They float around on desktops, populate home pages and bulge out of Facebook profiles. They aren't exactly tangible, which is why they're called widgets, but they're real enough within the digital ether than some educators want to turn them into teaching tools.
The portable, Web-based gadgets are an ideal medium, they say, for creating interactive, individualized instructional materials that can live on a course Web site, a personal blog or even a mobile phone.
Already, some instructors are using them in their own courses, and the idea is catching on as others consider the possibilities. While widgets aren't nearly as ubiquitous in learning circles as are PowerPoint presentations or online quizzes, some educators hope the time is ripe for them to catch on. A meeting of the Northeast Regional Computing Program  is already being planned on the topic for next year and professors are busy discussing  and embedding  widgets on their blogs.
A widget can be nearly anything -- a box that streams the latest links from an RSS feed or a peek at someone's latest photos. What they all share is size (small), flexibility (they can be programmed to any specification) and compatibility (they can be adapted for many platforms). As the latest versions of course management packages adopt module-based interfaces and as colleges' Web portals cull together widget-like boxes for the latest news and e-mail, the objects are becoming more familiar to students -- even if they don't realize it yet.
So while the most common widgets live as Facebook applications or on Apple's Dashboard, a time when students and professors use the gadgets in the classroom might not be too far off. They can be embedded on course Web sites, blogs or pages that aggregate many widgets and other tools.
"With a widget, you can give them more interactive chunks of Web content, more customized chunks ... and with the page aggregators, the teacher or the student can arrange it in a way that teaches [them] well," said Mark C. Marino, who teaches writing at the University of Southern California and who created a customized widget that instructs students in the use of "topoi," a Greek concept used to better understand an idea.
Marino created an entire page , hosted by the Web service Pageflakes, that serves as a kind of home base for the topic. Students can visit the page and see a collection of modules: one that explains the topoi, another that encourages students to "rip" and share the topoi widget, another that serves as a Web-based notepad, and so on. It all revolves around the widget itself, a small interactive tool that walks students through the concept and links them to videos from class.
The widget itself can be modified and pasted into other environments, like Facebook and MySpace, and Marino encourages students to use and modify the tools to match their learning styles.
"My idea was to create pages around particular learning tasks built of widgets that target different learning styles (text, video, interactivity)," he wrote in a blog post earlier this year . "Then, users can copy, cut, or change whatever doesn’t work for them. Each student and faculty member can create his or her own lesson plan based on the tools they find most useful. This isn’t meant to replace the classroom (a la distance learning, though it would help) -- but to create a set of learning objects that people can add to their own pages or rework to suit their needs."
Marino said his widget has been viewed over 20,000 times and installed on other sites at least 75 times. Others also think he's onto something. Susan Metros, associate vice provost for technology enhanced learning and deputy chief information officer at USC, said that she has encouraged other instructors to use widgets, and that as she is "thinking about how we might combine different Web 2.0 technologies ... widgets [will] play an important role."
Those technologies could either work in concert with existing learning management software or potentially become part of a shift -- small but noticeable -- toward open-source solutions.
"What I see happening, as this moves away from course management systems, is [the ability to] embed a bunch of different gadgets, whether it's a discussion gadget or a calendar gadget, to create a curriculum," said Eileen McMahon, who uses widgets in one of her courses at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and is organizing the Nercomp meeting next year.
Metros stressed that in many ways, widgets embody educational theories that have been discussed for years, especially the concept of "learning objects," teaching students in a more modular, linked fashion that emulates the way they interact with the online world, rather than the linear world of books and lectures.
"I don’t think it’s new, I just think ... the technology kind of caught up," she said.