Digital and multimedia alternatives to traditional written reports

It used to be so much simpler. When asking a student to display mastery of some material, a professor would ask for a 10 page paper. The student would research the topic, type up the contents, maybe include an image or graph, add the bibliography, and turn the paper in. The professor would walk out of class with a stack of papers to grade. This was all so predictable.

Well, not any more. The opportunities for displaying mastery are probably limited most by the professor’s imagination more than either the students’ abilities or the technical tools. Here I will go through some of the ideas for new types of projects that have crossed my mind recently as I have been planning my courses.


I have used Wikidot to host my course Web site for the last five years or so. It’s very stable and has a ton of features; see their education page for more details. But I have also used it as a way for students to write reports. I have been ecstatic with the results. Take a look at this one on the U.S. coffee industry as an example of some particularly amazing work. Here are the advantages of using a wiki for my assignment:

  • Students could easily link to current news stories.
  • Students could easily include photos and videos that were appropriate for their topic.
  • Students could write this work that it was going to be a public good when they finished it; on the day the project was due, they would turn their wiki from being private to being public. The report became something that anyone could look at as an example of their work. This definitely provided some motivation.
  • Students could amass a lot of information, but they would also have to learn to organize this information in a comprehensible manner.

Let’s consider this last point a bit more. The wiki tool gives students a lot of options for addressing this problem of how to organize additional information they have gathered. In a paper, students have three choices: footnote, table, or appendix. With hyperlinking (to new pages or within an existing page) and tabs, wikis provide more dramatic and (potentially) more effective tools for organizing information.

Curation tools

If the professor is interested in having a student follow a topic over a period of time (a month or so), then the curation tools that are currently out there provide some really easy-to-use tools for collecting and organizing information. LiveBinder is one such tool; you can learn more on this page. (Here is one example.) They promote themselves as “your 3-ring binder for the Web”, and this is quite appropriate. It’s a tool for gathering resources and putting them into categories. It’s quite utilitarian in nature but these binders are easy to work with.

Scoop.It provides a completely different experience. Think of this tool as providing a way for students (or you) to gather Web-based resources on one particular topic. Here is their Scoop.It page on Scoop.It itself. You can see that it is uncategorized, simply providing an attractive page of articles that they have gathered on a single topic. I could see producing a Scoop.It page as being part of a student’s assignment as a way of getting the student to understand that the topic they are covering is a living, changing thing (whatever it might be).

Network-drawing or mindmapping

Pearltrees example

Instead of writing about a topic, the professor might ask students to create a mindmap about a topic. These tools have gotten much better in the last couple of years. (Some of them are free while others provide very low rates for academic users.) They each make it quite easy to draw networks of related concepts, but each tool is somewhat different.

PearlTrees is a tool for gathering URLs from around the Web. This works by clicking on a bookmarklet in your browser, and then this “pearl” is added to their personal network. The student can then go to the network and re-organize the page.

Spicy Nodes exampleMindmeister example

SpicyNodes feels more like a writing or composition tool. This is a tool for sitting down, thinking, and creating; it’s not something that feels like it could be thrown-together. The “nodes” in this network can be text, simple HTML, URLs, or graphics.

Finally, MindMeister provides the ability for students to work in groups without worrying about stepping on each other’s electronic toes. Here are some education examples. While here the user can add graphics, the focus is clearly on the thoughts and organization of ideas.


The tools for creating videos are widely available and cheap. If you assign a group of students to create a video, the probability of one of them having a smart phone that can take video approaches 100% for any group of 2 or more. Almost every laptop comes with a web cam. I’m going to write an entry on this soon, but there is all kinds of free software available for producing videos:

Professors should think really carefully before they don’t assign videos during a class. It provides a different way of increasing student interaction with a topic, and might get them to think in a different way about how to organize their thoughts than they would otherwise.


VoiceThread is a unique multimedia collaboration tool. It allows multiple users to collaborate or comment on a video or PDF (or whatever) in multiple different ways. You really should look at their features page.

The question here becomes how to use this tool in a class. The professor could assign a video clip to a group of students and get them to create a commentary on it. These could then be shared to the whole class as a way to get a classroom discussion started. Another alternative would be before every class assigning different groups of students a specific article; they would then be assigned to point out its strengths and weaknesses and how it could be improved. Again, this could be distributed to the class as a whole for discussion. Finally, there’s no reason that these need to be short videos or be the result of a limited amount of work. Students could use their creativity to figure out how to use this tool to present multiple sides or viewpoints to an on-going controvery in a field.

I think the possibilities with this tool are extensive; personally, I need to adjust my thinking to this new way of working. I’m hoping that you’ll hear more about this from me later.

