What is it?

Yellowdig is an “online learning community” designed specifically for use in college classes. According to Yellowdig, before Yellowdig, professors had two options for virtual collaboration and discussion. They could use existing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – which are social and familiar to today’s student, but aren’t specifically designed for academia. Or, they could use discussion platforms that are specifically designed for academia, such as a Blackboard or other LMS-integrated discussion board. But these are often clunky and forced, and lack the interactivity that students are used to encountering in social media.

This is the gap that Yellowdig was created to fill. It’s an intuitive, social media discussion platform designed specifically for the university environment.

How does it work?

Once logged in, you can create a Yellowdig board for your course. You can select it to be open to your university, or closed to a specific class. This board is essentially a virtual “pin” board that students can use to communicate. It’s like what you’d see on other social media sites, so students can comment on pins, add articles or other media of their own, or request the professor to add new boards.

This is what the demo board looks like:Yellowdig Screen Shot


Yellowdig also tracks student participation through points. This provides professors with an easy and objective way to grade student participation.

Yellowdig is integrated into a number of learning management systems (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.), so it’s easy for instructors to set it up so that the points students earn on Yellowdig are automatically entered into the LMS gradebook.

Yellowdig is also mobile friendly, so students can really use it like a social media platform, and check on it, discuss, and collaborate on their phones or tablets wherever they are.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

I think one of Yellowdig’s primary strengths is how it can easily be used to pair class discussion with real world applications. If students come across an article or video or something online that reminds them of what they’re learning about in class, they can simply pin it to Yellowdig for discussion. (Compare this with a common alternative: emailing the article to the professor, who then has to disseminate it to the class). This enables students themselves (not just instructors) to bring in real-world examples and really apply what they’re learning.

As far as a limitation- and this is a pretty significant limitation- as far as I can tell, you have to be associated with an institution that has a Yellowdig site license in order to use it in your course. Yellowdig is not at all transparent about how to create an account or pricing options, so I’m not even completely sure about that. It only gives you two options when you first get to the homepage – you can either “login” or “request a demo.” I “requested a demo” and received an email video demo and the contact information for the Yellowdig account manager for my university. It would be nice if Yellowdig had a demo course already built up that potential users could explore, without the commitment of specifically requesting a demo first. And, even more, it would be nice if Yellowdig had a basic account that people who are not associated with a Yellowdig university could still use it. Otherwise, the use of Yellowdig is limited to professors at universities with Yellowdig site licenses. For those professors, however, I would certainly recommend Yellowdig as a powerful discussion platform for both face-to-face and online courses.

Canvas Commons

What is it?

Canvas is a cloud-based Learning Management System (LMS) used by over 3,000 institutions. As an LMS, Canvas can be used for all the typical LMS tasks, like sharing files, calculating grades, hosting an online course, etc. What I’d like to focus on in this blog post is one particular feature that Canvas offers: Canvas Commons. Canvas Commons is a repository of Open Educational Resources (OER). Teachers using Canvas can easily find, import, and share educational material through Canvas Commons. Materials in the Commons use Creative Commons licenses, so teachers don’t have to be concerned about breaking copyright when they copy, remix, and use the material in their own courses (of course some CC licenses still require attribution or no derivatives, so be sure to keep those parameters in mind).

How does it work?

If you don’t already have a Canvas account through your institution, you can get a free account by visiting this website. Once you’re logged in, you’ll see a “Commons” icon in the global navigation menu on the left-hand side. Click on that icon. Once you do, you’ll see something like this:

Screen Shot of Canvas Commons Home Page

You can search for courses, modules, assignments, quizzes, etc. You can also filter by grade level (from Kindergarten up to Graduate), and filter by “latest,” “most relevant,” or “most highly rated.” If you find content you’d like to use in your course, you can click on it, and then easily import it directly into your Canvas course. Once it’s in your Canvas course, you can modify it to suit your specific learning outcomes.

