Tool Review: Zotero, mastery of references and citations with a simple click!

Being a student comes with many responsibilities and requires you to develop extra-curricular skills. A few examples of these are, researching information, extracting data, writing texts and so on and so forth. Usually, each student has his strength and weaknesses and manages to cope with his lesser skills by working with teammates that do better. However there is one thing, one skill that all students seem to dread without contest and that is writing a proper reference, citation or bibliography. Getting this right is, without doubt, the bane of every individual’s experience as a student. Personally, I struggled with it until I got to university, until I found out the magnificent tool that I am going to talk to you about in this review. This tool is called Zotero, and it is a game changer when it comes to citations, bibliographical references and research.

If you are anything like myself and the hundreds of students I have come across, you may have experienced what it is like to feel the stress of losing points on an essay for having made a mistake in your reference list. It’s usually the part students leave for last in an essay because they know they’re going to have a bad time doing it. Alas! Zotero comes to the aid of all anxious students and takes all of that pain away.

If only there was a single way of writing a bibliography, then one could argue that it is simply a matter of practice in order to get it into your head, but the fact is that if you compare a linguistic student’s reference section with a literature student’s, you will find that things aren’t written down the same way. Zotero takes care of that with a simple click, as I will explain below in the functionalities’ description. If you wish for a quick overview, here is a great review made by PCworld.com, a well respected online guide to every kind of virtual tools and more.

Zotero was originally a project brought together by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and it was funded by the  Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It is an easy to use tool that requires almost no effort, truly a no-brainer in a field that usually requires much thoroughness. Zotero can be used as a web tool by synching it with your web browser or as a standalone tool that you can have on your computer’s desktop. It’s main purpose is to facilitate the acquisition of sources and it serves as a library that can retain a great amount of saved data. It is completely free of charge and fast to download.

Now let’s understand how Zotero works. First the web tool: while you are doing research, Zotero stays passively ready for you to use it. Say you are reading an online journal, or an academic paper in the form of an online PDF version or again a website page, and you happen to find some of what you read relevant for your research. What Zotero enables you to do is to select the relevant piece of text and save it in a quotation form. But that’s not all! Zotero automatically saves the source with the quotation and all other pertinent information that needs to be accounted for in the reference section of any research. It literally does it all for you with one simple click. So this is for the web tool’s main utility, now let’s talk about the standalone tool. Zotero’s desktop tool does all of what the web tool can do with a wider possibilities. Say you are looking for a book or any sort of source and all the technical info associated with the source itself(date, author, edition, etc.) but you only have the ISBN or DOI or PMDI; Zotero has an built-in functionality that allows you to input the ISBN or DOI or PMDI and, by accessing the internet, will find all technical information on the document that you seek. It then stores this information on the main interface where you can access it and view it with ease. But wait, there’s more! By right clicking on your newly acquired source you can create a bibliographical reference. Selecting this functionality then takes you to a new menu in which you may chose to have the document cited in citation form or as a bibliographical reference. Furthermore, it lets you choose from a variety of format(APA, MLA, IEEE, etc.) then, Zotero produces your reference note in your clipboard and all that is left for you to do is to go into your research document, paste(ctrl+v) and voilà! It shows up in a format that looks exactly the way it should without having you break a sweat.

With all this being said, I am left with one last question to cover: how is Zotero a relevant tool in an ESL classroom? To be honest, I feel torn between my student perspective and my role as a future teacher. Therefore, in order to reconcile the two perspectives and to keep my mental peace, I have come up with a fair trade. Firstly, if I were an elementary level teacher, I would not even consider introducing the students to Zotero because I do feel the importance of having them learn the basics of research papers formats. As a teacher, it will be my responsibility to explain the theory behind note taking and research discipline, including the notions of bibliographical and reference formats. Thereon, I believe that Zotero would be a great tool to introduce to senior high school students as an ITC tool. As a teacher this is one of my responsibility to introduce my students to technological tools in order to facilitate and lighten their work. After having given my students a first research assignment without Zotero and having corrected them on their reference sections, their citations, then and only then would I introduce them to Zotero. My point being that I personally don’t want to take off points from a good piece of work for such benign reasons and also I want them to spend time writing rather than stressing over the format. By having them understand the purpose and importance of a well written bibliography and citations, and by giving them this tool to work with, I would therefore place the responsibility of their success in their hands rather than have them feel unjustly marked if they fail to it properly. This is what profoundly exasperated me as a student because even though it is a student’s responsibility to be thorough, kids don’t see it that way, they feel like their efforts are and I don’t want my student to feel that way. With the rules and formats being set and with Zotero as their tool, it would make it so that there is no more excuse for them to fail at writing a proper reference section or proper citations. I personally think that Zotero would help students feel less burdened by the idea of a research and would have them concentrate more over the content than the container. This would heighten motivation, I am sure of it.