Tools for in-class group brainstorming and collaboration

In my last post I discussed my reasons for moving at least part of my case-based class to some in-class group brainstorming and/or collaborative work. The Web sites and tools that I am considering at first pass are the following:

Use case (or “how I think I want to use these tools”)

Here is how I envision using this tool in my introduction to business class. We generally begin a case discussion by answering some basic questions about the company and situation, and then try to identify the roots of the basic problem. Though these are straight-forward and expected questions, they tend to set an important foundation of common understanding for the rest of the discussion. A couple of problems tend to raise themselves here:

  • If the first student or two don’t get it, then the class can go off in the wrong direction for quite a while.
  • Only one or two students get involved in the initial discussion and get some buy-in on the case during this initial phase because this is generally a discussion with just a small number of students.

I want to have the students break into groups of 4-6 students and fill out a basic outline of information related to the case. Maybe I provide the outline or maybe they build it themselves. After 5 minutes of collaborative editing on the documents, each group would then also talk for another 5 minutes about what they have created, where they agree, and where they disagree. They would then post the document to the class Web site for all to see (so that I can learn their thinking about these cases). Then we could start the discussion. I assume that this would start from a better place and would allow us to have a more well-informed and directed discussion.

Desired features

Given the above I am looking for the following general features in this tool:

  • Multiple people editing the document
  • Ability to export the document to some archive format (PDF, RTF, or Word)
  • Ability to quickly re-organize a document
  • Show relationships among ideas
  • Ability to show high level view of relationships
  • Site licensing would be good, but free would be better
  • Ability to easily integrate with other tools and work habits
  • Works on multiple software platforms (Web, iOS, Android)
  • Works on multiple hardware platforms (laptop, cell phone, tablet)

Quick view

This table provides a quick overview of my impressions of each of these tools. Below I provide a more detailed discussion.

Tool Multi edit Export Reorg Relat Hi level Cost Integr SW plat HW plat
Mindmeister many many 5 5 5 Edu discount, expensive 5 Web, iOS, Android 5
Edistorm Unlimited Excel, PDF 4 4 4 Edu discount, $49/yr 4 Web, iOS 4
Google Docs Up to 50 Many 4 4 5 Free 5 5 4

More detailed discussion

Generally, each one of these tools could meet my needs. The choice of any one of them requires compromise. Overall, I found Mindmeister to be the clear features winner, but it is also clearly the most expensive tool by far. Google Docs is a tool that many people (and most of my students since we are now a Google Apps for Education campus) will be comfortable working in. Edistorm is a tool that I wanted to like more because I am definitely a “sticky-notes-on-the-wall” type of guy; in any case, it definitely still could work for many situations.


This is a great application. It has so many features that it would take a while to get comfortable with them all but it still is basically straight-forward enough that a person could get comfortable with it during one session. I found its interface to be sleek, slick, and flexible. After creating a document, a user can then export it to just about any application that he might want to. It can also be directly integrated into the Google Apps platform, if desired.

As for the cost, currently the campus educational discount certainly helps. Let’s say that I have 60 students in my class, and my class lasts for 4 months. The cost for this period would be $240 — not an unreasonable amount, but certainly not inexpensive.


As I stated above, I am a sticky-notes kind of guy. I like working with a team standing around a space on the wall, each of us with our sticky notes, writing, pointing, placing and re-placing notes. It just works for me.

Edistorm works much the same way as this group sticky-note process (after your sign up for a free account, be sure to watch their brief introduction video; I wish I could give you a direct link, but they don’t provide one), but it has one drawback — it has a small screen to work with. If each student has a desktop with a 24″ monitor, I could see this tool working quite well; however, with the sticky notes themselves taking up a fairly significant footprint on the screen, it fairly quickly starts spilling over the edges of the screen so that you are then only able to see a subset of the sticky notes. The company is definitely aware of this as they provide lots of tools for working around this limitation. They have done a good job, but I think they need to take the next step and allow the sticky notes to automatically adjust their own size to fit the text. Maybe that would help.

Pricing here is much more reasonable. Only the administrator/teacher needs to pay in order for the students to work on a “storm” during a class. In order to get a reasonable amount of features, this means that the cost is $49/year, and this gets a teacher 2 currently active storms. It is quite reasonable that a teacher could have two different sections or classes using Edistorm without having to increase the cost. Quite reasonable.

Google Docs

Google Docs isn’t exactly a concept mapping tool (but it plays one in the movies…sorry) but its familiarity to students might allow them to become productive more quickly and with less “hassle.” GDocs is clearly a text-based tool that displays concepts hierarchically. It is clearly easy to move text from within a GDoc to another document, and these documents are viewable on just about any platform; however, as anyone who has tried to edit a GDoc on an iOS device knows, Google has not exactly done their best to integrate other hardware platforms into the application environment. I definitely would insist that students use a Web browser on a laptop or desktop instead of a tablet or phone — the functionality just isn’t there yet on these smaller devices.


