia, and concludes that, while not for everyone, multimedia can potentially create a transformative learning experience.

Looking at Learning, Looking Together: Collaboration across Disciplines on a Digital Gallery

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What does it mean for two community college colleagues, teaching in very different disciplines, to work together on a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project?  What happens when they join together to examine their students’ work, their individual teaching practice, and the possibilities for collaborative research?  And what do they learn when they undertake an electronic publication of that work in a digital gallery?

“It Helped Me See a New Me”: ePortfolio, Learning and Change at LaGuardia Community College

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What happens if we shift the focus of our teaching and learning innovations from a single classroom to an entire institution? What new kinds of questions and possibilities emerge? Can an entire college break boundaries, moving from a focus on “what teachers teach” to a focus on “what students learn?” Can we think differently about student learning if we create structures that enable thousands of students to use new media tools to examine their learning across courses, disciplines, and semesters? Bret Eynon explores these questions as he analyzes the college-wide ePortfolio initiative at LaGuardia Community College. Studying individual portfolios and focus group interviews, he also examines quantitative outcomes data on engagement and retention to better consider ePortfolio’s impact on student learning.

From Narrative to Database: Multimedia Inquiry in a Cross-Classroom Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Study

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Michael Coventry and Matthias Oppermann draw on their work with student-produced digital stories to explore how the protocols surrounding particular new media technologies shape the ways we think about, practice, and represent work in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The authors describe the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive, an innovative grid they designed to represent their findings, after considering how the technology of delivery could impact practice and interpretation. This project represents an intriguing synthesis of digital humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning, raising important questions about the possibilities for analyzing and representing student learning in Web 2.0 environments.

Multimedia in the Classroom at USC: A Ten Year Perspective

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Does multimedia scholarship add academic value to a liberal arts education? How do we know? Looking back at the history of the Honors Program in Multimedia Scholarship at USC, Mark Kann draws on his own teaching experience, discussions with other faculty members, and the university’s curriculum review process to explore these questions. He describes the process of developing the program’s academic objectives and assessment criteria, and the challenges of gathering evidence for his intuitions about the effects of multimedia scholarship. Finally, Kann reports on the program’s first student cohort and looks ahead to the future of multimedia at USC.

Zotero: The Next-Generation Research Tool

by Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University


Zotero is a free, easy-to-use research tool that helps you gather and organize resources (whether bibliography or the full text of articles), and then lets you to annotate, organize and share the results of your research. It includes the best parts of older reference manager software such as EndNote (like the ability to store full reference information in author, title and publication fields and to export that as formatted references) and the best parts of modern software such as or iTunes (like the ability to sort, tag and search in advanced ways). Using its unique ability to sense when you are viewing a book, article or other resource on the web, Zotero will–on many major research sites–find and automatically save the full reference information for you in the correct fields.

The 1.0 beta release of Zotero already provides advanced functionality for gathering, organizing and scanning your research, as well as basic import/export capability and bibliographic formatting tools. Automatic updates to the software in the fall and winter of 2006-2007 will provide many more citation styles, the ability for Zotero to recognize even more online resources, even better support for importing and exporting entire collections, and integration with Microsoft Word and other word processors. And coming soon, Zotero users will be able to share their collections with other users, collaborate on research projects using Zotero, send their collections to other free web services (such as mapping or translation sites) and receive recommendations and feeds of new resources that might be of interest. In short, over the next year Zotero will expand from an already helpful browser extension into a full-fledged tool for digital research and communications.

Zotero requires Firefox 2.0 and can be downloaded for free from the Zotero website, which also includes full documentation and a forum for discussion.