Insights, Fall 2012

The new issue of the Koehler Center magazine about teaching and learning is available.

Give it a look and let us know what you think. Additionally, if there are topics you’d like to see covered in future Insights, please let us know.

Smart Suggestions for Using Google in Teaching and Research

First, here’s a lovely graphic all about the suite of Google tools and their potential use in the classroom and beyond:

More concretely, here are some more detailed ways to use Google tools to boost productivity and student engagement:

1. You can use Google Forms to create all sort of questions (we’ve previously written about about Google forms and student self-reflection). For our purposes, though, you can also use Google forms to collect quick homework / reading check answers, poll students on their technology experience or ownership as a set-up for class activities, or ask students to briefly share their understandings of or questions about key concepts. If you create a question on your form that asks for the student’s name, there’s no need for your students to have their own Google accounts to complete the form (you can set up your form as a public or public with link form and allow anonymous submissions). This is a great primer on the benefits of using Google Forms for online surveys.

2. The way in which Google displays search results has changed recently; Google has added a Knowledge Graph panel to the right of the returned search results. This panel leverages Google’s powerful analytics about what information users are usually seeking when they search for a given term and which pages they generally end up reading. While perhaps shepherding users toward easy and common information, the Knowledge Graph is also helpful by providing ready-made contextualization of information. If one doesn’t know a particular term or personage provided in the Knowledge Graph, discovering the meaning or relationship is but a click away. This is a nice piece about Knowledge Graph and Deeper Searching.

3. Are you a Google Scholar user? Did you know that Google Scholar can integrate with the catalog of your local library, telling you whether material you’ve found is available nearby? Likewise, when paired with your work in Google Docs, Google Scholar will actually locate and then format your references in APA, Chicago, or MLA  format. this approach is a little clunkier and not as robust as one of the paid citation / reference programs, but, hey, the price is right! Last, Google scholar can tell you not only the number of citations a certain piece has, but also produce a list of them. Read all about these tricks in this post about Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Google Scholar.

4. If you’re using (or considering using) Google+ as a social networking or video conferencing option in your class, this post has some suggestions about how Google+ can help you get the most out of virtual office hours.

Also, writing about Google products is nothing new around here. Here is a list of past Google-related topics.

Last, if you have a favorite way to use Google or a favorite Google tool that helps your research or teaching, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!

New from Google

Two Google-related news items:

1. A review of the Google Docs research tool. Basically, this is a quick way to run a search on terms within your Google Docs. Results display in a sidebar adjacent to your original text. You then have the option to preview a selected website, create a hyperlink in your document, or add the related citation to your document. As the review notes, “research” and “web search” aren’t necessarily the same thing (nor do they guarantee the same quality of results). Likewise, the embedded citations provided by the research tool are not in one of the standard scholarly formats. However, the ability to quickly verify quotes, facts, or other pieces of data all without leaving the original document does seem very convenient.

2. Using a Google search to identify images. You can use Google Image search not only to find images, but also to help you find more information about images. What happens if you find an image online, but fail to note the source? Or, with further research, you realize that you need more information about said image or need to find the original source? Google lets you enter a web address, drag and drop the image, or upload it. Search results are then returned alongside your original image, letting you find the right site to clear up any image attribution issues.

Happy searching!

Google Drive

I have to admit, the name totally reminds me of the Google Street View Car (you know, the car that drives around recording the images for the awesome street view maps. Following the link above, I learned that, apparently, they have Google Street View trikes and snowmobiles, too – who knew?).

So, Google Drive is not about a car – but I still think the name (and the product) is pretty genius. Google drive is a cloud-based synching data storage solution, much like Dropbox and SpiderOak (there’s a great comparison chart of various storage options at the bottom of this page).

With Google Drive, you are provided with secure storage space and the drag-and-drop ability to keep files straight between multiple computers. You also have all the sharing and collaboration features that you’ve come to expect from Google Docs.

How is it different from Google Docs? Well, there’s a pricing structure: you get 5GB free, and the price increases from there (at rates that are quite competitive with other cloud-based data storage sites). Google Drive viewer supports an impressive list of file types, and has  a 10GB upload limit on files or folders. Google Drive comes with Google Image Search, allowing you to search images in your Google Drive based on key words.

Google Drive is linked to Google Docs, and once you add Google Drive to your Google account, it will replace Google Docs. Your Google Docs will appear in your Drive account with icons. If you are connected to the internet, clicking on a Google Doc icon will open a web browser so you can view the document. However, if you’re not connected to the internet, all you’ll have is an icon in your Google Drive folder on your computer’s hard drive.

Right now, the Google Drive mobile options are pretty limited; there’s only an Android app, but an iOS one is reportedly on the way. Additionally, the cautious among us might want to read this article on Google Drive’s terms of service.