If you’ve created a module, assignment, quiz, etc. that you feel is particularly well-done and you’d like to share your work with other teachers around the world, you can easily do that through Canvas Commons. For example, here’s a sample module I created for another course:

Screen Shot of Sharing to Commons in Canvas

You see that next to each section, you have the option to “Share to Commons.” Once you click on that button, you can choose a license (copyrighted, CC-BY, etc.), add a title, description, and tags, and choose a course image and set the grade level. You can also set outcomes for K-12 (Common Core and by state).

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

It’s completely free! That is obviously one of the primary benefits of OER – when content is free of charge and copyright-free, it is easy to use and remix it for educational purposes. It gives teachers the flexibility to modify and adapt materials to suit their specific needs and learning outcomes.

Canvas Commons is useful for teachers who are already using Canvas, since all the materials you access through Commons are designed for use in Canvas. Instructors who aren’t using Canvas could theoretically use Canvas Commons materials (if they created a Canvas account), but they would probably find it simpler to look for OER elsewhere. Canvas Commons does also seem to have more K-12 resources than higher ed resources, but it’s still worth a look by faculty.

For teachers who are using Canvas, Commons is a very neat resource. A few examples of how it could be used:

  • Teachers within the same school could share their quizzes to Commons, and then import each others’ quizzes into their courses. This allows for easy collaboration between co-workers.
  • An instructor has created a new learning module. He could share it to Commons and tag it with “community review.” This will encourage other users to review and provide feedback on his learning module.
  • An instructor in a history course wants students to learn about the basics of writing a research paper before they begin a final project. She could add a Commons module on this topic, freeing her to focus on the actual subject matter of her course. No need to reinvent the wheel if another subject matter expert has already created a useful resource!

Canvas Commons makes it easy to access open resources that can be seamlessly integrated into a Canvas course. The search options make it easy to find exactly what you want, and it’s also very user-friendly. If your school uses Canvas, I recommend checking it out!


What is it?

Piazza is a free online question-and-answer platform for use in college classes. Students and instructors can post and answer questions. It functions like a web-based discussion board, but more robust, since it allows better tracking of student participation and more student-driven conversation.

How does it work?

Anyone can post a question. Then, other students can respond in a wiki-style format. This means that, like a wikipedia page, students keep editing the “student response” post, so that each question will end up with only 1, high-quality student-written response. Student questions and responses can also be posted anonymously.

Instructors can “endorse” these student-written posts, which helps guide the class discussion and indicates to other students that the answer can be trusted. Instructors can also answer questions or edit/delete posts. Here’s an example of the question posting/answering (from Piazza’s demo classroom):

Screen shot of instructor and student answers in Piazza

You can also post notes and polls, and easily organize posts or files into folders (like “exam,” or “week 2 homework”). You can filter posts by unread, unresolved, following, etc. You can also track TA and student participation – Piazza will generate reports about your top contributors, or about overall class activity. (Instructors could use this, for example, as a way to assign a grade to student participation). As you can see in the example above, Piazza has an integrated LaTeX code equation editor, which is critical for discussion and questions in upper-level science, math, and programming type courses. It also integrates with Blackboard, Canvas, and other LMS and has iOS and Android apps.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

While Piazza is designed specifically to help instructors manage Q&A’s in large classes, I think it could also be quite useful in small or medium sized classes as well. Obviously, the LaTeX code equation editor makes it possible to have collaborative work in the math/science/computer classes, which I imagine is hard to do.

To me, what makes Piazza stand out from a regular LMS-based discussion board is the wiki-style student response feature. I imagine it would also be a real time-saver for professors – rather than answering disconnected student posts one-by-one (or even worse, responding to the same emailed question over and over again), they can just tell students to post all questions on Piazza, and then quickly check the cumulative student answer. It also allows students to work together to come up with a “class” answer to common questions, so it’s almost like every question can lead to class collaboration. I think there’s a lot of benefit in giving students the space to learn from one another, and Piazza offers an easy and intuitive way to do that.


What is it?