Tool review: ClassCraft, play as you manage your classroom!

As a teacher, the main struggle one is faced with is class management. Putting up a course plan together and following it is a hefty task in itself, but it becomes even worse when students misbehave or when their behavior impedes the progress of others. Another problem teachers face is lack of student participation in class or lack of involvement in homework. The main reason for students’ misbehaviour or lack of implication is due to a decrease in motivation. Motivating students is one of today’s greatest challenge and as the Vanderbilt University webpage puts it:

The challenge, then, is to provide teaching and learning activities that are both stimulating and offer students a degree of personal control.

This is where Classcraft comes into play(zing!). This software is downloadable over the internet at Classcraft.com and it is a very easy to use software. The enterprise is a family project  put up by two brothers and their father. Here is a great video tutorial made in the fashion of a walkthrough if ever you wish to get a wide perspective. It comes in three versions, a free one, a  »freemium », wich is also free but allows students to invest real money in the game and a  »premium » version which costs a yearly 10$ per class plus 1$ per student. The concept behind Classcraft is to combine a classroom management tool with an underlying videogame frame. It embeds video-game rewarding systems as well as character development present in games such as role playing games. The idea is simple: At the beginning of year, students are introduced to the game by having to chose and create an original concept for their character. The they must choose from three classes of characters: Mage, Warrior and Healer, each with its’ own particular abilities. Finally, the students are teamed up in teams that can go from 3 to 5.

From there, students have to manage four very simple statistics, namely: Their experience points(XPs), their health points(HPs), their ability points(APs) and their Gold pieces(GPs). In the game, the teacher can input some homework or extra work or workshops all disguised as  »quests » and  »side-quests » that, once completed, will grant experience points. Experience points can also be given in class by the teacher in the fashion of participation points like  »Who can answer this question for 10 experience points? ». Experience points are used to level up a student’s character, granting him some  »power points » for every leveling up which he can invest to learn new powers.

Such powers are divided into three categories: Firstly, in-game mechanics like the healer’s ability to restore health points to another teammate, secondly, actual real life privileges that students can use in the classroom like being allowed to eat in class, and thirdly, academic relevant powers like having an approved  »cheat sheet » during an exam. These rewards, labeled as powers in Classcraft, are managed by the teacher and can be anything he deems appropriate.

Which brings us to the ability points. These are gained through two simple in-game mechanics: One being a daily amount of AP granted automatically by the game and the second is one of the mage’s power to restore APs to comrades. The APs are consumed by the player/student in order to use some of his unique class-relevant powers. Powers can also be used as a response from a teammate about one of the teacher’s decision, like the healer’s ability to give back some health points to some of their team or the warrior’s power to block damage for one of his teammate. Powers can be learned by using a power point, which are granted by leveling up, and can be evolved according to a  »spell-tree ». They are all unique to each class and can be used in different fashion: Some abilities are self-serving and other are collaborative. The latter kind of abilities rewards the player who helps out a teammate by giving him more experience points for example. This is one of the many underlying motivational tools implemented in Classcraft. Students want to help each other out because they personally benefit from it; it is a key value taught by the game without students even realizing it.

On the other hand, Health points do not replenish themselves daily and they represent the student/player’s lifeline. These can be deduced from the student by the teacher if he misbehave. Whenever health points are depleted, the student receives a sanction at random in real life like detention or after school community service or anything the teacher will input into the game. Again, in game actions have real-life consequences for the individual student and for his team, because if one teammate  »falls in battle », all other teammates lose 10 health points. Here we can notice another motivational tool of the game; students are motivated to behave because if they don’t their whole team is penalized in the end. This peer pressure can be found to be an even better behavioral lever than the teacher’s authority on the student itself. Classroom discipline is therefore auto-managed and correctional measures are no longer felt as personal attacks from the teacher to the students. The students know that a given misbehaviour will result in a given loss of health points because the rules are predefined and so, they take accountability for their behavior because they cannot rely on the excuse that they may be treated unjustly.

Gold pieces are only usable in-game to customize the player’s avatar. They are given by the teacher as rewards for extra good behavior. These do not bear any importance in real life, they are purely made for the student’s feeling of personalization. In the  »freemium » version of the game, the students can themselves invest a total of 5$ in the game to customize their character. In the free version, teachers can use gold points as an extra incentive for students to behave well.

Besides the fact that Classcraft is a great class motivation tool, the interface itself is very well done. Teachers have easy and total access to everything in the game, they can interact with their students’ characters and follow their development. The interface can be modified to display different information in order to monitor the progress of students. There is a complete log book that automatically updates itself everytime an event occurs in the game, for every experience points granted, for every health points taken away, for every power used, everything is kept in the log book. The student interface is fairly simple, students can use their powers, learn new powers, customize their avatar and that’s it.

As an ESL teacher, and a Role playing game/ video-game enthousiast, I could easily see the usefulness of Classcraft as a classroom managing tool.  I would use this as a motivational tool as well as a way to make interactions in class more casual and more entertaining. I find that it is an engenious way to raise in-class and outside-class involvement through the game platform. It can also be a great social skills building tool as it teams different people together. Through interaction in the game, like healing a teammate, people that would not usually interact now work in pair and help each other out. I think it could help lower the social anxiety that some shy and unpopular students may struggle with and I believe it could help everyone better relate to one another. I would use it to put up homework and have students update themselves with the class material through original quests and I would use original phrasings such as  »Your fellowship must travel to the far away land of youtube.com and there you will have to listen to the vision of this link ». It would be an entertaining way to learn, that’s how I feel about it. I believe Classcraft also brings strategy to the class, because students need to be able to rely on their powers and not use too many to deplete their reserve. In that fashion, it teaches them ressources management. Finally I strongly feel that this would help students’ take more responsability for their actions. As mentioned before, their actions sometimes affect their teammates and the rules are clearly stated so anytime they misbehave or don’t complete work, they will get punished in the game automatically. So in essence, it teaches them the values of responsability towards themselves and their actions and accountanility towards other teammates.
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Tool Review: Popplet, an online mind map tool… and more!

When giving out a writing project to their students, it is often a custom for teachers to try and give their students some pointers on how to come up with ideas to write their text. They might suggest some creativity techniques in order to help them form decent points and jog their creativity. Such creativity techniques may include brainstorming, the six thinking hats, the five Ws or mind mapping.

The latter option, mind mapping, will be the subject matter for this review. Mind mapping can be used with two intents: Either to draw some ideas surrounding a specific idea or subject out of our minds before writing a text, much like a brainstorm, or to organize the ideas read in a text as a kind of reminder that looks better than simple point forms. However, unlike the blunt form of a brainstorm, a mind map can literally take shape, using images as well as words to create roots that surround the main idea and divide into ever smaller sub-sections.

Guru_Mindmap

This brings us to the tool I decided to review for this article, namely: Popplet. Popplet is an online mind map creator available to all ages and especially to people with little experience with computers. It is relatively new as it has been put together in 2013 and has been thriving since. It is free of charge but can be upgraded to a 3.00$ monthly plan or a 30.00$ yearly plan that enables some more features(the price isn’t really worth it in my opinion). It is a great learning tool as much as it is a dynamic mind mapping tool. It is a great tool for visual people and is great to learn about simple features of many virtual tools such as dragging, double clicking creation and editing basics.

