Gridding up

I was turned onto this rather cool new tool that I think has a ton of great potential in the classroom. It’s called Flipgrid. It’s a way to collect short video responses to a prompt. As well as looking great, it works on mobile (with the Flipgrid app), doesn’t require a login, and is super simple to use!

I’ve embedded a link to an example. Just click the container below and it will take you to a topic page. Then just click the big green plus button to start recording (and you’ll probably also need to click “allow” to give permission to your camera). Then just record your message, add your name and a poster frame, then submit it. As more people submit theirs you can revisit the site to see what they add. Give it a go!

[advanced_iframe securitykey=”e20f69bb07ee554d20e708c550a00b401b5dc7d2″ src=”” width=”100%” height=”420″]

After you click the button, say who you are, where you’re from, what you teach, and how you might use this with your students. You have 60 seconds! Go!

The direct link to the topic page is

The administrator of the grid has a lot of control over things like moderation and approval of comments before they go live, whether replies are allowed, whether likes and plays are shown, whether auto transcription happens, and more. This tool is well designed for classroom use!

I see this as a great way to collect feedback from students, allow them to share their learning with the rest of the class, reflect on an activity, brainstorm ideas, and so much more. What suggestions can you come up with?

PS: If you’re on mobile, grab the Flipgrid app for Android or iOS. I love that it works so well on mobile as well as the web. Well done, Flipgrid!

Header image: Sprites by Thomas Quine via Flickr CC BY


Research Strategies for Senior Students


Our school has a subscription to a  website called the Study Skills Handbook which offers study tips to senior students. I’m sure it’s a valuable resource; so valuable in fact that it’s behind a $1200/year paywall that requires a login password in order to access it. What a bargain. I’m sure those tips wouldn’t be found anywhere else on  the Internet for free at all.

Anyway, I got an email from someone at school today promoting this resource, and amongst the several study tips it suggested, it listed this one…

You could also ask your local librarian for any additional direction on where to look for resource material for your assignment. Librarians are often your best source of information. They know how to help people access relevant and appropriate information, in books, the Internet or computer based references. One of the challenging aspects of Internet based searches for school students is the complexity, language and purpose of websites, not to mention bias and reliability.

It’s true that the Internet can be a wild and woolly place to find information, with the potential for complexity, bias and reliability concerns. However, it is also the environment that most resembles real life, where complexity, bias and reliability concerns are just part of the way the world actually works. While it would be nice to think that the real world could be packaged up into nice neat little packages, decoding the messiness of real life and sorting through all that stuff is one of the real skills our students need.

That said, here are a few suggestions that students can do when they are given a research task on any topic . Of course, the suitability of each of these suggestions will depend on the topic being researched.

1. Start with the Wikipedia article. For whatever potential concerns that people might have about the public edit-ability of Wikipedia, the fact is that for the VAST majority of topics it will be the most current, most accurate and most well researched summary of the topic. Start there.

2. Having read the Wikipedia article on the topic, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and look at the citations list. One of the requirements of Wikipedia articles is that they include a citation for every statement made, and any uncited statements are challenged and eventually removed. So for many topics, looking at the citation list (and links) will provide a treasure trove of further research ideas.

3. Go to Google Scholar at and search for your topic there. These articles are all reviewed academic papers and usually provide excellent reading on most topics. Not only that, but each article in Scholar shows a link to the downstream papers that cited them, which again provides further reading. If an article has dozens, or hundreds of papers citing it as a source, then you can assume that other researchers have found them valuable. Your students probably will too.

4. Set up a bookmarking system that allows you to keep a collection of relevant links in one place. I HIGHLY recommend Diigo, not just because it is by far the best online bookmarking service around, but it also allows group collaboration on shared bookmarks and online markup of webpages. Using Diigo, a student can make comments and leave sticky notes directly ON a webpage, share those annotations with their partners, keep an organised list of relevant research articles and much more. Diigo is probably the number one tool that students should be using with web research, yet I wonder how many of them actually even know about it?

5: While in Diigo, do a search for the obvious tags related to your topic that are being used by others. This will reveal another rich resource of ideas on a topic by connecting with links and sources that other people have already found useful. It’s often a much better way to narrow in on relevant study resources than a regular Internet search because it has already been through a kind of social approval process. As more people tag a resource it gains social credibility and value, making it more likely to be the kind of resource that others will find valuable.

6. Set up some kind of tool that allows them to curate content. I recommend Flipboard, but there are many others like Zite, ScoopIt or even Pinterest. By curating relevant content into one place it builds a go-to resource for more reading on a topic. Curation like this should be a key digital information strategy.

7. Then there is the use of Internet search in general, such as Google or Bing. But too often students take a very limited approach to search because they simply don’t know any better. As well as using a rich array of search strategies and search operators (there is way more to it than just typing a couple of words into Google!) there is also Book SearchMap searchImage search, etc, each with their own nuances and advantages. While these various search tools and techniques won’t be applicable to every topic and subject, many will. Our students need to be taught about them so they know when is appropriate to use them.

8. Finally, particularly if you;re researching something that is fairly current or topical, go to Google Alerts and set up an alert for anytime that topic is mentioned online. You can be as specific or general as you like in your search terms, but whenever a new result matches that query it can send you an email to let you know about it.

So there are a few ideas for helping your students deal with those “Other Resources” that might be out there on the big scary Internet. There’s a LOT more that could be included in there, but this is a start. Maybe some of these ideas and tools are new to you, so you might like to take a look at them yourself in order to be best able to assist your students navigate this information rich, and often overwhelming, world of information they live in.

And none of that information I just shared was behind a paywall. You’re welcome.

Creative Commons Image:

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 [email protected].  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 [email protected] 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