Email Information Hunt

When students at our school get to Year 3 they are given their own school email account. We are a Google Apps for Education school, so the email they get is a rebadged Gmail account, and part of my role is to teach them to use it. We do lots of work on digital citizenship and we try really hard to give our students opportunities to be responsible members of the online world, but at the point they get their email we really just want to make sure they know the mechanics of using it… how to compose a message, how to reply and forward, the difference between cc: and bcc:, etc. In those early days of getting their gmail account I really just want them to get the hang of it by using it.

Around the same time as they get their email account, they also do a thematic unit of work about national parks where they look at several of Australia’s most prominent national parks and learn about what they are and what they do.

I had a bit of a wacky idea for integrating the use of email into their national parks unit by creating a sort of “email treasure hunt”. I wasn’t sure how successfully it would be, so I made a small proof-of-concept to test the idea and it worked really well.  I plan on developing the idea further, but for now I just wanted to document the idea here in case anyone else wants to play with it.

Gmail has two very useful features – Filters, and Canned Responses.  By combining these two features and making them work together, it can create a novel and fun activity for the kids to learn a little bit about their email and national parks at the same time.

Canned Responses

First, I created an account in our Google Apps dashboard called National Parks, with an email address of  To make it a little easier to manage, I also delegated that account to my regular email account so I could access it more easily without needing to log in and out all the time.

I created a set of filters that used Canned Responses in an automatically generated reply email. Each filter was triggered by a keyword (in my example I was looking for specific words in the subject line but I think you could look for all sorts of other criteria as well)  So if the previous email asked the students to find the name of the national park in the northern part of Australia that was famous for its aboriginal artworks and started with the letter K, they had to work out that the name of the park was “kakadu” and then they put that into the subject of an email and sent it back to the National Parks email account, where it was picked up by the incoming mail filters. Then, I used the Canned Response tool (available in Gmail Labs) to create a series of short email responses that took the kids on a “treasure hunt” for clues about several national parks. I only made three, which wasn’t too complex, because I was really only testing that the idea would work. Turns out that three replies is just about the right amount to get through in a single lesson.

Filter List

When their reply hit the server, the filter would look to see if any of the criteria were met (in this case a subject line containing the word “kakadu”) and if it found one that matched it would reply immediately with the appropriate Canned Response (in this case, called “kakadu2”). This reply would congratulate them on finding the previous answer, and then give them the next clue so the cycle could repeat again.

Essentially, when the students replied to a previous email with a correctly formed response, the filter would check to see that it was a match and then a reply would be generated using the appropriate Canned Response. The response emails they recieved asked them to find clues by watching an embedded YouTube video or looking on a linked Google Map so they could find the next piece of information and send it back to hit the filters again.

I started the lesson by sending this email to every student…

Hi 3C!

Nice to meet you.  I’m the National Parks Dude, and I’m so glad you are learning about our beautiful national parks.

Today I have a special challenge for you…  You need to follow the instructions EXACTLY, or things just won’t work the way they should.  You need to send me a couple of emails, and if you do it exactly the way you should, I’ll send you the next clue for the next challenge.

To start with, I need you to find out the name of the big national park in the very northern part of Australia… I’ll give you a hint, it has lots of aboriginal art in it, and it starts with a K.

Once you work out what national park I’m talking about, click this link to send me an email at with only ONE word – the “K word – in the subject line and I’ll send you the next clue.  Make sure you spell it correctly or I won’t know what you mean!

Good luck!

This led to finding the word kakadu, which when sent back to the national parks account, automatically and immediately sent the next clue, and so on. On the final exchange they were asked summarise three interesting things they learned about national parks and to cc their teacher with the list. This way, the teach got a single email  from each student at the end with some indication of what they learned that lesson.

Overall, I thought it worked really well. I liked the fact that it let each student work at their own pace. My next goal will be to expand the idea to be less linear and more networked.  By sending clues that have different possible answers, it should be possible to branch the flow of emails into different directions, so that each student finds a unique pathway through a web of clues. That is a little complicated to set up, but I’m confident it can work.

If you want to try it out for yourself, just click on the link in the sample email above and have a go.  It should work for anyone, not just people in our school domain. Have fun, let me know what you think, and offer any suggestions you have for making the idea work better, in the comments below.

Kakadu Image BY-CC-SA

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam.

I’ve never understood why people send spam mail or leave spam comments on blog posts (in the same way I don’t understand why people scribble graffiti tags on trains and walls), but I know that for spammers who really take it seriously there is big money to be made. I suppose in that sense, I DO understand why people create spam if there is the opportunity to make money from it… I guess what I don’t understand is how there continues to be constant stream of people who are gullible enough to take action on the messages and, in doing so, continue to generate an income for the spammers.

Let’s face it, the thing that keeps spam propagating and growing (and therefore making it worthwhile for the spammers to keep sending it) is the fact that there are enough gullible, stupid people in the world who keep responding to it.  If we all were much better at identifying and recognising spam as soon as we saw it, then the spammers would eventually go away because the financial incentive to do so would also disappear. Fortunately for them – and unfortunately for the rest of us – human gullibility (or stupidity) will probably ensure them an income for a while yet.

Having said that, the spam filtering in Gmail is pretty darn good. I currently have a few hundred spam messages sitting in my Gmail’s spam folder which have thankfully been identified and filtered before they get to me, so I don’t ever need to see them. They just disappear from the system after 30 days. Thanks to Matt Cutts and his team at Google, Gmail does a great job keeping the spam away. Thanks Matt!

One of things that happens to any blog as it grows is a substantial increase in the amount of spam comments it receives. Most spam comments are just plain annoying, and many are quite laughable, but it’s a good idea to deal with them before they have a chance to be published.  For example, this blog receives many comments that are never published thanks to the powerful Akismet spam filter running on the backend.  This WordPress plugin tracks my spam statistics, and in the two years that this blog has been running on its current server, the Akismet spam filter has trapped almost 11,000 spam comments with an accuracy rate of 99.8%. That’s an awful lot of comments that never see the light of day!

I wanted to share some of the most recent spam comments because they are kind of insidious.  On the surface they look harmless, perhaps even positive. For example…

My brother suggested I would possibly like this blog. He was entirely right. This publish actually made my day. You can not imagine just how a lot time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

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On the surface it looks like people are leaving positive comments in response to something I’d written. However, aside from the extremely poor grammar, often a reliable indicator of spam, these comments are so generic as to be completely meaningless. By constructing comments in this way, spammers can spray them across thousands of posts on thousands of blogs in the hope that some will get posted. Unsuspecting bloggers, especially newer bloggers who are often keen to receive any sort of comments, sometimes fail to see these comments for what they are. Not surprising really, since the whole point is to trick you into publishing them.

I’m still not really sure what the point of these generic spam comments is. They don’t contain links to click, so they don’t appear to be able to lead you to an outright scam or scheme. They generally aren’t asking for money, or have any real call-to-action. They are just annoying. They gum up the Internet, clutter our email and clog up our blog feeds, but for no apparent purpose.

Let’s all be more vigilant about spam. If you don’t already, using Gmail is a good first step. Installing Akismet on your blog helps a great deal too. But mostly, stay aware of what spam looks like, and never, ever respond to it. Ever.

CC Photo by trustypics