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Web Tools Blog Series: Collecting, Organizing and Making Sense of Information

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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Access to the Internet brings an almost unlimited amount of content to our fingertips. Effectively collecting, organizing, and making sense of this information is critical to learning. Ubiquitous access to information provides many opportunities and challenges for "formal" education systems. After all, what good is memorizing the atomic number for Iridium when you can just text Cha Cha?

Innovative Classroom Examples

For most students, the "Internet as a source for information" is probably how they are most likely to use the web during the school day. However, do we encourage them to go beyond a simple search box? How often do we go beyond using a YouTube video as a hook (if our school even allows it)? I thought I would start this section with two innovative classroom examples.

However, before we start, if you are going to do a lot with technology in your classroom you should be aware of your school policies and make sure that parents are informed. Here is an example permission form.

Example 1: for multiple perspectives

The first example, from Marsha Ratzel, uses Twitter and a free service called to bring multiple perspectives on current events to her Earth science students. By following news organizations, research centers, and individual scientists through a class account, her students have a constant stream of relevant content. The power of this approach really showed itself when I was looking for examples of student projects related to the spring 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Many of the examples I found were dry and simplistic factoid worksheets. However, Marsha turned her students loose on the resources from their Twitter account and challenged students to create rich multimedia presentations to tell the story from multiple perspectives. Read more about this example in The Ratzel Room Daily: Encouraging Kids to Think About Science in the Real World.

Example 2: TED Talks to Inspire Critical Thinking

In the second example, Christian Long sets his Language Arts students loose on TED. By assigning multiple talks to each student, his classes viewed and analyzed nearly 800 talks. Students identified characteristics of the talks that they found inspiring . . . and of those that were not. They wrote critically about each talk and gave their own presentations. Learn more at the TEDxClassroomProject blog.

Let's Start with Search

It often begins with a simple search. Of course, we have all used Google, but have you checked out the many search features? After you do a simple search, take a look at the left side of the page and click on "More Search Tools." Give the reading level and Wonder Wheel options a spin. You can also set a Google "Kid Safe" filter. Check out these videos for more Google search features. This article provides a great summary of other kid-friendly search engines.

Google Wonder Wheel for a Search on Bats

If you are looking for images that you can use without violating copyright, give Creative Commons Search a try. I find most of the images I use in presentations by using this search and clicking on the Flickr results. If you are looking for a search with a bit of a human touch, give Cha Cha and their trained guides a chance. You can even text them at 242-242 with your questions. NOTE: You get a few texts back -- the answer plus an advertisement -- make sure you check out their privacy statement before using this free service.

Of course, as you search, it is important to be aware that different search engines personalize the results for you in different ways. You should use multiple search engines to help avoid this "Filter Bubble."

Eli Pariser on "Filter Bubbles"

How to Use the Web to Supplement (or Replace) Your Textbook

The Web is chock full of great resources that you can use to supplement (or replace) your textbook. NBC Learn provides a great series of videos and resources for the International Year of Chemistry. uses a editorial "Pro versus Con" approach to provide an unbiased (or maybe multi-biased) information on controversial issues ranging from nuclear power to the D.A.R.E. program. The Smithsonian and Library of Congress are both beautiful websites with excellent classroom resources, including many primary source documents.

If you are looking for good videos, make sure you check out MIT's OpenCourseware project and YouTube EDU to find lectures from top university professors on almost any topic. If your school blocks YouTube, you can use ZamZar to easily convert and download videos. My favorite source for engaging and informative talks, is TED. Here are a few of my favorite TED videos:

David Gallo: Underwater Astonishment

J. J. Abrahms (From the show "Lost": Mystery Box

Dave Eggers: Once Upon a School, TED Prize 2008

William Kamkwamba: How I Harnessed the Wind

...not to mention all of Ken Robinson's excellent talks on creativity and education.

How to Keep Your Head from Exploding

Using the web often feels like drinking from a fire hose, and fortunately, there are many tools out there whose sole function is to help you get organized.

Most web sites offer RSS feeds to help you keep up with changes in their content. You subscribe to these feeds with a web aggregator, or reader, so that you can easily view changes from multiple sources. Google Reader is one popular reader. NetVibes is another great way to aggregate web feeds for your personal reading or for your class.

Delicious is a social bookmarking tool that helps you easily store, organize and share websites with your students or colleagues. Diigo is another social bookmarking tool. One benefit of Diigo is that it also lets you and members of your "group" annotate websites. Using Diigo for Organizing the Web for your Class is a blog post that describes how you can use Diigo with your students to "organize the web."

The tools and resources provided in this post provide a good starting point for exploring ways to help students collect, organize, and make sense of the information on the web. However, it only scratches the surface. Please share your thoughts and explorations in the comments below. Also, feel free to post additional ideas, resources, and tools that you find useful!

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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Allison Fitzwater's picture
Allison Fitzwater
7-12 Science teacher from Lansing, Iowa

I've created a supplement to use with the Populations and Ecosystems FOSS kit for middle school science using

The program provides a quick, easy interface and editing tools and allows for selective privacy settings by the project rather than for the entire account. It's a work in progress...

Kenneth Olden's picture
Kenneth Olden
9th and 12th grade English teacher in White Swan, Washington

I'm exploring Good Reads as a way to create a social reading climate at my school. It functions much like Facebook with a review system like Rotten Tomatoes and has a large user base, allowing my student to connect to readers around the world. My full post on how I plan to use this is on my blog:

Amber McCabe's picture
Amber McCabe
4th grade teacher from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

I have decided to focus my project on using Diigo, a social bookmarking tool, with my students this year. For students, I believe it is important to start with discussing the importance of social bookmarking and how using this tool will help them share information with each other and others outside of school. My early lessons will consist of modeling to my students how to bookmark and tag, how to add to a list, and how to write a good description of the site. Once we practice using Diigo for the "basics," we will move on to learning how to annotate notes and share our information. I am currently in the process of typing an informational letter to post on my classroom website for my students' parents. In my letter, I will inform the parents about the importance and student benefit of using Diigo and also encourage the parents to download the Diigo toolbar at home. Here is a link to my blog post discussing this project and other explorations:

FeldmannNicole's picture
8th Grade Comm. Arts from Wisconsin

I've decided, with the new position I've accepted as an 8th grade comm. arts teacher, to complete my project using the Good Reads web tool. Good Reads is a site in which the user builds their virtual bookshelves with books they have read or want to read. The readers have the ability to rate the book, as well as give the book a review. I can see this working really well within a middle school classroom; not only for students to find out what others are reading, but to also give the students the chance to practice critiquing and reviewing.

In addition to building this social reading network, I also want to begin student reading blogs. I envision these blogs to encompass many aspects of reading-character and plot analysis, predictions, themes, connections to the text, etc. With my newly enabled Twitter account, I can hopefully find another school/classroom that we can socially connect with to help build our networks (both blogging and book sharing!).

Anyone know of another 8th grade class that may want to become reading networking buddies with a Wisconsin classroom?

PS. A really cool addition to a historical fiction or biography Check it out!

Tyler Rice's picture
Tyler Rice
High School science teacher from central Washington

Another great tool to help students search effectively is Google Custom search. You can easily add a bunch of useful sites and resources that will help students, effectively narrowing the Internet firehose to a helpful trickle. Obviously, you are creating a "search bubble" for them in this way but it can be a step along the way to teaching them effective research skills.

I've used this in project based learning to narrow students' searches at the start of a project so that their initial research is productive.

Lisa's picture
Second grade teacher from North Carolina

I would like to begin some of these with my 2nd graders this year. Are there any sites out there that are easier then others for this age child? Thanks for your imput!

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