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.

How to provide a great, lower-cost education

In this article I begin to provide answers to how I think faculty can deliver a great education to students at a lower cost than has previously been possible. What I focus on here is mainly the question of how to educational process should be structured. In my next post I will address why I think this is the right way to go, and why it would result in a great education for more students at a lower cost.

Key questions

What is your concept of education? What do you think it means to educate someone? What does it mean for students to understand a concept that you have taught them? How do you know they understand it?

Pen en papier / Pen and paper

These are the kind of questions that professors don’t think about too much. Generally, we answer them implicitly with the way that we structure courses, from class time activities to assignments to grading to tests to participation. However, it is getting harder to ignore these questions and, more precisely, it is harder to justify giving certain answers to those questions. Faculty should feel uncomfortable saying that education means lecturing for 50 minutes, taking very few questions (whether on purpose or not), and then giving a multiple choice test in which they are regurgitating “facts” mentioned in the lecture or in a book. Actually, faculty should feel very uncomfortable if this is the general answer that they give since would be very easy to replicate over distance (using technology). The problem is that lots of faculty give this answer.

The proposal

I have previously discussed how some organizations have sprung up to provide low cost learning opportunities. Yesterday, I detailed the many and varied implications to U.S.-based universities of China’s growing university system. I believe that the greatest opportunity for those of us in top U.S. universities is in figuring out how to provide a great education to more students at a lower cost. Not a good education. Not a low cost education. But a great education at a lower cost than we currently require. Now, this cost might be half of what we currently charge, and we might have to attract 3x as many students as we did previously — but that’s the move that we have to make. Further, we are definitely going to have to increase the quality of the education that we provide. Why? Because if competitors are offering a value proposition of value/cost (with cost=0), then our value has to be pretty darn good if we want our V/C ratio to be in the same ballpark.

Then the question becomes how to provide such an education at such a cost. I believe that the answer has its origins in the concept of community:

Students have to feel they are part of a supportive and available educational community — as both givers and receivers of that support — as they strive toward personally relevant goals.

I will have much more to say about this in future posts, but for now I will limit myself to three observations.

Project-based learning is one tool

First, at Edutopia, Mariko Nobori recently wrote an article “What makes project-based learning a success?” about a Texas high school that is “devoted to teaching every subject to every student through project-based learning.” 98% of their seniors graduate and all of their graduates are accepted to college. At least in these measures, the school can be said to be a success.

What does your personal network look like?

Principal Steven Zipkes, who seems to be rather key to the school’s success, emphasizes that teachers in the school focus on building relationships first, then incorporate relevance into the classroom, and finally rigor — what they refer to as the three R’s. Their concept of rigor is “a schoolwide, unwavering commitment to the design and implementation of a [project-based learning] model that includes evidence-based strategies and drives students to actively pursue knowledge.”

Students are able to work on problems that are personally relevant to them, thereby increasing their motivation. They also have to understand the concepts of the class well enough that they can apply it to an actual problem. This process of applying can bring up learning opportunities, allowing the student to gain a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the concepts being explored.

Students as both learners and teachers

The traditional model that puts students only into the role of learner and assumes that all knowledge and right answers have to come from the professor is outmoded but, more importantly, it underestimates the abilities of the students. Some students will learn some concepts more quickly than others, and it won’t always be the same students who do so. (Many times, but not always.) Take advantage of those capabilities and have students teach other students. The only way that we are going to be able to provide personalized guidance to many times more students than we currently do is to figure out how to empower students to help other students. As faculty we will have to design activities and lectures and pre-tests that teach and then embolden students to help other students, to give them the confidence to take the role, however temporarily, of teacher.

Two underlying keys

Finally, two key assumptions underlie my proposal:

  • The student must have some motivation for learning and participating. If this isn’t there at some level, then this proposal isn’t going to be some magic panacea. Professors can provide an environment where a student’s motivation can flower, but I believe the student has to bring something to the table.
  • One of a a professor’s key areas to focus on, especially during the first phases of a semester, should be toward building connections with the students and among the students. The importance of community, and the associated amount of trust that must be present for students to willingly and actively to take on the role of learning and teacher, means that these connections cannot be left up to chance. This connections would be harder to build remotely; a flipped classroom or even a blended learning environment would probably aid in their creation.


At this point you should have a relatively clear picture in your mind of the general structure of classes that I think are appropriate. Remaining questions have to do with the quality of the resulting education and the relative cost of that education. These will have to wait for my following post.

For now, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Have you had any success (or failure) with this type of class? Share your experiences with us.