I still have time before I need to make a final decision. I would like to use Mindmeister, but I need to make sure that I have the money for it. If not, then I would use Edistorm if they address the problem related to the size of the sticky notes. Finally, if neither of these options are available, then I will fall back on Google Docs; the functionality is there and students know how to use the application.

Now that I am relatively confident that these applications have the features that I need for this type of work, I need to think about what other uses they might have. But that will have to wait for now…

What do you think about these tools? Do you have any experience using them in the way that I describe? Did I miss anything? I would love to hear from you!

Moving from the Socratic method to in-class group brainstorming

In contrast to my writing so far on this blog, I teach one introduction to business class in which I don’s use any technology. I mean not any, unless you count a white board and pens as technology. It is a traditional Harvard-style case discussion class — three years ago I was tutored by two Harvard-trained professors in the method. I had never taught that way before, so it was quite a shock to me. No slides, no lecture, no pre-defined exercises…just discussion and the Socratic method. Yes, the teaching notes that I had written (along with my “board plan”) provided guide posts both for where I hoped the discussion would go and for the learning points that I wanted to discuss. But it is definitely a free-wheeling type of experience, one in which I really had to trust that my students would get us to the right place by the end of the class. I love the experience.

This last year I taught the class alone for the first time. I continued to teach case-based, but I made two slight changes. Both changes were in response to my observation about class participation. I have had between 52-68 students in any one section of this course. In any 3 hour session, each student can easily have 2 opportunities to make a significant contribution to the class. That’s in theory. In actuality, maybe 10% of the students barely ever say anything, no matter how much I coax them. Participation used to count 35% of the final grade, so a score of 25-50% on that portion would seriously hurt their final grade in the course. I don’t like this because I know these students have something to contribute, have something to teach the rest of us.

In response, this last year I cut participation down to 20% of their grade and added a blogging component (worth 20%) to their grade. This provided students with a different way of teaching and sharing with the rest of the class. While some students continued to have difficulty contributing during class, basically everyone seemed to do a good job with the blogs (which somewhat mitigated some low participation scores).

Those changes still doesn’t seem to be enough. I am still going to teach cases. I still think that students grow from the give-and-take that this method provides. I think the ability to speak clearly, to use evidence, and to defend one’s position extemporaneously are invaluable skills. Some students begin the term with so little confidence speaking to a room full of people (even though the group consists of their peers) that their voices shake with fear and nerves; many of these same students end the year with a vastly increased sense of value and confidence. I don’t want to take that away.

What I am thinking of doing is adding some group-based activities and discussions to the class. This might help those who need to try out their ideas in a smaller group. It also might allow more people to gain a better connection to the material since they wouldn’t have to wait for me to call on them — they could have their discussions and make their points within the small groups. I have always worried when there is group work and one transcriber who is responsible for putting the notes (that are supposed to reflect the group’s work) into the document. All too often, it ends up being that one person’s ideas. With some new software that is out there, I’m thinking of having small groups of students work together around a co-edited document, talking among themselves, working through ideas that appear, and preparing themselves to defend their proposal to the rest of class.

The Web sites and tools that I’m thinking about are the following:

Each feels slightly different and provides a different experience for the student. Have any of you had any experience with these in-class activities? If so, let me know in the comments.

Tomorrow I plan on writing about my explorations related to these three tools.

Emerging educational technologies workshop

Example mind map (from Wikipedia)

Just returned from an amazing two hour workshop led by PF (Patricia) Anderson at the week-long Enriching Scholarship 2012, organized by the incomparable UMich CRLT, with sessions taught by great faculty from around UM. Her session was titled “An overview of the cutting edge of educational technologies,” and she delivered on her promise.

She has an amazingly extensive outline in the form of a mind map. It was quite effective and contains a ridiculous amount of information. I am not even going to try to cover what she talked about in one post — it would take me a week to write (at least). Explore her outline yourself. I will be writing about a lot of the tools here in the upcoming weeks as I get my head around how they can be applied to business education.

Okay, I’ll give you a couple of hints about what I really liked… Let’s see, I feel like a total loser of an information technology guy to not know about this, but I hadn’t ever heard about the Internet of Things before. Really cool stuff for years out in the future, but it is still good to know about… I also hadn’t heard about the Arduino… Finally (for now), ShowMe looks like it has a lot of potential.

That’s it. I will definitely be writing more about these topics (and much more that she discussed) at a later time.