Concept Maps, Brainstorming, and Visual Tools

And then the magic happens by Mark McLaughlin
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

I’ve always been an experimenter in the classroom. And luckily, I’ve always had pretty easy-going and willing-to-be-experimented-on students. So when I recently asked my Grade 8 students to try out different ways of creating a sociogram, they said, “Sure!”*

Here was the task: a sociogram of sorts to show the relationships between characters in Twelfth Night, part of our unit titled “For the Fun of It: Merry-making in Society.”  As you can see if you visit the post, I gave my students several choices with which to try out their graphic-organizer creation skills. Here were the general results:

  • Inspiration was by far the most popular initial choice. You’ll note that I’ve emphasized the word “initial.”
  • Gliffy was the second most popular initial choice (the risk-takers). 
  • Few students tried any of the other options listed. I’ll come back to this issue later.
  • Those students who tried Inspiration first were each met with a problem as soon as they finished their lovely diagram: the difficulty of exporting into a useable file for posting on their blog.
Now, I must assume that most students chose Inspiration first because it is so widely used in our school — I believe even our younger ES students use Kidspiration. So, by the time they get to me in Grade 8, they are pretty comfortable with the ins and outs of the program. But I am guessing they have never had to do much with their fancy graphics before, other than perhaps print them out.
The best we could do — and this really was a band-aid job — was to take a screen clipping of the diagram. But using old technology like WindowsXP, which only allows the Print Screen command, meant that all the clippings were saved as BMP files, which are unsupported by Edublogs (and most blogs, I’ve since been told).**  Big problem. A few students tried converting using Zamzar, but that took an exceptionally long time on our Vietnamese internet connection, and those who were patient enough to wait for it discovered that once converted, the quality was definitely compromised. Once uploaded, they were barely visible. Students felt they had done a lot of work that could not be properly published. 
However, those who used Gliffy found this step an absolute cinch. They finished the task in about one-third the time of those who used Inspiration and were then figuring out ways to export their images. While the “Gliffy group” spent a wee bit more time at the start learning how to use the tool — and, btw, they did teach themselves, as I confessed right off the bat that I had not used it before — once they finished, their images were uploaded lickety-split onto their blogs. In fact, the tool’s effectiveness even, I daresay, inspired a few members of the Inspiration Group to go back and start over again, using Gliffy instead. 
As a point of comparison — look at these two sociograms: One using Gliffy, and one using Inspiration. Which one is more functional? Which one is “prettier”? And wouldn’t it be nice if we could combine those two elements? As it stands now, Gliffy got the job done better. (You can check out the other ones by going here and then clicking on a few student blogs in the left sidebar under EngA08.)
My takeaways from all this?
  1. Inspiration, while definitely a preferred learning tool for both me and my students, has limitations that previously were not revealed, as we had been using the software for internal purposes, rather than for digital publishing. Perhaps there is something we are missing that the Inspiration team will let me know about… ? We’d be happy to find a way to make this work better.
  2. Online tools and applications are becoming easier and easier to use all the time, even with an internet connection as slow as ours!
  3. I’m definitely more inspired now (sorry, Inspiration!) to use some of the other online concept-mapping tools available, some of which I listed in the original post. I am already thinking about which one I might ask my students to experiment with next!
  4. I’ve yet to be fired for experimenting with my students. I think that’s probably because I teach some fabulous kids who are more than willing to be guinea pigs!


*Well, okay. They didn’t actually say that. But they didn’t complain either. They jumped-in without whining too much. I teach great students!

**Special thanks to both Sue Waters and Bill Genereux for counselling me through the logistics!

Start Small

Last week, a colleague lamented to me about how overwhelmed he was with trying to integrate tech into his classroom. More specifically, he said, was how overwhelmed he felt trying to “keep up.” He wanted to start a blog, but didn’t know how. He wanted to update his wiki (which had begun beautifully) but was having difficulty embedding items into it and his attempts at finding a solution had left him frustrated because he didn’t know where to turn. He expressed an overall fatigue about how difficult it was to “do all these things” and teach his regular classes; yet he genuinely wanted to use all these tools because he sincerely felt they were useful for his students and their parents.

He is not alone.

Within 5 minutes, another colleague (from a different department) joined our conversation and before I knew it, questions were pouring out all over the table. Generally, both teachers felt they wanted to “do all this stuff” but didn’t know where to start. My response: Start small.*

“But what is ‘small’?” they asked.

“How do I know where to start?” they continued.

I spent 20 minutes with them, during which I showed them a couple of different blog platforms, a few “key” edutech bloggers they might want to follow, and some great wiki examples. I (hopefully) calmed their fears a bit and allayed concerns about being so far behind in the edutech world. It was a great little mini-session, and not an unusual one, I might add. However, the conversation was a genesis for this very blog post because I hope very much that educators in their position don’t get overwhelmed and stop altogether!

My 5 Tips for Starting Small:

  1. Remember: you can’t do it all. You just can’t. 
  2. Choose one thing to do differently. When you feel comfortable with that one thing, choose one more thing. (Give each “thing” at least 2 weeks, incidentally. Psychologists already know that it takes 21 days for the brain to be rewired into thinking something is a habit.)
  3. Read 3 or 4 blogs / websites of other educators you admire who are using tech in ways you want to. Note: I actually advise against reading some of those “big names” regularly when you are just starting your edutech journey. Why? Because they can be overwhelming! Remember, those Big Guys (and Gals) have been doing this for a while, and they often generally assume that their audience is up-to-date on the latest and greatest trends. Beginners usually aren’t. I instead advise finding someone to regularly follow who seems just ahead of you, not miles ahead. Success will feel more attainable that way. (Personal example: I am still continually overwhelmed and amazed by Wes Fryer – though I love what he does I often feel like I’ll never get there. However, I began my journey following people whose names are perhaps not as well known, but were doing things I thought were pretty dang cool. And I daresay their names are becoming “bigger”!)
  4. Choose a platform to reflect and share on your process. A blog, Twitter, Plurk, the Classroom 2.0 Ning  — these are all easy places to start.
  5. Keep doing it! And when you get discouraged, read Tip #1 again!
*Not forgetting, of course, that the whole philosophy of this blog is about starting small. See blog sidebar.
Image Credits:
Matrice de services 2.0 adapted from Ioic_hay and re-licenced here under same CC.
Web 2.0 landscape adapted from vincos and re-licensed here under same CC.