Visual Thinking, Branching Scenarios, and Mind Mapping

What’s the best way to demonstrate the relationship among concepts, key terms, events, significant characters, themes, and other pieces of course content?

Visual representations of your topic can really help students see which items work together and which items are in tension with one another. The tools outlined in this post tilt a little more toward the concept-mapping and diagramming end of things, although they certainly could be used to illustrate digital story elements like branching scenarios and diminishing choices.

I’ve covered a few products below, and Chris Clark at the University of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning offers a nice discussion of the myriad ways to use graphic organizers and mind maps.

Lucidchart is more of a whiteboard diagramming tool, but it supports Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and site maps, and org charts. Templates (including those for software, network, and systems design), objects, shapes and fonts are provided; you can also upload your own photos and embed documents. LucidChart offers free educational licenses (equivalent to the Team-level premium option in terms of features).

LucidChart is a pretty powerful collaborative option. With this tool, all content is created online and stored in the cloud. This certainly makes collaboration easier, whether your students are working together to build a scenario or whether you are working with colleagues to connect content from various disciplines. All changes appear in real-time and there is no limit to the number of users who can collaborate on a document; conveniently, there is an embedded group chat feature. Revision history is also available. When your work is complete, you can publish to the web or PDF.

Below is a brief Lucidchart demo:

Creately is similar to Lucidchart in that it is also a mapping whiteboard with a variety of export/import, template, and privacy options. Creately also offers desktop software that you can use on your computer if you happen to be offline; the next time you connect to the internet, the software will automatically sync with your content in the cloud. Alas, Creately isn’t free: the cloud-based version costs $5 per month for a single user and $25 for up to 5 users, though the price is reduced for charity or open-source projects. The desktop software bills separately.

Below is a brief Creately demo:

Spicynodes is another diagramming / concept map tool. The emphasis here is more on organization and brevity, quickly displaying relevant information so that a reader scanning the content can locate exactly what she needs. I like that you can integrate images, links, videos, and audio files. Spicynodes also has previous / next arrows in several foreign languages. Alas, it is flash-based, so you’ll want to think about that and device compatibility, depending on how / when you will use spicynodes; Spicynodes is primarily designed to be published online, on a website or blog. The free version allows you to create an unlimited number of node maps, although some of the nice features (in terms of design, privacy controls, and collaboration) are reserved for the paid subscriptions. As other reviewers have noted, the American Association of School Librarians selected SpicyNodes as one of its 2011 Best Websites for Teaching and Learning.

Here is a sample spicynode (click on the image to be taken to a new page where you can experience the interactive features).

sample spicynode image showing center topic question and related questions

Last, we’ve talked about Prezi before on this blog, but Prezi is also a great tool for allowing learners some choice in how they relate pieces of content to each other. Focusing the branching scenarios and content clusters around topics, themes, characters, situations, diagnoses, etc. lets students actively engage with course content. Here is an example from Ian Beatty showing how a prezi concept map can help introduce students to key course concepts (this was published on Derek Bruff’s blog).


Better yet, Derek’s blog post includes examples of how concept maps can be used at the beginning, middle, and end of a course. This really does seem like great way to share a road map for the course, transition between topics, or synthesize knowledge at the conclusion of the class.

Do you have a favorite digital visualization tool? Or favorite way to use such tools in your course? We’d love to hear about it!

Motivation & Your Students

Markers of spring: the trees have flowered and are now sporting baby-green leaves, the daffodils have come and gone, and some of your students may have already started to check out.

Summer is upon us! But not just yet. How do you keep your content delivery interesting and your students motivated during these last few weeks of the semester? From Edudemic, here is a short run-down of four ways to increase engagement in the classroom. With the exception of moving around the classroom, the other three suggestions (high expectations, real-world applications, and technological engagement to build connections) would work equally well in an online course. And, if you interpret “moving around the classroom” as part of a larger strategy of mixing up your presentation and student participation styles, even this piece of advice becomes applicable to the online classroom. For example, if you’ve always had students respond to your discussion prompts, you might ask them to submit discussion questions based on the week’s content.

If you prefer your information in visual form, this is a lovely infographic about reaching distracted students. I especially like that two of their suggestions (cooperative learning and peer instruction) focus on the students as communicators and meaning-makers. After all, at this point in the semester, your students should have a decent understanding of the larger course themes and be able to work together to situate new knowledge in that context. This could be done in pairs, small-groups, online in threaded discussions, or in some other format appropriate for your subject, such as a role-play or case-study.

