Finding (and Curating) Resources

Week Four Activities (due March 6):

  1. Create an Inventory: Make a simple list of the resources you intend to use in your course.
  2. Find Things: Do some targeted Google searches to find new resources for your course.
  3. Find People: Discover relevant resources by finding people with similar interests.
  4. Share What You’ve Learned: Write a blog post that describes what you may have learned doing all this.

Note: This page includes many links to various examples of resources.  We’re not trying to overwhelm you; we’re trying to give you a sense of the range of possibilities out there.  No one expects you to follow all the links!  Explore what seems of interest. Remember, these are just the tip of the iceberg.
from Peter R. on Flickr

Isn’t this a striking photo? We wanted to illustrate the idea of “searching,” so we went to the photo site, Flickr.  We checked for images that were available under a Creative Commons license (an alternative to copyright that allows people to use a resource with few restrictions) and quickly found this image. Flickr also has an archive of images in the public domain that have no restrictions at all.  This includes items from VCU Libraries, such as the cartoon below.  (Apparently some things don’t change much.)

MCV student yearbook 1914
From the 1914 student yearbook at the Medical College of Virginia.

These simple examples are reminders that the Internet is filled with freely available resources.  You can deepen student understanding and keep an online course fresh and interesting by drawing on easily available texts, images, videos, audio files, and data visualizations. With a little practice searching, you’ll find great quality material, save time in the end, and your students will appreciate it.  That’s something to cheer about.

(A public domain recording available from FreeSounds.)

Every course uses resources to engage students and help them understand a topic. Historically, these resources were mostly print media; textbooks, monographs, and articles. But an online course is taking place in a multimedia environment that is not limited to text.  The New York Times once reflected on what they had learned as their journalism shifted from a print-only form to today’s multi-media world.  Academia is not journalism but their observations are relevant for an online course:

“One of the main lessons we’ve learned is that journalists have not been fully using all of the tools that are now available to us. …We’re obviously no longer limited to the printed page, but we are still influenced by the many years in which we were. So long blocks of text are still often the default way to convey information. And don’t get me wrong: I love blocks of text. …But I’m also persuaded that readers want journalism to be a bit less dominated by traditional articles than it has been, and that readers are right to feel this way. The tools of digital journalism mean that blocks of text are not always the clearest, best way to deliver information. I know that some word lovers will argue that the alternatives to text “dumb down” journalism, but I disagree. When done right, photo essays, maps, charts, videos and interactive calculators can be smarter than paragraphs. It’s no accident that many of the most-read New York Times articles of the last few years have been complex takes on serious subjects in a form other than a traditional article.”

Fortunately for us, the Internet has a massive and ever-growing volume of resources, in a variety of formats, that are perfect for online (or hybrid) courses. These are often timely and of better quality than you’d be able to create on your own. To get a sense of how things have changed, we link to a variety of examples below by format. Explore a bit and sample different formats.

Text. We won’t point to text examples.  You already know that online text materials (now in digital form) can come from far beyond academic work to include content from faculty blogs, news organizations, research centers, professional associations, advocacy groups, museums, and even amateur hobbyists.

Video is probably the most common supplement to text. You know about goofy YouTube videos but what about YouTube’s education material? You know about TED Talks, but what about TedEd? And there’s much more, including:

  • PBS, for science, nature, history, public affairs, and culture videos.
  • BigThink is more varied than Ted Talks in its length and formats.
  • MIT’s 12,000+ videos cover a vast array of topics.
  • VCU’s subscription to gives you access (with a VCU login) to material on technology, creativity, and business skills, along with quite a few videos about teaching and education (see the ALT Lab favorites on that front page).

Audio is a less obvious resource. There are many free podcasts (digital audio files made to listen online or download to an iPod or other device) covering just about any topic.  These range from recordings of traditional lectures and academic presentations (such as those at Oxford University–which include videos, too) to engaging material aimed at a general audience (such as NPR’s podcast archive and  Stuff to Blow Your Mind).  And everyone has their list of favorites in a wide variety of topics and genres:

You get the idea; podcasts are everywhere addressing every conceivable topic.  (Don’t know what might be of use for you?  Consider assigning students to find, share, and evaluate a podcast related to course content.)