Here’s the video intro to Google Drive:

Digital Storytelling & Twine

This post presents some resources for creating and sharing narratives online. Digital storytelling can help your students build relationships with one another, brainstorm their ideas, think through realistic scenarios, share their learning, and reflect on course content.
Teaching through stories is powerful; the addition of images and the ability experience how concepts relate to one another helps students with different skill levels and learning styles. If you’re looking for a little more background, this is a well-researched synthesis piece on the pedagogy of storytelling and the benefits of digital storytelling.

Here is an example of a simple scenario built by corporate eLearning instructional designer Cathy Moore that plunges learners right into the thick of things, learning and reviewing new vocabulary in service of moving the storyline along. Give it a try, and see how much you learn – and how motivated you are to get it right!

The example above is a language-learning example, however digital storytelling examples in higher education abound across the disciplines: business, landscape design, nursing, religion, etc.

As Cathy Moore notes, “. . . we don’t have to front-load learners’ brains with vocabulary, or other facts before the ‘practice activity’. Instead, we can plunge them, clueless, directly into an activity that exposes them to the new information in a way that helps them figure it out . . . . Design the story so the learners can discover meanings on their own. Then provide a natural pause to review what they’ve learned and make sure they got it right.”  Having your students actively do something is a far more powerful route to content retention and learner engagement than, say, having them take notes on a summary lecture.

The choices you make as the designer of the learning experience matter. How much information will you reveal at once? Will you use narrative, key words, questions, or images to guide learners through the content? How will learners know what they are to do? How much prior knowledge are you assuming they will have (and how do you know this is an accurate assumption)? How will your learners know when they’ve met the learning objectives? Sorting out the answers to these questions will help you select the proper tool (of course, we’re always available to help, too!).

If you’re not quite ready to dive in to the deep end with designing your own scenario, you can start more gradually. Digital Play, a blog focused on digital resources and games for language learning, recently published a guest post by James Taylor with a wonderful breakdown of the levels of digital storytelling. Taylor identifies the levels as:

  • Mad libs
  • Photo stories
  • Comic strips
  • Story books
  • Animated films

The blog gives a pithy summary for each level and then provides some relevant resources. You can produce these items for your students to experience, or, depending on the skills of your learners, they might produce these items for each other as a learning exercise. Note that each step increases both the complexity of the content the learner is required to produce (words versus phrases and stories) and the complexity of the learning environment (filling the blanks to matching content with photos to using / viewing animation websites). Your learners gain autonomy with each level.

Should you wish to build interactive scenarios, Twine is one tool you can use. Twine is a free downloadable Mac/Windows program (the sample digital story above was created using Twine).  Here’s a summary of the tool from their website:

Twine lets you organize your story graphically with a map that you can re-arrange as you work. Links automatically appear on the map as you add them to your passages, and passages with broken links are apparent at a glance. As you write, focus on your text with a fullscreen editing mode . . . . Rapidly switch between a published version of your story and the editable one as you work . . . . the final output is a single, small Web page, you can easily email a story to friends, post it on your Web site, or even distribute it on a CD-ROM . . . . Twine is free to download and use, and you can share it with anyone you like. You can even modify the Twine, provided you release your own version under the GNU Public License.

You’re also able to add images and audio. As one reviewer notes, “Since Twine produces a standard web page, you could conceivably embed a Twine story in any elearning tool that lets you embed web pages and that doesn’t interfere with Javascript. It might also be mobile-friendly — at least, the sample scenario works on my iPhone.”

Here is a screencast showing the creation of a simple, nonlinear story in Twine (with the bonus of a little discussion about nonlinear stories – information that might help you structure your own digital story).

Creating A Simple Story from Chris Klimas on Vimeo.

Do you use any digital storytelling techniques in your courses? Tell us about it in the comments!


One of the more powerful features of electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) is their public character. Although ePortfolios need not be public – it is quite possible on almost all platforms to limit the viewing audience to selected individuals – many students and programs opt for a public presentation of materials. While this may be a new experience for some students, there are real benefits to moving the best pieces of student work outside of the physical walls of the university and the digital walls of the learning management system (LearningStudio, for this campus). Expanding the viewing audience allows not only family and friends of the student to view his or her work, but also includes other faculty and students in the same program as well as prospective employers or internship coordinators. Demonstrating what one has accomplished can help our students to build meaningful professional connections.

While it might be a bit late to start planning for an electronic portfolio for this semester, it’s never too early to start considering the idea for the Summer or Fall term. There’s a lot of buzz about ePortfolios, so I’ve tried to distill it down to the most helpful and informative resources.