Zoom is a video conferencing and web conferencing service, so you can use to it conduct virtual meetings. (It does other things, but I’m just going to discuss its video conferencing capabilities). It’s great for collaborative online work. It’s similar to Skype, Webex, Google Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate, etc. When you conduct your Zoom meeting, you can use audio, video, screen sharing, screen sharing of a “whiteboard”, and chat (an instant message chat you can use during the meeting). You can also record your meeting.

How does it work?

If you go to Zoom’s website, you enter your email address and sign up for free. They’ll send you an email, and you click on the link to activate your account. After you choose a password, your account is created. One of the easiest ways to host a meeting is to simply send others your personal Zoom URL. If they click on that URL, it will take them to your Zoom meeting room. You also can send them your Zoom personal meeting ID. They visit Zoom’s website and type in that meeting ID, and then they’ll be put into your Zoom meeting room. Participants can also call in on a phone, which is great for situations when someone’s internet goes out at an inconvenient time (which is all the time).

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

While I mentioned a number of other similar tools, Zoom sets itself apart by how easy it is to use and its reliability. I have used it a handful of times and have never experienced poor connection issues, glitchy-ness, or the “can you hear me? I can’t hear you” problem often encountered in virtual meetings.

Here’s what the interface looks like when you’re hosting a meeting:

Screenshot of Zoom interface

So user-friendly!

You can do quite a bit with the free account. You are able to host/attend an unlimited number of meetings and host up to 100 participants. 1-on-1 meetings can last as long as you’d like, but there’s a 40 minute limit on group meetings (although you technically could just log out and start another meeting… but you didn’t hear that from me).

Zoom could easily facilitate online group work among students, or could be used by an instructor to hold office hours, exam review session, etc. It’s long been noted that interactivity in an online class leads to greater student satisfaction with the course (see this article, for instance). Student-student and student-instructor engagement is a key component of a well-designed online learning environment, and Zoom could be a valuable tool in creating that kind of collaborative environment.


What is it?

Diigo is a tool I’ve used often in my coursework for my UAF M.Ed. It’s a great way for students and instructors to organize websites, PDFs, etc. for future reference. It also makes it easy to share these resources with others. It has a few plans ranging in price, but I think the free Diigo account offers enough features to be worth your while. Diigo also supports teachers by offering free account upgrades/features if you apply for a teacher account. In the teacher account, the teacher can create and manage student accounts. A student account provides additional privacy for the user.

How does it work?

You create an account with your email address and password. This is what the “dashboard” for my account looks like:

Screenshot of Diigo dashboard


You’ll notice I have ads because I have a free account. Clicking the red button on the top right hand side of the screen (which I did before I took the screenshot) expands and shows you the types of items you can add to your Diigo library. Whenever you add a webpage bookmark, image, PDF, or note, you can “tag” it with a particular category or topic. So, for instance, I have tagged the articles and resources I found with the course name so that I can easily sort/view them (I’ve circled my “tagged” list on the left-hand side of the screenshot).

You can also use Diigo to annotate with notes or highlights, either within your Diigo account or with a browser extension, and Diigo saves your annotations for later use.

Sharing your resources is easy within Diigo. Here’s my Diigo library link: 

With that link, if you have a Diigo account, you can view my publicly shared articles and annotations. (Using the tags to sort and find the articles that are relevant to your interests, of course). If you want to share a specific article (including your annotations, if you’ve added some), you can click on the “share” button and Diigo will generate a specific link to that article.

Strengths, Applications, and Limitations

This is a very handy tool when conducting research. It encourages students to archive and organize their sources, which encourages proper citation habits and discourages plagiarism. The collaborative potential of Diigo is also particularly useful because it makes it easy for students to quickly and easily share articles with their classmates. Aside from being used by the student, I think anyone should consider using Diigo since it is an efficient way to build your own personal “library.” With Diigo, you can keep your favorite professional, academic, or even personal resources at your fingertips, ready to be sorted, retrieved, and shared whenever needed.