Firstly, it enables individuals to create a personal profile with the ability to save their mind maps online without having to save them on the computer itself. And if a person only wants to produce a popplet without registering, they can click on  »try it out’, and voilà! They can start building a mind map just like that. Popplet is very user-friendly as it gives the newly registered user the choice to view some tutorials before getting started. These tutorials explain all of the functionalities that the user has at his disposal.To get a better idea on how to use popplet, here is a website that walks you through all of the utilities it has to offer: https://edshelf.com/tool/popplet

After viewing the tutorials the user is left with a simple interface that gives him popplets examples on the right of the screen and the ability to start creating a popplet on the top left. Selecting this option will open a message box that asks the user to name his popplet and chose a background color, then to start creating his/her mind map the user clicks on  »make it so »(do I sense a reference from Star Trek). To  beggin the user can simply double click in the blank space to creat a  »popple » which consists of a single rounded rectangle in which either text, images or even videos can be imbedded. From the original popple then appears dots located at each side of the rectangle that, if clicked, will produce and adjacent popple linked to the first one by a grey string. This is how the mapping can begin. By connecting different popples to one another, the user can make his own sense of what he wishes to express in an original way. As mentioned before, popples can contain more than text. They can include pictures uploaded from the computer, they can have youtube videos imbedded in them as well as drawings that can be made on the spot using a drawing tool similar to Microsoft’s  »paint » accessory tool. This is a great feature to integrate visual aids and to maintain the attention of whoever the user presents his popplet to. The user can also insert map locations using googlemaps as well as another previously saved popplet in a popple of his current popplet (Poppletception?). Popples can also be changed colors in order to visually indicate different groups or sub-categories.

Popplets can be worked on individually or collaboratively between registered users. Once the popplet is done, the user can chose to export his work as a PDF or a JPEG or PNG image that he can then print or send via e-mail for people to view it. The popplet can also be morphed to a presentation format where the user chooses the order of the popples and can navigate through them using the left and right arrows on a keybord. This can come in handy to create dynamic powerpoint-like presentations.

It should also be noted that popplet is also a downloadable app for the IPad and can be used just as easily. If you wish to get an idea of how the app looks and feels here is an informative youtube video.

Online critics that I have visited describe Popplet as minimalist tool that can help greatly with students that enjoy visual support over textual note taking. A popular pedagodical reviewing website such as teacherfirst.com praises Popplet and mention that:

Though Popplet looks simple and limited, it is probably one of the easiest to use.

However, even as dynamic and easy to use a tool it may be, there is still some drawbacks to Popplet . The first downside is its’ instability. I speak of personal experience when I say that most of the time, the website experiences lags which can corrupt the data or impede the saving process. A warning message displays at the right bottom corner of the screen almost all the time. Never have I been able to work on a popplet without this issue showing up at any given time. At times, the pre-saved popplets are rendered unavailable in the main interface, which can be a real bummer when you want to consult a previously saved project. My educated guess  as to why this issue keeps on showing up is that perhaps it is due to the site’s servers; they might not be spacious enough yet to accommodate all users due to the site’s fairly young age. The second drawback is the fact that a free user registration will allow you to make only 5 popplets projects. This makes Popplet a rather short term choice since 5 popplets is a very limited amount.

To end this review, here is how I would use Popplet as an effective ESL teaching tool. I have used Popplet.com for school purposes and I would see it as a very viable tool for small projects. Like mentioned in the beginning of this review, popplet is a great tool for all ages so it could apply to both young or old audiences that are discovering the marvels of virtual possibilities. Setting aside the language teaching for a moment,(part of the teachers’ curriculum is to be a facilitator in technologies)  it could be an easy tool to teach them about some basics of the virtual tools out there prior to taking on some more complex software. As a language tool it cool be used to:

  • Explore new ideas and make links using mind mapping as a creativity tool.
  • Oraganize ideas taken from a previously read text.
  • Serve as presentation to the classroom.
  • Create scrapbook-like projects.
  • Draw basic flowcharts.