First, here’s a very informative and reflective twopart piece on the origins and purpose(s) of portfolios by Joseph Ugoretz, the Associate Dean of Teaching, Learning and Technology at Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York. Naturally, you’ll want to make sure your eventual portfolio assignment reflects your course goals. In addition, you may want to think about what the long-term and short-term purpose of the portfolio is – for your students, you as a teacher, and possibly your program / department. I love the idea of an ePortfolio expo as described by the author. Sometimes, with digital projects, it’s difficult for the creator to know that people view and appreciate his/her work and growth. An expo is a wonderful way to showcase that work and provide opportunities for interaction (both with the portfolio content and among the students, their families, faculty, and valued community members).

Likewise, John Zubizarreta of Columbia College provides a nice portfolio overview with some practical suggestions for how to get started using portfolios and helping your students get the most of out of them. His suggestions all seem easily adaptable to a digital format.

Here is a very helpful article on ePortfolios in higher education. The article not only contains a list of dimensions that one might consider when evaluating portfolios, but also provides snapshots of how ePortfolios are used at institutions across the country, including Spelman College, the University of Michigan Medical School, and Clemson University. On that note, here is a link to Clemson University’s ePortfolio program; an ePortfolio demonstrating mastery in Clemson’s core competencies is a graduation requirement for all undergraduate students.

As you consider ePortfolios, you’ll also want to make sure you’ve thought through some of the thornier questions associated with their use. Issues might include: Should e-portfolios be private or public? If public, what are the benefits of that, and how can legitimate privacy concerns be dealt with? Will the department / program maintain a public listing of said portfolios? What will happen if students wish to change / alter the content after graduation and do so in a way that reflects poorly on the university, program, or other students’ portfolios?

The most common free higher education option seems to be Google Sites. Here’s a tutorial on getting started with portfolios and Google Sites. Another popular option is to use a WordPress blog and set that up as a portfolio. Since WordPress allows you to create pages, it has the ability to function much more like a website than an online journal. This tutorial on How to Create a Free Portfolio using is aimed more at individuals who have produced visual media, however, the process is the same if one has text-based files, so the directions here should provide a useful starting point.

Once your students have created portfolios, you’ll want to implement whatever plans you’ve made for the portfolios. If that includes some form of evaluation, here is a sample portfolio rubric. You’ll want to adapt this to the particularities of your course and subject, of course. Another way to think about digital portfolio contents is to view the portfolio process as a three stage event: student collects, faculty assesses, community views. From this perspective, one might include / exclude different artifacts at each step or write different, targeted reflections for each stage.

Related to ePortfolios, one might also consider mobile portfolios (mPortfolios). As the number of devices that we use to access educational content expands, it’s wise to think about how an ePortfolio might be viewed by others – now and in the future. Dr. Helen Barrett has put together the site above, and there are many helpful resources there.

Likewise, although it seems that a professional web presence is de rigueur for graduate students these days, I realize that’s not the case to an equal degree across all disciplines. This is a great piece on graduate students and ePortfolios.

If you’re considering (or currently using) an ePortfolio in a pedagogical or professional capacity, we’d love to hear from you!


It’s that time in the semester when everything seems to flag: winter break is a distant memory and spring break still seems ages away.

Here’s a (not very creatively presented) list of some recent writing on the creative process, recapturing creativity, and using technology to unleash your own creativity. Enjoy! And let us know about the fruits of your creativity!

1. The Kaleidescope Mind: Some Easy Ways to Teach Creativity.  This recent-ish short article from the Atlantic got a fair amount of press when it came out. Who wouldn’t like a mind that is mind that is “agile, flexible, self-aware, and informed by a diversity of experiences  . . . [and] able to perceive any given situation from a multitude of perspectives at will — selecting from a rich repertoire of lenses or frameworks”?

2. Why Morning Routines are Creativity Killers. Of course, there’s still all that stuff that has to get done every morning, but, apparently, “imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.”

3. Is Your Creativity Blocked? A quick little rundown on some common creativity stumbling blocks.

4. Twelve Things You Were not Taught in School about Creative Thinking. Psychology Today presents this pithy, helpful list. As much as we know that creative thinking is work, we need to trust our instincts, the first good idea is just the tip of the iceberg, etc., the reminder is always good.

5. Five Ideas to Support Innovation in Higher Ed. The focus in this article is on the campus level, but the tips seem easily adaptable to the program, research lab, or classroom setting.

6. Writing Tips from Famous Authors. Take it from Margaret Atwood. Or Neil Gaiman.  Or William Safire.

7. Malcom McLauren: The Quest for Authentic Creativity.  The video is long, but it really gets at  the way in which creativity is process, not a product or a goal.

8. How to Model Digital Creativity. Who hasn’t been in this position at least once: “I am creating my own mentor texts just ahead of my students, and then sharing those reflections of my process with my class as a way to make visible the success and failures of my work”?