What is it?

Canva is an online graphic design tool. You can customize and make items like infographics, newsletters, banners, or images. It also can be used for photo editing, and is particularly useful in making eye-catching graphs or charts. While I realize it is not as specifically geared towards “education” as some of the tools I’ve looked at, it still has many applications in the virtual and in-person classroom (see this link: Canva for Education).

How does it work?

Canva is very easy to use! You sign up for a free account with your email address and a password. Canva has paid accounts available that let you access more features, but you can still do quite a lot with a free account. Once you have your free account, you can choose from a variety of available templates and customize with your own text, images, etc. While some templates/images/designs cost a dollar or two, I have always found what I needed solely in the free items. I’ve used Canva frequently for my coursework, so if you want to see some of the things you can do with Canva, check out some of my previous blog posts:

After creating a design, you can download it, embed it, share a link, etc. For example, it took me less than 5 minutes to make, download, and embed the image below using Canva.Good design encourages a viewer to want to learn more. Alexander Isley

Strengths, Limitations and Applications

I know “making a course pretty” is not usually an instructor’s top priority. However, I would argue that visual design should be considered a key component of course design. We are more likely to want to spend time in a space (virtual or otherwise) when it is visually pleasant and interesting. When instructors take care with their design elements (like those you can create with Canva), it demonstrates to students that you are invested in the course and in their experience of the course.

So how could Canva be applied in a course? Instead of creating a fact sheet with basic text, consider an infographic. Instead of creating a syllabus with a simple text heading, consider creating a banner. Especially in the context of online education, students’ first impressions of the course will be formed based on your visual design. No matter what you choose to create, Canva offers an easy way to introduce professional-looking design elements into your course.


What is it?

InsertLearning is a Chrome extension that you can use to insert your own educational content into a webpage. If you go to InsertLearning’s homepage, you can check it out before you download and install the extension.

How does it work?

Below is a screenshot from a sample lesson. If you want to see the teacher view, you can use this link (you will probably be prompted to install the extension and login before you can view it). It’s an NPR article on the Declaration of Independence:

Screenshot of InsertLearning that explains each of the icons/things you can insert


On the left, you can see what all you can insert into a webpage. I annotated what each of the icons mean.

  • Assign Lesson.  You can share the lesson with the students, either by sharing it directly to Google classroom, or by sending students to this link: and providing them with a class code.
  • Highlight Text. This is pretty self-explanatory.
  • Sticky Note. This allows you to type your own commentary on the webpage, or you can insert media, like a YouTube video, embed code, or (I like this alot) you can record a video of your own and insert that.
  • Assessment Questions. These can be either open-ended questions or multiple choice questions. You can give these questions point values and view student achievement in your InsertLearning dashboard.
  • Discussions. You can insert a discussion prompt; students can respond and then view their classmates’ responses.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

The free version of InsertLearning lets you store 5 lessons. Upgrading to a $40/year plan gives you unlimited lessons, which seems reasonable.

InsertLearning has a Google integration, and so teachers/student sign in with their Google accounts. It also works well with Chromebooks, and can be shared directly to Google classroom. Because of this Google integration, you’re able to create “enhanced” Google docs. In other words, you could create a worksheet with Google docs, and then turn it into something more interactive by inserting sticky notes, video explanations, assessments, discussions, etc.

I really liked this tool and think that it could have a number of applications, for K-12, higher ed, and in an online context. When I taught political science I would frequently assign students online articles– and they weren’t always easy reading. With InsertLearning, it would be simple to turn those reading assignments into something more interactive. If the article referenced a concept I think they would find difficult, I could insert a YouTube video or record my own quick explanation. If the article brought up something controversial, I could add a discussion question. If the article was lengthy and I wanted to make sure they made it to the end, I could add in assessment questions throughout. Overall, I love that this tool turns reading into a more interactive and social experience, which would undoubtedly enhance student engagement with and retention of the content.


What is it?

