Critical thinking and internet research

Critical thinking has always been tied to the search for answers. In the past, this search involved speaking to respected leaders and reading authoritative books. Now of course, we type in a few key words into our favorite search engine and hope to find the answers. For students, this is often a haphazard affair. It is important, however that they understand how to critically search for good information. I developed a search guide for students to address this issue after I was inspired by another article written about scientific literacy (How to Read a Scientific Paper, Posted on: January 10, 2012 11:10 AM, by Chad Orzel).

Feel free to copy, use or modify this guide as you see fit:

STEP ZERO: Know what you want.
Before doing anything else, make sure you know what it is you hope to get out of this search, because that will dramatically change how you do it. Many research questions do not lend themselves to a systematic and analytical approach. You must be very careful.

  1. Write your research question. For example: To what extent did General Zia ul-Haq influence the people of Pakistan? 
  2. Decide if you have an answer in mind you want to defend or if you are honestly searching. Is this a historical or philosophical work? Are you looking for hard, numerical data or personal interviews? 
STEP ONE: Know the structure.
The basic structure of all search programs is pretty standard. There is a search box which may or may not allow you to do more advanced searches. The programs search for combinations of key words. Now, if you can shorten your question to the one or two most important words in the question, you’ll probably get a good search.

  1. Pick out the key words and phrases (a phrase should not be more than 3 words long).
  2. Order those key words from most relevant to least. Consider which word or phrase would give you the best results as a search term.
STEP TWO: Know the types of searches.
There are many types of search programs out there, but you can roughly divide programs into a couple of categories.
The most well know programs are Internet search engines. These include Bing, Yahoo Answers and of course Google. Google is the most popular because most of the time it gives you the sites your looking for. Thats not to say it provides accurate information. Consider the search “9/11 Truth”. This will bring up sites devoted to the idea the government was behind the events of 9/11.

Similar to this are databases. These are designed to search through reputable articles and books. Typically, this is where you will go to find primary documents. Unfortunately, they are also subscription based. 

Another very important type of search program is the calculator. These programs allow you to solve math problems of course, but also to see how to do chemistry or adjust a recipe. There are also word calculators to help you fill in the missing letters of a word if you leave a bl_nk in the middle. I would put dictionaries and thesauruses in this category as well. These would provide you with definitions and similar/ different words. For an excellent example, look at Wolfram Alpha.

Finally, there are searches within sites. These are often hit or miss. They sometimes bring you the information you want, but often do not.

  1. Use your #1 search term to find good information. We will use Google scholar and Google books. 
STEP THREE: Read the Summary.
Most of the time, the summary will tell you what sort of website you're dealing with. Combine that knowledge with your goal from Step Zero, and take the appropriate action. Keep in mind that students have limited time and energy. It's vitally important that they look over the summary before clicking on a website.

  1. Look over your first page of hits. 
  2. Quickly decide on the best one. 
  3. Click on it and look over the information. 
  4. Write down how useful the site was. 
STEP FOUR: A picture/map is worth a thousand words.
Sometimes doing an image/map search will lead you to more relevant information.

Here are the results I got from entering my search term into Google maps. Note the two countries that the General's name is being used. Also note how easy it was to find the location of his tomb.

  1. Enter your top search term into Google maps and images. 
  2. Describe the results. 

STEP FIVE: Command F.
When you have a web site up in front of you, glance at it to get a feeling for it’s trustworthiness (does it have a date, an author, a method of contacting the institution, etc...) then hit command F. 

A “find” box will come up. Enter in your key word or phrase and hit return. The program will find that term for you. This is a huge time saver. It avoids wasting precious time and energy sifting through useless information to find the nuget you need.


External memory

Today I had so much to do I barely had time to stop for lunch. The day started with a long list and then I started to get emails requesting technology help and teaching opportunities.  Without a list, I would have been sunk. I just cannot keep all the information that I need inside my skull. Physical notes are fine, but with the tools Google provides me, I don't even bother.

When I need extra memory for the day, I turn to Google. Their most important product for me is Gmail. This is a service that goes way beyond typical email programs. Oh, the email is great but it is so much more than that. First of all, the search capabilities are lightning fast. When I need to find some piece of information, I typically type a few key words and viola! I have what I need. I can also sync my Gmail to any other system from Outlook to Apple Mail.

Better yet, every email is tied to my contact list so that when I click on the name of the sender and I can see important information like their class schedule or room number. That allows me to stop by whenever it's most convenient for them.