If nothing you’ve read so far seems like it will work for your group of students, your classroom, or your content, this is a laundry list of 21 simple ways to motivate students. Sometimes, sharing control of and responsibility for the learning experience can go a long way toward keeping students interested. Giving students a choice – of which texts to read, which prompts to answer, how to demonstrate their skills, or with whom to work – may be just the trick. Likewise, a clear (and clearly articulated) learning objective can help students focus on what they need to be doing in order to succeed. Changes like this can be made to one lesson or one activity without needing to re-vamp your entire syllabus at this late date.

Best, if you find that some of these strategies work for you and your students, you can add them to your toolkit and pull them out as needed to keep motivation high throughout the next course you teach.

We’d love to hear from you about what you’ve found works well to keep students going in these final weeks of the semester. Comment away!

Threaded Discussions and Case Studies

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to look inside a few course shells and see some very inventive ways that our professors are using the the LearningStudio threaded discussion tool. Threaded discussions are great for online courses, as this is a way that students can interact with each other and engage with the material. Threaded discussions can also be used in face-to-face classes to continue or to prepare for an in class discussion; to support the evaluation of sources, theories, or methodologies; or for other course-specific goals.

I’ve noticed that quite a few faculty members are framing threaded discussion questions around case studies. What a wonderful way to allow students to apply course concepts, to place all students into the role of both teacher (as they share their approach to the situation) and learner (as they read and engage with the responses of classmates), and to provide students with opportunities to work beyond the stated objectives (for example, researching the pros and cons of a suggested course of action) or to improve their performance (by breaking their response into more manageable pieces/posts and seeing the work of successful students).

A well-written case study is an act of digital story-telling, drawing the students in and getting them invested in using their new-found knowledge to asses a given situation. Here are some other attributes of successful case study scenarios. In particular, I think it would be helpful to look at this list as one formulated a case study discussion question and then again as one moderated or monitored the discussion later.

Good discussion questions tend to beget good discussions. Nothing invites a quick skim of discussion board responses like asking your students what they found interesting / surprising / new in a given set of readings. As the instructor, you may gain some useful insights from this, but your students likely aren’t applying any skills, nor are they really getting to know one another or thinking deeply about the content. Questions about the application of new material, how course knowledge will change a student’s thinking / approach to a problem, hypotheticals and counter-factuals, practice taking the perspective of an “other”, and requirements that students acknowledge and then balance competing priorities – all these can be embedded in a case study. Best, case study prompts built around the above approaches offer the opportunity to put course concepts in context and for students to meaningfully engage with one another in discussion post after discussion post.

Note that the Koehler Center workshop schedule will include training on the LearningStudio threaded discussion tool; Spring 2013 dates will be posted soon.

Teaching with Videos

We write about videos with some degree of frequency. And, well, why not? Videos are great ways to introduce yourself or the course, transition to new content or concepts, and address class themes and discussion points. In addition, the right video content can provide an experience beyond the classroom walls or course shell.

Consider this infographic about the impact of video in education, courtesy of the networking / communications / collaboration company Cisco Systems:

Inforgraphic provided by Cisco systems on benefits and prevalence of videos in education

If you’re considering using or creating a video for your course (perhaps as part of a flipped classroom experience or experiment), this list of different styles for integrating video content into your course may help you think about your goals and starting point. In particular, instructor-created video can be much more than a recorded lecture. Note that the last video integration style mentioned might also be read as “Video Engages Interested Others” – meaning community members, colleagues, university administrators, etc.

This is a list of 15 eLearning video tips. Some of them, such as using actors, probably aren’t practical on the individual course level. However, the points about having a transcript available (an important accessibility concern), the optimal length of videos, and establishing the context for your video are all well worth reading. Aimed more at faculty producing their own videos, this list of video tips for faculty is a great pre-recording checklist. I just love condensed tip lists like this: it’s as if someone has already made the mistakes and is now sharing their pearls of wisdom, saving you from mediocre results!

Note that the Koehler Center has some information about recording your own content and uploading it to your Pearson LearningStudio course shell.

Of course, not all videos need to star you or your students. There are several animation options that allow you to upload an image of your own or work with selected sets of avatars. Need a comical take on two molecules joining together? Want to create a funny little animation of two historical or literary characters to start a class discussion? This is a summary of five easy animation tools; these tools are aimed at young students, but that means the learning curve for the new tools should be quite feasible. In the context of creating your own animations, I’d also be remiss not to mention Xtranormal – perhaps the most popular easy web animation tool.

If integrating existing videos is your preference, this list of curated educational internet video sources is a good starting point. In addition, the Koehler Center has collected an extensive list of internet streaming video resources that may be helpful. Last, I just found out about the website Documentary Heaven the other day. The site gathers and embeds documentaries available elsewhere on the internet, serving as a sort of clearinghouse for streaming documentaries.

