Mighty Sandbox

Educational Technology Simplified

An mLearning Vocabulary Ecosystem


Today I will walk you through some sample vocabulary instruction that uses 4 different tools: vocabkitchen.com (which I developed), a spreadsheet such as Excel or Numbers, Socrative and Mental.  Some of these are iPad specific and some are not.  I hope you find something you can add to your own classes.  For the examples I chose three English vocabulary words that I thought most readers wouldn't know: augury, repine, and Stygian.  You should use these examples as a template for making your own vocabulary materials.

Pre-instruction with Vocabkitchen.com

Use this site to figure out what students already know about words.  You can enter a vocabulary list or an entire reading text.  You can have students complete this in groups and use it as a discussion starter.  Later, you can use this information to let you know which words need the most attention.

Try the student demo:

Deep Instruction with a Spreadsheet

The goal here is to give students meaningful interaction with new words.  Here are a few key points:
  1. give short, simple definitions that use familiar references
  2. make sure you are using the same meaning throughout your materials for polysemous words
  3. make students responsible for confirming that the translation matches the L1 definition
  4. write example sentences with two gaps - one for the word and one for the student's own idea
On the iPad, open this file with Numbers and try it out:

You can also see an extensive spreadsheet I developed in Excel to accompany the Q-Skills textbook here:

Meaningful Review with Socrative

The obvious use of Socrative is traditional, cloze-style multiple choice or fill in the blank questions, but for a more engaging alternative, use vocabulary words to write open-ended questions.  If students can complete this, it means that they understand the meaning of the word, but it also pushes them to use other related vocabulary.  Here are the questions I wrote with the sample vocabulary words for this demo:

  1. What is an augury of bad luck?
  2. What is something that causes you to repine?
  3. What should you take to a stygian place?
Good questions have these features:
  • students should be able to answer them with a few, familiar words
  • you should not be able to come up with a plausible answer without knowing the meaning of the vocabulary word 
See an example now at Socrative -> Room number: 622255 (this will only be available during the presentation).  Review the socrative results as a whole class, small group, or homework activity.  If you're viewing this after the presentation, the Socrative quiz is just a simple quiz containing the above questions in a short-answer format.

Deep Review with Mental

Mental is a free app for the iPad and is a very simple, easy to use concept mapping tool.  You can read more about using concept maps for vocabulary in this blog post  that I wrote:

Try to create your own map using mental that includes our three demo words: augury, repine, and stygian.


mLearningDemo.numbers (69.4KB)Level 2 Vocabulary.xlsx (30.2KB)

Why You Should Use Concept Maps Instead of Mind Maps

I was fortunate enough to revisit concept maps in a recent MA course.  I'm writing here from the point of view of a second language teacher, but concept maps are also very useful tools for content courses. In this post I'm going to talk about why concept mapping is often better than mind mapping and give one example from a course I'm teaching about how to use a good mind mapping app.

First, what is the difference between a concept map and a mind map?  Wikipedia gives a good overview: "A Mind map reflects what you think about a single topic, which can focus group brainstorming. A Concept map can be a map, a system view, of a real (abstract) system or set of concepts. Concept maps are more free form, as multiple hubs and clusters can be created, unlike mind maps, which fix on a single conceptual center."

The first advantage of concept maps is that they can capture how our brains store information more effectively.  Most mapping tools follow a branching pattern: there is one central node to which you can attach child nodes ad infinitum.  This may be useful in certain contexts, but it doesn't really reflect how our brains store knowledge. Concepts and language don't hang neatly on individual, separate branches; they overlap and intersect in a complex network of relationships.  

The second problem is that in many mind mapping apps it's difficult to show the relationships between items on the map.  Good concept mapping software allows you to easily label the relationships and connections between the nodes.  It's difficult to show complex relationships purely by their position on individual branches.  I realize these are pretty abstract concepts, but the example that follows should clarify things.

Let's start with an example of a good concept mapping app.  There are good PC based tools that allow students to visually represent these complex relationships, but I only recently discovered a great app for the iPad that included the same features.  Available for free in the App Store, Mental is a great example of what good ed tech software should be.  The interface is simple and straightforward and it's a great concept mapping tool.

The first thing you can do on a map is add concepts.  Pressing on a concept gives you three simple choices: edit, connect and delete.  Selecting connect lets you choose the destination of your connection and then immediately creates an arrow which you can label with a description of the relationship.  

Here is an example map with some vocabulary words from an English course I'm teaching:

As you can see it is possible to show complex relationships.  "Father", "a liar", and "honest" all share the same connection: Father is not a liar, and a liar is not honest.  "Neighborhood", "Relatives" and "Company" are central hubs in an overlapping network of verbs, nouns and adjectives. It is the ability to add these kinds of deep connections that lets students reflect on the complexity of language and the concepts it represents.

