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.

Introducing “Living & Learning Digitally”

In the fall 2012 semester at Michigan’s Ross School of Business I will be teaching “BIT330 Web-based information resources” (its official name) or, more accurately, “Living & learning digitally.” A current, evolving draft of the course Web site is now available, but understand that it may change significantly in some aspects in the next couple months.


This 3-credit course will be taught MW4-5:30pm. What is usually thought of as the course content will be delivered mostly online via pre-recorded video. Students will only infrequently need to actually attend class at the “official” time. I will have frequent online office hours via Google Hangouts. There will be lots of twitter usage, and participation will be related to the timely completion of online activities. This course has no prerequisites and is available for sophomores, juniors, & seniors.

For a previous incarnation of this course, I made this video. I will update this soon, but you should get the general idea of the class from it.

Purpose of the course

The course goal is to prepare the student for living and learning digitally. This preparation will be accomplished through academic study as well as through usage of current technologies, both well-known and under-appreciated. The following are the four basic threads running through the course:

Communicating digitally (via text)
  • One-on-one: Perhaps not shockingly, at times we will use email to communicate among ourselves. I will also use twitter to reach you, and I expect you will do the same (if you don’t already).
  • One-to-many broadcast: I will use the course twitter account to send out announcements to the class. I expect that everyone will follow this account during the semester and will (probably) have the messages forwarded to their phones.
  • Publishing: We will experience three different modes of publishing in this course:
    • Blog: As part of your weekly learning tasks, you will write short blog entries to the public course blog site. The audience for this blog is an informed college student who is not taking this course.
    • Wiki: Each student in the class will create an analyst’s report on some business & industry. The information will be gathered through the application of all the tools (see below) that we will learn about during the semester. Students will get to choose their own topic (with some guidance provided by the instructor). The creation of this report is something that student’s in previous years have enjoyed immensely.
    • Digital book: An addition to the course this year will be the production of a digital book by all the students in the class. While this has been done in other UM classes (most effectively and famously by Brian Coppola in the introductory chemistry class), I do not believe that it has been done at Ross (or in other business schools, though I may be mistaken about that). Each student will contribute a chapter (with guidance from the professor and others in the class) to a book that the public at large can use as a reference to the most powerful tools and interesting applications that we learn about in the class. We will publish the book at the end of the semester, with each contributing student getting appropriate credit. The goal will be that future classes will add to & revise this book as appropriate.
Communicating digitally (via video)
Part of the purpose of this class is to get students comfortable with communicating via video in a relatively structured setting. I believe that current UM students will be asked to go through lots of similar learning activities in the future either in their jobs or in more advanced studies. I also believe that getting a head-start on learning how to succeed in such an experience will be valuable for these students.

  • One-on-one: We will use Google Hangouts for one-on-one tutoring and Q&A when it is needed.
  • One-to-many: I will create short videos that introduce the topics and tools that we will discuss in the class; these will be lectures in front of a board, lectures with PowerPoint slides, basic talking head, or me demonstrating a Web-based (or iPad-based) tool. These videos will be available on YouTube.
  • Within small groups: For office hours I plan on being available on Google Hangout a couple of times during the week. Right now, up to 10 people can hangout together; until we find out differently, I assume that this will be sufficient.
Finding information
Almost all of the above describes the process of the class. The topic of study for the class will be how to find information on the Web that is relevant and appropriate to the question at hand (specifically, business, industry, or career related). Of course, learning to be a competent user of Google’s search tools will be a starting point for the class; however, dozens (if not hundreds) of other tools are available that a well-informed student should be aware of and know how to use. (See the list below for the types of tools that we will be investigating.)
Managing information
The big problem in search used to be finding informational resources that were relevant to a particular query. That is no longer the case. Now the problem is finding too many such resources. Today’s student (and manager) must learn how to narrow down his/her search for more appropriate information and, then, know how to manage the seemingly never-ending flow of information to his/her desktop. During the course of the semester, students will be introduced to several different tools that should help the student stay on top of his/her information inventory.

Much of the course will focus on Web-based tools, but I plan on also introducing mobile tools when appropriate.

Specific topics discussed

Again, with the understanding that this list is provisional, here are the topics and types of technologies that I currently plan on discussing and introducing:

  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Web search techniques (4 days)
  • Resource quality evaluation
  • RSS (2 days)
  • Blog search
  • News search
  • Twitter (2 days)
  • Automation tools (ifttt & Yahoo Pipes)
  • Image search
  • Pinterest
  • Page monitoring
  • Research tools
  • Change notification
  • Video search
  • Social search (digg, reddit)
  • Metasearch
  • Custom search engine


Well, that’s it for now. If you’re a UM student, you should be able to sign up for this class in the usual ways. Even if you’re not a UM student, you should be able to use much of the information on the site (and interact with me to some extent). Here are some other thoughts:

  • If you are interested in getting some insight into the development of this course, follow me on twitter at drsamoore or read my blog.
  • If you’re excited about the course:
    • If you’re a UM student, tell your friends about the course and get them to sign up.
    • Send me a public tweet (include @drsamoore anywhere in the tweet except as the first characters) describing why — and use the hashtag #bit330 when referring to the course.
    • Follow bit330 on twitter. This is the account I will use during the semester for all course-related information. Until that time I will periodically post more targeted status reports and other informational items on this account.
  • If you have questions about this course, send me an email at If you send me an email, put BIT330 in the subject line. (Or, of course, send me a tweet, either public or private.)
  • If you think I’m missing something that would make the course better, again, send me a public tweet describing what that “something” is.
  • Soon I will post a video that should give you some more insight into the course. Be on the lookout for an announcement within the next couple of weeks.