And, depending on what you teach, archives of free music and other audio files might be of use, too.  Need audio of a vendor selling tofu in a Chinese marketplace? (Who doesn’t?) Done.


spurious correlation chart
from Tyler Vigan’s Spurious Correlations

Interactive Data Visualizations and Explanations.  Some sites help teach in a unique way. Tyler Vegan’s, Spurious Correlations (see example above), is a memorable way to drive home the point that correlation is not causation.  And Neil Halloran has a presentation on deaths in World War II that starts quietly but becomes nothing less than breathtaking. Increasingly, journalists and researchers are presenting data in such fascinating and often interactive ways that our Powerpoint slides might as well be stone tablets.  For example:

Explorable Explanations are a unique category of sites that don’t just present data but that invite you to engage with them as they explain a concept.  For example, there’s the Parable of the Polygons that teaches about how segregation can result from seemingly harmless choices.  There aren’t many of these sites yet but if one of the examples that does exist fits your course, it can be a powerful tool.

Traditional OER Resources.  There have long been efforts to create and share “open educational resources” (OER), such as lesson plans and textbooks for K-12 as well as college classrooms.  (OER has recently attracted the interest of Amazon, which will likely raise its profile soon.)  A couple of examples:

We suggest that any open resource on the Internet can be educational in the proper context.  In this sense, the Internet itself is an OER resource. Connecting to this vast treasure chest of resources is also a part of the “connected learning” approach to online education.

Finding Resources

To use online resources in your course you need to (1) search to find them and (2) have a way to manage–or “curate”– them.

1. Search can be for either things or people.

  • Things–  The best known search approach is to simply use Google or some other search engine to find material that might be useful for your students. Below, we’ll examine some simple strategies to find better things, faster.
  • People–  While searching for things can be helpful, it can also be time consuming and ineffective. Sometimes excellent relevant material won’t show up, given the terms you are using and the things you can think to search for. Instead of finding things to include in a course, finding people related to your courses is often much more useful in the long run.  These people feed you a steady flow of resources, some of which you might never have thought of searching for.  (Most of the resources linked on this page came to us this way.)

Once you find the right streams, tasty resources come right to you.

2. Curation.  Once you find interesting content and people, you’ll soon face a new challenge: a surplus of course-related material.  (It’s a nice “problem” to have!)  So you need to manage these web-based resources, culling them and making sure they are accessible when you need them.  That’s what curation is all about and, as you’ve already begun to see, social bookmarking tools like Diigo can help.

Activity #1: Create an Inventory

The activities this week ask you to search for new resources to supplement or replace some of your existing content.  Before you do that, though, it’s helpful to remind yourself of what you already have for your course. (No worries if you haven’t given it much consideration yet; do the best you can.)  Make a list of your resources and their formats (text, video, etc).  A simple Google spreadsheet or text document will do.  (This will allow you to link to it later in your blog post.) When you’re finished, review what you’ve found; you might be surprised.

  • Does your course rely heavily on one type of content to the near-exclusion of others?
  • Does your inventory take advantage of the multimedia environment of an online course?
  • Do you use a variety of media types likely to help keep students engaged through the course?
  • Do you offer multiple pathways (e.g. text and video) to the same understandings/skills?
  • Does your content line up with your course goals? Are there gaps?

Armed with this information, you can focus your search on things you’d like to strengthen.

Activity #2: Find Things

A simple search for course resources relying on Google’s generic algorithms can generate tens of millions of results. Since we rarely look beyond the first few pages of results, we often miss finding interesting things. By being proactive, we can use Google’s powerful options to limit search results and improve our odds of finding something useful that would otherwise be lost among the millions of results.

The options work by limiting your search to particular types of results. You probably already know about the basic Google interface elements (highlighted below) that enable you to limit your search to categories such as news, images, books, videos, and limit by time published.

google search

Google’s powerful advanced features allow for much more efficient searching. We used two advanced options when we searched for syllabi earlier in OLE, restricting the search to only PDF files found on .edu sites. We can use the same approach to limit our search in other ways. Spend some time getting familiar with Google’s advanced search page, or as an alternative route, explore the examples below.

If you’d like additional guidance on your advanced search options try these resources:

Searching can also be improved by using pedagogical and technological terms to improve the chances of getting what you want, such as:

  • “data visualization”
  • interactive
  • simulation
  • game
  • “explorable explanation”

Searching well is a mix of technique and vocabulary. Keep refining your technique and adding words to your arsenal and you’ll become both happier and more efficient. It sounds simple but it’s not often that people focus on improving their search skills.

Use your search to skills to expand and deepen the content for your course. Focus on addressing areas of need, increasing content diversity, supplementing topics you know students find difficult, and/or augmenting more complex issues with multiple approaches. Add your finds to the list of existing resources you created earlier.

Activity #3: Find People

flickr photo shared by Bobasonic under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

When you try to find things, you only can find what you have the vocabulary and imagination to search for. You’re further confined by the limits of time and energy in your life. That’s where finding people to add to your network comes in. It’s like having many assistants, all working to find good content and inspiring ideas just for you.  (These “people” can be organizations, think tanks, advocacy groups–anyone who is a source of good content.)

twitterrss feedfeedlydiigo icon

But where do you find people with similar interests who will share resources with you?  The internet is full of them if you just invest a little time looking.

  • As we’ve seen, following people on Twitter is one way to get resources flowing to you.
  • Subscribing to blogs by individuals and organizations who share your interests is another way.  We highly recommend that you set up your subscriptions through an RSS reader such as Feedly.  Rather than going to many different sites that interest you–a time consuming process–an RSS reader brings content from those sites to one place that you can easily organize the way you want.  (A quick Google search will turn up many guides–text and video–on how to use Feedly, including this one.)
  • Diigo can also be used to find people.  Since you’re already using it for bookmarks, we’ll focus on this tool.

Diigo is really two tools wrapped into one.

  1. You can use Diigo to save, tag, and easily access your own bookmarks, as well as highlight, and make notes on the web content you find. (Refresher, here’s our quick video intro overview.)
  2. You can also use the social features of Diigo to:

Diigo’s social layer of human vetting (that Google doesn’t give you) is often really important in terms of saving time and increasing the quality of your results. Search algorithms can be powerful, but you can’t beat an expert in the field who shares your interests and tastes.

If you don’t use Diigo already, commit to using it to save all of your bookmarks for a few weeks, at least. (It’s easy to import your existing bookmarks into Diigo no matter where you keep them.) If you make only a partial commitment to “try it,” you’ll likely get frustrated as some of your bookmarks will be in one place and some in another. Trust us.  After just a couple of weeks with Diigo, you won’t go back to traditional bookmarking.  You’ll find many uses for Diigo.  For example, David Croteau shares Diigo links on his website, organized by topics, for instructors and students who use his textbook. There are many other interesting ways you can use the same energy you’d spend bookmarking something just for yourself and have it do so much more.

Now, find some people on Diigo who share some of your interests by using the technique demonstrated in the video below. (Click the little square icon in the lower right corner to watch it full-screen.) It’s important to stress that this isn’t a “one hour and done” type of engagement. Instead, try spending ten or fifteen minutes every couple of days for the next week or two. Add some people. Then look through your network links and remove people who aren’t providing what you want. Add and remove people until you get a steady stream of useful content. Committing a little time and energy to building this sort of network now will pay great dividends in the future.

Activity #4: Share What You’ve Learned

Create a substantial blog post that describes your inventory (if you’ve created it in a Google Doc or Sheet, you might want to link to it), your search efforts–both for things and people, and what you may have learned doing all this.

  • You might want to focus on a particularly successful or particularly troublesome search, explaining why you chose to pursue this, the search strategies you employed as well as how they were refined as you found/didn’t find what you were looking for. By sure to use hyperlinks where helpful to illustrate your points.
  • When you’ve finished check the OLE category and the tag (not a category)”search” and publish it.

As usual, when you finish activities, be sure to mark your progress in our self-reporting spreadsheet.

Next week, you’ll try your hand at creating some original content for your course.


Hopefully the notion of “connected learning” is starting to make a little more sense by now.  “Connections” in this context can include the links students and the instructor make to each other as they build a community of learners; connections to outside resources used in the course; and connections to people related to your course and your field of study more broadly.  All of these connections take advantage of the broader Internet as an environment for online learning.