The beauty of the Mental app is that the interface intuitively guides you to create these kinds of conceptual networks and there is little to get in the way of doing this work.  No account sign up is required and sharing is done by simply emailing a .pdf file of your map.  To be fair, there are a few areas where the app is too simple, for example, you cannot use multiple colors on the map if you want to color code different groups or types of concepts.

Let's now move to the example of mind mapping software that in my opinion is less effective for supporting complex learning.  Here is a screen shot of Mind Meister:

At first glance, it looks like it does everything I'm looking for in a concept mapping app.  However, the first limitation you'll find is that everything must branch from one central node.  So if you're trying to add a concept to this  map that doesn't fall under "Action" you're out of luck - it's not possible to put anything unrelated to the central node on the map.  Secondly, you can show relationships, but the process is very "busy".  You first must add the connection and then go through a second dialogue to add the label.  You also must sort through an unnecessary and complex set of controls for changing the color and angles of the curve for the connecting line.

Even worse, before you're allowed to create a map you must create a user account which adds some time to the initial set up.  Now if the ability to work collaboratively with a partner in a remote location is something you need, you might consider this app.  In my case my students are working the same location so it's possible for them to collaborate in person by physically sharing an iPad.

To summarize here are a few suggestions for using a good mind map app such as Mental in your class:

  • Reward complex, deep relationships between concepts.  The more connections there are on the map, the more evidence you have that students are really engaging with the words.
  • Show students models of what a good map looks like.  They may not have prior experience with this kind of task so you must guide them with a clear example.  
  • You may need to provide a starter list of linking words.  Since my course focuses on basic English it's okay for the relationships to be simple, but for more challenging topics you may want to specify more sophisticated relationships.
  • For vocabulary review, have students add new words incrementally during the class.  Trying to add too many words at once can be overwhelming and stifle their motivation to work on the map.
  • If words don't have an apparent relationship, it's okay to leave them unconnected if more words or concepts will be added later.  Ideally they will be able to connect them to words and concepts that are added later.

Minimalist Blackboard Course Design for Mobile Learn

Here are some suggestions for building user-friendly Blackboard courses in the following situations:

  1. Most, or all, of your students will be viewing your course through the Mobile Learn app for the iPad
  2. Your students' native language is not English

I've found that these guidelines reduce the amount of support students need to navigate the course..  Of course, on the instructor's side you will be building your course through the Blackboard website.  What I will focus on here is the result of these design decisions in the Mobile Learn app:

Keep your Navigation Menu Short and Simple

Here are some things to consider when designing the main menu in your course.  What this looks like will vary depending on what you are teaching and how the course is organized, but there are some general rules to follow.  This is a menu  of a course I'm teaching that I share with another teacher, so shared items are put at the top level and anything we need to put in the course goes under a folder with our names.  The general ideas here are:

  1. Delete anything students aren't actually going to use - keep the main menu clutter-free.
  2. Keep the names short and clear.  Blackboard will replace the middle of longer names with an elipse (...), making them very difficult to read or sometimes meaningless.
  3. Try to develop a consistent routine to follow during your course.  The predictability will help students navigate your course independently.

Use the Tasks Tool

One thing you'll notice in Mobile Learn is that quite a few of the Blackboard tools aren't well-supported in the app.  One tool that does work well is the Tasks tool.  This tool lets you give instructions to students, set a deadline and priority level for the task, and track student progress if they update their status in the task tool.  Here are a few things I've learned.

  1. This needs to be part of your class routine for it to work well and it may take a few weeks for students to make it a habit. Initially, you should consider if this tool is something that will support how you run your class or not.
  2. You should use this for tasks with short, clear written instructions.
  3. The styles that you can use in the task description are limited.  Bullet or ordered (numbered) lists don't work.  You can manually number lists or use hyphens and spacing to achieve the same effect.

Use the My Grades Tool

This is the other tool that works well in the Mobile Learn app.  It displays student grades from the gradebook in a clear, easy-to-read format.  As an instructor, you can't actually preview this in Mobile Learn since you don't have any grades, so I don't have a screen shot to show you.  However, it's easy to set up and if you're using the Blackboard grade book there's no reason not to put it in your course.  From the Blackboard website, choose "Add menu item" -> "Add tool link" -> "type: my grades".  Give it a name and tick the "Available to Users" box and you're set.

Use Headings to Increase Font Size in Items

Blackboard recommends that you use .pdf files to display text, but a limitation of .pdfs is that it removes the option to display multimedia such as video and audio.  These do work in an item in Mobile Learn, but unfortunately the styles that are allowed in the Mobile Learn app are limited.  One thing I noticed is that the default font size of a paragraph is tiny:

You can't add custom CSS styles to fix this.  One way to work around this and achieve an acceptable font size is to set your content as headings instead of regular paragraphs.  You can do this by setting the paragraph style in the text editor or by manually editing the HTML in the   This is kind of hackish, but it does result in what I think is an easier to read text: