One of the most common and important features of modern software is the “tag.” A tag is a short keyword or phrase that a user assigns to a piece of information that describes it in some way. You might also be familiar with hashtags, a form of tag used in social media (#thisisahashtag). Tags are not always proceeded with a “#” symbol. Sometimes software provides you with a tag or keyword box, or a list of predefined tags from which you can choose.
Many of the software applications you use probably use tags, but do you understand exactly what is happening when you tag something? Why you should tag something? How you can get the most out of tags?
History and Background
Tags have been around with us ever since human beings started producing knowledge and information in such volumes that it needed to be categorized and organized. From the Dewey Decimal System to that of the Library of Congress, there are many schemas for making information more accessible and discoverable. These older systems worked all when information was confined to physical forms such as in books. When the internet and the web arrived, however, the amount of information produced increased so exponentially that having just a few human experts curating and organizing content was no longer feasible.
For example, take a look at this screen shot from the Yahoo website from 1996 (example borrowed from: The Machine is Us/ing Us):
You’ll notice that at the beginning of the web, curators and organizers attempted to use the older paradigm of a shelf to categorize websites. This wasn’t sustainable in the long run as the web began to grow. Nowadays when we want to find information we are greeted with one very simple search box.
This is where tags come in. Tags are important because they help us find information by teaching our search engines and computers about what kinds of information webpages or snippets of content contain. For example, we could tag a student record with with a number of different keywords:
- “FERPA” – To indicate a higher degree of record privacy requested by a student.
- “Honors” – To indicate the student is in the Honors Program.
- “Sustainability LLP” – To indicate the student is living in a living learning community.
- “Homesick” – To indicate that a student staff member in the residence halls discovered that the student was experiencing homesickness.
- “Leadership” – To indicate that the student expressed interest in receiving information about leadership programs on campus.
Tags are a way of categorizing information and creating databases of information that can be recalled or utilized in different ways. What makes digital tags different from their predecessors is that individuals or information can be assigned multiple tags and the assignment of tags can be done by multiple individuals. Thomas Vander Wall (2004) famously referred to this as creating a “folksonomy.” The term comes from a mashup of “taxonomy,” a organizing/classification scheme, and “folk,” denoting that many individuals can tag information, socially. When multiple users tag information, a floksonomy is the aggregate of all of their tags they create. It is the collective categories of all the users tagging information in the software.
So Why Does This Matter?
Tagging is extremely important when it comes to assessment. When information is tagged, an educator or researcher is better able to understand and process the information in aggregate. Frequencies can be run to determine how often a tag is used, at what times of year it shows up, and where, geographically, a tag might show up more frequently.
Returning to the example of the “homesick” tag, we would expect to find that first year residents are most likely to exhibit this behavior. It may also show up in some residence halls more frequently than others. Demographic factors can also come into play. Are students whose homes are closer to campus more likely to exhibit homesickness than those whose homes are more than 100 miles away from campus? What about international students? Are there differences in gender? With a proper set of tags, information like this can be more easily gleaned from the data.
When it comes to tagging, there are a number of important concepts and best practices to keep in mind. Many of these are borrowed from qualitative research practices since you are, whether you know it or not, conducting a form of qualitative research when working with this type of data. A little bit of pre-planning and learning can go a long way.
- Develop a “code book” or “tag book” that includes specific tag names and spelling along with brief descriptions about who each should be used. This will help with consistency and reduce the amount of “cleaning” or “fixing” you need to do to the data on the back end.
- Train your staff on the use of tags and when they are appropriate and when they are not. Distributing the work of tagging makes dealing with large amounts of information significantly more easy.
- If you want to compare variables or look at trends across different factors (such as demographics) make sure your data is coded and collected in such a way that it will provide you with what you need. Sometimes this requires tagging and sometimes this information can be imported or cross referenced with other systems.
- Tags can be nested. For instance, Civic Engagement behaviors in students might entail a number of different sub-tags or characteristics.
- Think about the relationship between your tags. Are certain tags more likely to show up together or in the same incident? For example, is there a relationship between alcohol and violent incidents on your campus?
Tagging and understanding the basics of qualitative research is increasingly important for college student educators. As technology has advanced, professionals now have access to more data than ever before–data that can help in making informed decisions and in providing insight into how to best help students. Understanding how tags work and intentionally using tags can go a long way towards achieving these ends. “Big data” is an important future reality that educators need to prepare for and begin to leverage.
- What kinds of information do you collect?
- What types of tags would be most relevant to the questions you hope to answer?
- How can you you decide on and train staff on a consistent tagging convention to ensure the quality and integrity of your data?
Vander Wall, T. (2007, February 2). Folksonomy coinage and definition. Retrieved from http://vanderwal.net/folksonomy.html
This post originally appeared on the Roompact On Duty Blog. Roompact is the creator of residential education software for colleges and universities that allows housing and residence life programs to track their educational efforts and make their administrative work more efficient. As the Director of Curriculum, Training, and Research for Roompact, I frequently contribute to the blog and occasionally cross-post my articles here.