The part of Gmail that really helps me out are the tasks. I can convert any email into a task on my to-do list. That's great for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a quick way of creating a reminder straight from someone's request. When I'm reading an email, I just need to click on the "more" button, then click "add to tasks". Done.

It gets better. While I'm moving from place to place helping people, I want to travel light. Besides a few odds and ends, I really just have my iPad. On it, is Gotasks. It's on my phone as well, but I mainly use it on the iPad. This is an app that syncs to my Google tasks. It allows me to keep my to-do list in front of me at all times. I can even rearrange my tasks in any order I choose. So completed items go on the bottom and high priority ones are at the top.

With this small arsenal of tools, my memory can expand beyond the limits of my skull. Good thing, too. I'd never be able to keep track of everything without a little help.


An online place for everything

Teachers have a lot of stuff. Never mind all of the posters and popsicle sticks we reuse year after year. I'm thinking more about what we have electronically. From lesson plans to movie clips, there's an awful lot of valuable material on our computers. Should that computer get lost or damaged, all of those wonderful resources will disappear. There is a safe place to keep it all though- or rather safe places. Not every service is right for everyone. You have a lot of material in a lot of different forms so its important to chose your storage service carefully. I want to talk about a few of those services. Full disclosure here- I am a cheap skate so I only use free services.

Google docs- We cannot have a discussion about cloud storage without bringing up Google Docs. This is a powerhouse of document storage. Anything you have created in Word can be converted to Google Docs format. As long as your files are converted to Google's format, your storage is unlimited and files can be edited and shared online. You can also store a finite number of all other types of files in your account to share and download.

Two other Google services that allow you to store a limited number of files are Gmail and Google sites. With Gmail, you need to attach a file to an email and save it as a draft. Google sites lets you upload files of a limited size as well and store them in a "file cabinate". While this would be a little awkward, it does provide an alternative place to store your materials.

Microsoft Office live: Formatting is typically lost whenever a word document is changed into a Google document. If you are looking to store, share and edit a Microsoft document, presentation or spreadsheet online, this is the way to go. You will maintain all of your original formatting and you can feel safe knowing your document is stored in the cloud. You will also be able to edit a document with your coworkers online.

Zoho: This is another one of Google's competitors. You can store a gigabyte of data here and work with coworkers and collaborators on Zoho friendly documents. One thing that this site does that no other site can do (or will do) are databases. If you need a free program that will work across platforms, try Zoho's database option.

Dropbox: This is a service that is designed to save important files online. A Dropbox folder is placed on your computer. Any file saved in this folder is then copied to the internet. If you need to access the file from elsewhere, just open the Dropbox and grab your file. No worries. It works well and is reliable. You can also share files with whomever you wish.

CX: Nearly identical to Dropbox, it makes file sharing with colleagues a little easier.

Edmodo: This online social service is often overlooked. While it has been primarily designed as a way to keep in contact with students and parents, it also works as a way to store small files. You can upload any file (up to 100 megabytes in size) to your Library. Once those files are there, they can be downloaded by anyone you choose- parent, teacher or student. You can also choose to keep these files private.

Google voice: Teachers need to keep track of who they call and when. Calling logs are great, but they have an inherent weakness. They assume that the person filling them out is honest. Google voice allows you to call parents from you computer for free. It records the time you called (or when the parent called you) and stores that information online. There is also a place for notes. You can keep an accurate record of all parent phone calls for years with this service.

Youtube: If you have video clips, youtube is a good place to keep them. You'll be able to keep them 100% private or you can choose to share with fellow teachers or students. If you decide to download them afterward, simply go to "My Videos", click on one of your movies, and download it.

These are just the services I've grown to love. If you have other online storage ideas, please share!


Learn anything...really?

There is a flurry of competition in the arena of free online education. Major universities have put classes online for free. There are dozens free books, movies and courses available from Openclass. Site like HTMLGoodies is a great place to learn how to work with computers. Lets not forget about Khan Academy. The most recent news story is about Apple's push into education via iBooks2, iTunesU and iAuthor. All of this provides the world with an (up till now) unbelievable amount of free, authoritative, trustworthy and understandable education.

Can we now expect droves of people flocking to public libraries and hunching over cell phones in hopes of improving their lot in life by improving their minds? Maybe. I'm reminded of Thomas Paine when he said “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly."  Free public education is esteemed so lightly that laws are in place to force students to attend classes. Libraries have long held texts filled with information the general public could use to educate themselves. So far, few people have taken full advantage of these resources.

Thankfully, there are some distinct differences between past attempts at providing free learning and what is going on now. Free public education has been run on a strict schedule and in a defined location where students are forced to associate with people they dislike and sometimes fear or hate. Now, the learning can happen whenever it is convenient and wherever students are most comfortable. There is no need to sit next to a bully or sit quiet and still for an hour or more. Furthermore, students can access courses that are most relavent to their lives. Perhaps the most important aspect of online learning is that it can be as minute as looking up proper spelling to being as in depth as learning basic Spanish. And all of it is nearly instantaneous.

Libraries have had their own barriers.  Like all buildings, they have a specified schedule and are located in a specific place. If you have a hard time getting to that place at the specified time, you're out of luck. Perhaps two of the least obvious roadblocks were literacy and (more often than not) sight. Youtube and recorded lecture/ podcasting has drastically reduced that barrier.  

More and more, the internet is becoming a place of astounding resources for improving people's lives. God willing, the trend will continue.


Searching for lesson materials

As teachers, we search a lot. We go online for a more useful lesson plan, a good picture to go along with our powerpoint or even a quick fact check before a lesson. Even though we're all pretty good at finding what we need, it always seems to take a bit longer than it should to find what we want. It doesn't have to be terribly difficult to get good things fast. Here are my recommendations for getting your hands on quality online material.

Useful lesson plans-  40 Places to Find Free Lesson Plans Online
This is a pretty comprehensive list describing the most popular sites online to find quality ideas for new lessons.

Handouts, handout creators-  Handout Maker  and  Teachnology worksheets
Best for middle school, this is a great place to go when your short on time, but you need a handout for kids on a specific topic. Make crossword puzzles, traditional worksheets and even mazes.

Safe, quality searching: netTrekker, Digital Vaults 

Good pictures- Pics4Learning
Need some images to add to your powerpoints? Do your students need to complete a project involving pictures? Here is a great place to get photos that are free, copywrite friendly and most importantly safe.

Quality video- Youtube/education , Brainpop,   Discovery Education* (paid subscription)  
You can now find great videos for your classroom on youtube! This has been a long time coming. Some of the best educational youtube videos have been put in one place. Plus most browsers have a way to download youtube videos to watch them later. Chrome makes this especially easy. Discovery education is probably the best source of educational video on the internet. Unfortunately, it is a paid subscription. If you have the means to pay for it, I highly recommend it.

Audio- Internet Archive , SoundFX Now,      
This is a great place to find stories, songs and sound effects. It's especially nice if you have a short story you would like to have the kids listen to in class.

Fact checking-  Wolfram Alpha
Forget Google. They're only interested in providing you with relavent websites. If you're looking for some fact checking, this is the place to go. It will perform calculations, find the relavent facts on historical figures or fill in the blanks for n_t_.  Even better, they provide references for all the information they provide you.

Calculator- Desmos or Wolfram Alpha
If you're trying to do some basic calculations, either of these would work fine. However, if you want to do a word type problem (what is 20% of 1.6?), Wolfram Alpha is the way to go. If your goal is to calculate algebraic expressions, Desmos will work a bit better. This is also an excellent replacement for a graphing calculator and can handle enormously complex equations.

Do you have other suggestions? Please let me know!


I, Robot, have a PLN

A PLN is a personal or a professional learning network. Typically, they consist of a group of people who help you learn and grow in whatever it is you do. This covers everything from rock climbing to high school administration. These networks have always consisted of other humans. The internet, though has changed all that in amazing ways. Robots now join in the mix. Please don't start to picture Rosie or C3PO. No, I'm talking about computer programs that are able to bring you important information. Programs have become sophisticated enough to listen to what a room (that is, an online group) full of people are saying and make sense of it. I'd like to introduce three of my favorite robots.

First, there is the hashtag robot. A hashtag is really just the # sign put in front of a word. The convention started with Twitter. People wanted an easy way to search for tweets based on key words. The hashtag became a way for people to mark specific terms as most important. Twitter employs a program that scours all the tweets online, looking for these small symbols and organizes tweets accordingly. So if you write #edtech for example, the hashtag robot will put your tweet in a list with all the other tweets containing  #edtech. That means that you can do a simple search for that term to get thousands useful tweets about (in this case) educational technology. The robot has become a vital part of learning networks for educators.

Zite is a mobile app that works as an electronic magazine. When you first download this free app, it asks you to describe the kinds of articles you'd like to read. You can choose from sports, politics, gossip... whatever you like. Then it does something amazing. It begins to learn from you. You tell the robot back at the Zite company when you like an article and it will bring you more of the same. Tell it when you dislike an article, and it will bring less. What's even better is that on a tablet, it brings up some key terms. You can tell Zite to look for articles in your genre with those key words. For example, I've taught Zite to fetch me articles on Technology which also deal with education, tablets and Google. I get all the educational technology news I want from Zite's robot.