I hope this provides enough information to get you unnaturally excited about taking a class. I hope to hear from you soon!

Dipping your toes into the wiki waters

A couple of years ago I started using wikis for my course Web site (example). My reasoning didn’t start out to be based on any great goals for students contributing to and building the course Web site. Nope. I was simply being lazy.:

  • I wanted the most impact for the least amount of effort on my part.
  • I wanted to be able to edit the Web site from wherever I happened to be, from whatever computing device I happened to have in front of me.
  • I knew that I would be putting a lot of content on the site (eventually). The site was going to be constructed on the fly during the semester.
  • I wanted the process of writing and formatting the pages to be flexible but straight-forward.
  • I also knew that it needed to be flexible, because I didn’t quite have the whole course planned out; I might have to put information on the site mid-way through the semester that I wasn’t planning on at the beginning of the semester.
  • I knew I would want to easily link between different pages on the site.

I was planning to use the site to store my own notes for the course, the syllabus for the students, announcements, class resources, and daily assignments. Nothing too fancy.

All of this pointed me toward using a wiki for the Web site. Then the question became “which wiki?” I had used wikis before but they were either too expensive so I didn’t use them, or they went out of business after I had begun to use them (this happened twice), or they weren’t flexible enough. I finally settled on wikidot. (Note: The only relationship I have with wikidot is as a satisfied customer.) I have been a fairly heavy user of theirs (note my guru status) for four years, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

I went on to use the wiki for a lot more than I originally conceived of, and that ended up being the frosting on the cake:

  • I designated one student each day to take (and post) notes for the class. After the notes were posted, all the other students could add to the notes.
  • I designated one student each day to write proposed exam questions (and answers) for that day’s material. After the questions and answers were posted, all other students could revise them.
  • Each day I had one student present an industry update to the class. They also were assigned to write (for the site) a short summary (with links) of what they presented to the class.
  • I assigned students to write about eight blog entries during the semester. They wrote these on their own wikis. When I found a blog post that I gave a perfect grade to, I had the student transfer the blog post to the class wiki so that others could see the types of blog posts that I particularly liked.

With a little guidance, the students quickly learned how to write these wiki pages. These were not information technology specialists but general business students.

Another benefit of the wiki is the version control of the system. I made students aware of this early in the semester — “if you make a change to a page, I can see who made what change, all the way back to the beginning of the semester.” It was very clear to the students that any type of digital vandalism wouldn’t be in their best interests. And it has never happened to me in any class on this platform.

I highly recommend that you investigate wikis for your class, and especially look into wikidot. I have had a great experience using this tool for my class. What has your experience been with wikis? Or have you discovered a better tool, technology, or approach? If so, please share it with me; I would love to hear about it.

Many small steps from lecturing to flipping

I have spent much of my career transitioning from a standard lecture format to letting the students lead the way. Let’s go over some of the steps:

  1. Many years ago I taught our core introduction to business information technology class with standard PowerPoint lectures. When we would be in the lab, I started out lecturing, demonstrating, and having them follow along. Fortunately, I noticed that they didn’t follow along! Some were faster, some were slower, some didn’t care. It definitely didn’t work, but it did show me that I needed to think about structuring the class in a different way.
  2. At the same time I was working with another professor teaching the introduction to database elective class. In this class we would lecture for a short time (maybe 5 minutes), and then students would work on a problem among themselves. We would wander around the class for 3-4 minutes while they worked on the problem, and then we would reconvene as a group and discuss their answers and questions. When we were in the lab, we had semi-structured exercises that basically guided their exploration of the software. I wrote a whole manual based on the principles espoused in The Nurnberg Funnel. This really helped guide my thinking so that I would let the student take the lead and use his/her initiative. This also led me to design exercises that required students to take ownership of the learning process.
  3. Several years later when I taught my class on “Web-based resources,” I structured the class in ways that maximized the personal meaning of the material to the students. I gave a short overview lecture (10-15 minutes) at the beginning of a class (with all of my notes posted before the class on the class wiki), and then students would spend the rest of the class working on guided exercises and then applying these skills and concepts to their own term project. During the whole class period, I acted as a resource, answering questions and providing hints when they had reached some type of impasse.

I currently teach a quite traditional, though not often practiced at Michigan with our undergraduates, case-based class in which we discuss two different cases during a three-hour face-to-face class with 52 students. For each class, they generally read two cases (5-15 pages each), and usually one more theoretical concept-based journal paper. Our classes are spent as two long discussions, with them talking 90% of the time (to the class), and we taking notes on the board and structuring the discussion. Periodically, as part of the discussion, I do a very short (1-2 minute) lecture on a specific topic from the case that I want them to take note of.

Now technology enters the picture. I can easily see something like ShowMe, ReplayNote, or Camtasia being used to teach these topics before class, and before they read the cases so that they can think about how to apply the ideas themselves. This would, I think, allow the conversation to get to a higher level than it currently does.

I will be experimenting with these tools over the next few months and will report on my findings here. I would appreciate any pointers that my readers can give me that might make my experiments more useful.