If you are thinking about working with existing video, this is an intriguing article from the Academic Technology blog at the College of William and Mary about recording your own audio commentary to accompany video resources. Providing your own audio track means that students can stop the video, take notes, rewind, re-watch, and re-listen to your insights as many times as needed. This is a great alternative to the pace of in-class film screenings, with the added bonus of allowing you to use class time for other learning activities. Likewise, you can also ask students to create a commentary of their own for short segments of videos – a great way for them to demonstrate their skills and apply course content.

If you are TCU faculty and have a Pearson LearningStudio course shell, here are the how-to guides for embedding audio and video content in your course shell.

As always, we’d love to hear what video resources you’re using and how you’re using them!

Backing up your Data

Whenever I think of losing electronic data, I’m always reminded of this story about a graduate student who had her purse – containing a thumb drive with the only copy of her thesis data – stolen. The miraculous part of this story is that the determined and desperate grad student retraces the thief’s steps based on charges made to her credit cards, goes dumpster diving, and finds the purse with the thumb drive still in it. 

I love a cosmic good luck story. Luck and dumpster diving are, however, horrible data back-up strategies. At this point in the semester, the work you’ve done (lectures, handouts, simulation directions, exam questions, essay prompts etc.) is starting to accumulate. Equally important, your students are starting to accumulate grades. It’s never too early to back all this up. I’m also of the school that there are never too many different secure places to have your data backed up. If you are TCU faculty and have your gradebook in LearningStudio, here is some documentation from the Koehler Center on exporting your LearningStudio gradebook. This is a wise thing to do before making any changes to your gradebook or to assignments that are linked to the gradebook, after entering grades, and at set intervals throughout the semester.

Where would you put your back-ups? For TCU student data, such as grades, keeping things within the TCU network is the safest option. You can use local space on your personal TCU computer and TCU network file space (the M: drive).

Items related to your own teaching and research are, of course, welcome on the M: drive as well. Note that network space there is limited – although you can request a quota increase if needed. We’ve also written about various data back-up solutions before, including Dropbox (note that this a stand-alone product, not to be confused with the electronic assignment submission tool of the same name that is found within LearningStudio course shells). This is a nice, short piece about Dropbox in educational contexts, and here are five specific ways you can use Dropbox.

I wanted to draw your attention to Dropbox in the context of this post on data back-up because Dropbox is currently giving away an extra 3GB of free storage for two years to anyone with a .edu address. There’s also a school-based incentive program in which the more people from your school that sign up and review the Get Started Guide, the more space all Dropbox users at your school earn. Here are the specific terms of that deal. Whether or not you’re interested in those incentives, the 3GB is there for the taking, even for existing Dropbox users. Here is the sign-up page.

Top 100 Tools for Learning 2012

The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2012 list was released yesterday, October 1, 2012.  The list contains tools voted for by 582 learning professionals worldwide. See the full list or view the slideshare below!

Let us know your favorites or new ones you think you will try, or if there are any that you’d like us to feature on our blog!

Finding Properly Licensed Images for your Course

First, an update to an earlier post of ours regarding how to find images with the proper use licenses, so that you can feel absolutely comfortable using said images in your course. It seems that Google’s layout has changed a little, so here is how you would do this in the current Google set-up.

To find a properly licensed Google Image:
1. Go to Google and click on the word “Images” on the left-hand side of the options running across the top of the page (in the black bar). This will ensure that you are only searching images.

2. Enter your search terms in the box. Hit enter or click on the blue magnifying glass button to see the results of the simple search for your image.

3. To refine your results for the type of use that fit your needs, google image search settings buttonclick on the settings button (see image at right). The button is located in the upper right corner, just above the returned images.

4. From the drop-down menu that appears, select Advanced Search.

5. On the new search page (which will have retained your original search term), scroll down to the very bottom for the usage rights options. Click on the drop-down menu to select the use that matches your needs.

6. Click the blue Advanced Search button, just underneath the usage rights field, and watch your results appear. Voilà!

Of course, Google is only one way to locate the right legal image. Pearson’s online education blog has a very informative post reviewing several options for locating free and properly licensed images. Building on that post, which mentions Flickr as an option for images, ProfHacker has some advice about the easiest way to search Flickr for Creative Commons licensed photos.

Last, once you’ve located all those amazing and legal images, here is the documentation from the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence regarding how to put images in your Pearson LearningStudio course shell.

p.s. If you’re still on the fence about using images in your course or would like a review of what Creative Commons licensing is all about, we’ve got you covered in this post from our archives.