Google Plus is bringing a new robot on the scene. The robot is called Search+ and it works by looking at your Google plus social network to bring you material it thinks you would be most interested in. Since it is only now being rolled out, I haven't had much time to test it out to see what it will bring to me. The implications are huge, though. If this robot is able to make sense of your network on Google plus and truly bring you relavent results, you should be able to find quality resources more easily and in less time. I think this would work best if you were careful to use Google plus just for professional networking. Having your friends in the mix could skew your search results giving you some great gift ideas, but not really showing you want you want for work.

Don't get me wrong- none of these PLN's could function without the people who make them up. I'm just saying that now we're going to have to welcome the newcomers. Now, we're working with robots.


Just for fun on a friday, I thought I'd throw this in. The original is from mastersinit.org, an online review of IT masters degree programs.
For the record, I'm stuck between geek and nerd.

Geeks vs Nerds
From: MastersInIt.org

Tech provides more usable time.

One of the reasons teachers use technology is that it saves time and effort. Of course many tools are designed to reduce the time and effort it takes for instructors to produce material. Examples of this include test generators and word processors. Today, though, I want to focus on our students during class time. Unfortunately, students can be left to stare into space as we take time to draw something out on the over head or sketch an equation on the whiteboard.

One of the greatest tools I have found for math teachers is the Desmos online calculator. The power of this application lies in the fact that a teacher can manipulate equations and the students can instantly see how the graph of that equation changes in response. A teacher told me recently how excited he is that he no longer has to sketch graphs out by hand while teaching. "And you know that half the kids start day dreaming when we do that", he added. With Desmos, he can use his time to explain concepts and cut down on the wandering minds.

There are also several interactive science sites that are very good. The Dynamic Periodic Table is excellent, for example. During a lesson, you need only hover over sections of the table to bring up important information. It's great for answering student questions or covering material clearly and quickly. Biology teachers love the Cells Alive online cellular models for the same reason.

For language arts, Google docs is a great time saver. This online suite of programs allows users to create presentations, documents and spreadsheets for free. It also allows users to collaborate on any of those files in real time.  The reason this cuts down on dead air is that no one has to wait around for group members to read over material and make comments. Everything in the document is written simultaneously, so everyone in the group can read everything while it is being typed. You as an instructor can also comment on student writing in real time. This means that an entire class can be writing while you make encouraging comments on each paper. All of this is done simultaneously and all without interrupting anyone's train of thought.

Class time should really be used for learning, not waiting for us to draw or read over material. The technology I've discussed is a great start, but there's so much more. What sorts of tools have you found to get more learning out of the limited time you have in class?


Contributing to digital literacy

Most teachers think about digital literacy on a daily basis even if they don't use those exact words. Instead,  conversations center around the "junk" kids find on the internet. Or maybe they complain about students believing that a human can also be part tree because of what they saw online. The solution is typically to chat with the kids about taking ideas with a grain of salt. We teach critical reading, listening and thinking. As always, we are hard at work teaching our charges to be literate about their world.

There is a part of digital literacy we don't always think about, however. That is, we are often responsible for putting content online. Is the content we add valuable? Is it authoritative? If you are on Twitter, consider the things you post. Every time you link one of your posts to a blog, you increase it's rank in Google search. If you comment on blogs, those comments add context to the original post. Your online footprint adds to what is online.

Since we want our students to be able to evaluate internet material for bias, authority, timeliness and relevance, we have to do more than just talk a good talk. We need to do what we can to add to the quality of the internet. In many ways this is a classic dilemma for every teacher. Our calling is to teach kids how to be upstanding adults. Our actions in public teach students more about how to be grown up than anything we say in class. In the same way, we teach kids to be good digital citizens. We must therefore be careful about what goes into our online footprint.


Possibilities, limitations

Technology has so much potential in so many ways that we are often disappointed when we spot some of the weaknesses. Today I gave a training on using eInstruction's CPS clickers. They a tremendous number of uses from quick formative assessments to making movie watching more interactive. Everyone was interested in the software and equipment.

Unfortunately, there were some limitations. There was only so much equipment to go around. Teachers would have to share. It would also take a bit of work to learn the new software and set up the self-graded quizzes. As a general rule, we don't have a lot of spare time and energy. Then there was the fact that technology could fail.