This week, I chose to review Packback. Packback started off as an e-textbook rental company, and was awarded an investment by Mark Cuban on Shark Tank in 2014. (This article is an interesting read). As the article discusses, Packback recently switched gears to something entirely different: its new mission is to encourage curiosity in college students; it uses AI to “grade” curiosity.

How does it work?

Professors create a professor account, and then invite students to join their online community by providing them with an access code. Students have to pay $18 a semester. This is a screenshot of a sample community:

Screenshot of packback community


Students post and respond to questions. Students get a certain number of “sparks” to use – sparks are similar to “likes,” but they are designed to be used to indicate what questions “sparked” your curiosity.

Packback’s algorithm grades student posts and assigns them a curiosity score. Students’ curiosity scores are displayed in a learner leaderboard. The curiosity scoring system is based on three criteria: presentation, credibility, and effort. For presentation, the algorithm looks for formatting, legibility, and supplemental materials (like videos or images). For credibility, the algorithm looks to see if the post contains reliable sources, and also checks for “behaviors” that often go hand-in-hand with credibility, like the time of the post and the depth of the post. Lastly, for effort, the algorithm looks to see if the user added new insight to the post or just provided a straightforward answer. Packback claims their algorithm was derived by identifying what high-quality posts had in common, and that the algorithm performs quite similarly to how a human grader would score/rank posts.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

Packback claims it can create high-quality discussions by: (1) “scaling personalized feedback,” (2) “analysis of posts,” and (3) “managing a large number of students.” Packback also claims that, “While the Learning Management System forum serves the purpose for in-class logistics (ex: Where do I find the case study? What’s on the exam?”), it’s not possible to conduct a high quality academic discussion (or grade for it) due to a lack of quality control, lack of feedback delivery, and lack of a technological capability of assessing quality.”

I disagree with this statement (except maybe in the case of a very large class). In smaller or average-sized college classes, I do think it is entirely possible to design and conduct high quality academic discussions via an LMS. Instructors are very capable of performing quality control, giving feedback/guidance to student responses, and assessing quality (without an algorithm) in the context of an LMS discussion board. I also think instructors can achieve the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy using well-designed traditional assessment methods, and even large classes can potentially use TAs or group work to encourage high-quality discussion.

That being said, I do think Packback could be useful in a very large class (at least 50+). Class discussion is virtually impossible in such large classes without a tool like Packback, so in that regards, Packback fills an important gap.

Many of the other educational technologies we’ve talked about in this class are virtual “aids” – they help us do what we’ve always done, just more efficiently (hopefully). I think Packback is a little different in that it has a unique starting point, which is: get students asking questions. And not just asking any questions, but guide students into asking good questions. This represents a shift in the conversation. Instead of being focused on what students can answer or retain, we focus on teaching them how to question their world, and how to be curious, critical thinkers.

I’ll leave you with this TedX video by the founder of Packback:


What is it?

Nearpod is a tool that lets teachers create and share interactive lessons. These lessons can be live or student-paced. Teachers can sign up for a free account, or there are paid accounts / site licenses available, too. You can search for, modify, and use already-created Nearpod lessons, or create your own. To make your own, you can upload Google Slides, PowerPoints, PDFs, or Sway. In the free account, you can add in interactive quizzes, open-ended questions, and polls to these slides. To get more of the advanced features (like the student-paced mode, “virtual field trips,” fill-in-the-blank questions, etc.), you have to upgrade to a paid plan.

How does it work?

In the live lesson option, teachers give students a code. Then, students open the Nearpod app or website (the app/website is compatible on iOS, Android, etc). When students type in that code, it syncs their device to the teacher’s presentation. In other words, if the teacher flips to the next slide, the presentation on the student’s device goes to the next slide, too. You can have assessment activities (multiple choice questions, polls, etc.) built in to the presentation, so teachers get feedback on student comprehension as they progress through their lesson. In student-paced lessons, students still get the code, but can advance through the presentations on their own and teachers get the assessment data after the student completes the lesson.

This is what the teacher dashboard looks like:Screen shot of the teacher dashboard in Nearpod


You can see the roster in the bottom left, the code (for students to join the presentation) in the top left, and then in the top right, the +Add Activity button. You can use that button to insert an assessment into the presentation.

Strengths, Applications, and Limitations

One drawback to Nearpod is that it is primarily geared to K-12. I know some college faculty would be turned off by the cutesy graphics, and even though it let me select “higher ed” to search for already-created Nearpod lessons, all the ones it found are labeled (and clearly intended for) grades 9-12. I think Nearpod could be very useful in higher ed applications, and so I would like to see it expand its target audience.

If you’re using Nearpod in an in-person class for a live lesson, I imagine one of the biggest concerns will be keeping students on task. As you can see in the screenshot above, the teacher view will show which of your students are logged in. If a student opens another app, the Nearpod app will close and the teacher will see that student is no longer logged in. (This Nearpod article explains it). I think that accountability feature could come in handy!

Lastly, I do think it would be nice if the student-paced option was available in the free account, since a student-paced lesson would work best for an online course. This is especially true because (according to this Nearpod article) you can add audio to a slide. I think this could make a particularly engaging online lesson video. Essentially, students could progress through a video presentation of PowerPoint slides, but have built-in breaks throughout the lesson for assessment questions or other forms of engagement.


What is it?

Padlet describes itself as somewhere between a doc and a website builder that can be used for things like a bulletin board, a blog, or a portfolio. It reminds me somewhat of a collaborative Pinterest board. It gives you a simple, intuitive platform to share content with others. The basic account is free, but you gain access to even more features if you are willing to pay for an account (such as the “Padlet Backpack” education account). It has iOS, Android, and Kindle apps.

Creating a Padlet

To create your padlet, you choose a title, theme, and layout. You can also choose your “reaction options.” People can like, vote up/down, give 1-5 stars, or grade (which assigns a numeric score to a post within a padlet).

Here’s what some of the layouts look like:

Screen shot of the 5 different Padlet layouts available

And here is a screenshot that lists the type of content you can add to your padlet:

List of options to add to Padlet, including links, video and photos, drawings, and more.


I particularly like padlet’s robust privacy options: you can make your padlet private, password protected, access with link/QR code only, or public. You have even more privacy/security features if you upgrade to padlet backpack. Padlet also has exporting options (CSV, PDF, image, Excel spreadsheet, etc.) that could come in handy.

Sample Padlets

I think one of the best ways to get a feel for all the different things you can do with padlet is to just click through their gallery. I also found this particular padlet useful- it’s a padlet that compiles various educational padlets. I also created a sample padlet, which I embedded below. You can also access my sample padlet through this link, or if you were to download the padlet app, you could scan a QR code that I provide. Check it out and feel free to try out the collaboration features! I used a variety of images, videos, links, and a few gifs so you can see how padlet displays the different types of content.

Made with Padlet


Limitations, Strengths, and Applications

I think Padlet has a variety of applications both in online and in-person classes. For instance, I could see it being used for individual or group presentations or projects. Groups could be assigned a topic, and then work to create a padlet that represents that topic. Students could then view and comment on each post within the padlet. You could also use padlet to organize a classroom survey or contest (kind of like I did with my sample padlet), create a flow chart with the “canvas” layout, or tell a story using the “stream” layout. I think padlet is the type of tool that would work well for open-ended assignments- I bet students could come up with some creative ways to use padlet that we wouldn’t even have considered. I also like that padlet makes it easy to share and link to other padlets, which encourages collaborative learning. Padlet addresses accessibility as padlets can be read with most screen readers. However, keyboard access is only available for logging in and navigating the dashboard (it’s not possible to create/edit posts with keyboard only). As for other limitations, a few times, my padlet wouldn’t load a gif or a particular image, which was a little annoying. I also wish more of the features were available in the free version.

I’m looking forward to hearing other ideas on how you think padlet could be incorporated in both in-person and online courses in the comments!