One of the great thing about teachers is that we are not deterred by limitations. Everyone I spoke to thought of ways to get around the issues. People agreed to swap clickers. It would be worth the time and effort in the short term to save hassle in the long term. And hey- even pens leak and calculators putter out. They could deal with the rare equipment fizzle. That's a great part of being a technology coach. I have the opportunity to work with professionals who are consistently able to overcome challenges. As a friend of mine once said, you can't be a teacher without being able to tap dance.


Effects on student writing

Student writing is taking an interesting turn, don't you think? There are currently far more forms of writing than ever before. It ranges from traditional hand writing to the recent social media phenomenon. These writing mediums are all influencing one another in subtle and not so subtle ways. Lets take a quick look at some of what's going on. Contrary to popular opinion, there is plenty of handwriting going on. For example, it's still taught in primary schools whereas students don't learn to type till much latter. Plus, nearly everyone handwrites their class notes largely because there aren't many alternatives to pen and paper (especially in math class!).

On the other hand, do kids even pass notes in the hallway anymore? I think they only text each other to keep up with the local gossip. Once they get home from school, they start working on homework... right after updating Facebook  and Tweeting a little. They let their friends know how they're doing in 140 characters or less. Texting and posting on social media is an amazing feat of of encapsulation. They take dozens of feelings and events and boil them down to just a few sentences! Imagine how great it would be if students would apply that ability to summarize our last lecture.

Of course, word processors are ubiquitous in education. Whether using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, students nearly always type essays or research papers. And it makes sense. Their teachers really don't want to deal with paper fringes or sloppy penmanship. Plus, there are no spell checkers in a pencil. What student would ever want to turn in a paper without a computer to proof read it for them.

So what are all of these writing forms doing to a student's ability to put thoughts down on a page? One clear effect is on spelling. In the past few years I've seen students inserting "cuz" instead of "because", "pple" instead of people or even "l8r" instead of "later". These text abbreviations are even put into graded essays. The other thing that I've noticed is a decline in complex sentences. Most of my students write in small, easy to read sentences. Since these are the same kids that send short blurbs to others everyday while texting, its little wonder that sentences should shrink. Word processors have actually improved student writing, though. Or at least they can. A word processor can allow students to easily brainstorm, manipulate text and edit on the fly. If they are using an online editor like Google Docs, students can also collaborate on writing and teach each other in real time.

So it's clear that student writing is going to continue to evolve. It also seems clear that much of that change will be driven by the multitude of writing media available today.


On Tradition

We do what we have always done because it works. And hey, why reinvent the wheel? Besides, we have so many things we have to get done that it's hard to find time to learn a new way of doing things. The thing is, it turns out that our ways are often inefficient or less productive than some alternatives.

With a new semester upon us, it may be time to try a few new tools. Below, I list some of my favorite online tools to improve teaching in the next 18 weeks. Give them a try. You may find yourself getting more done in less time, for free.

Google docs + Google calendars
I've written about this mash-up before. Google calendars is an easy to use schedule that you can work on at any time and on any computer that's handy. Calendars also has a nice feature that allows you to attach any file to an event as long as it is already in your Google docs account. That opens up the possibility of attaching lesson plans, tests and student samples. Since you can make any of those files private, you never have to worry about anyone else in the world seeing sensitive documents.

Students love social media for good reasons; it's fun, engaging and it makes learning easier. Unfortunately, there are so many dangers and pitfalls to using sites like Facebook or Twitter. The solution is a site designed specifically for educators to communicate with their students. Parents have full access to their own student's activities and teachers moderate all discussions. There is no outside communication and students don't have the option to talk to the outside world. Better yet, you can make self-grading quizzes and polls for free!

Desmos Graphing Calculator
Students are given all sorts of wonderful technology in schools. They are still being asked to buy expensive calculators. Finally here is a free online solution. Help kids learn to do math without expecting them to buy equipment.

Perspective matters. Much of what we talk about in class deals with large scale vs. small scale. Consider these questions: What does a water molecule have to do with whether you have a desert or grassland? How did the Delaware river affect George Washington? What does the hight of a tree and the length of it's shadow have to do with a protractor you hold in your hand?
Prezi is an online presentation site that creates unique, beautiful presentations. Kids love them!

Educational Youtube
Finally! A way to get good educational videos at school! You don't have to worry about crude jokes or wardrobe malfunctions. Its all good stuff here. Well, that's mostly true. Unfortunately, suggestive videos are still sometimes suggested on the right hand side of the screen. You can't watch them, but the suggestive picture is there along with the provocative title. You'll just need to be a bit careful even when the video you want to watch is great.