Sunday, July 31, 2016

Word Cloud Tools: Raising the Bar

Word clouds, or tag clouds as they are sometimes called, bring words to life in a visual way.  They constitute graphical representations of word frequency that give greater prominence to words that appear more often. These words can be taken from an analyzed text or added manually.  The more a word appears or is imputed, the larger it will be in the cloud. Best of all word cloud generators are easy to use and there are a variety of display features that can be used for aesthetic appeal.

For years word clouds have been fan favorites of teachers and administrators alike. These early web tools burst on the scene to provide new avenues to engage students and stakeholders.  Over the years these tools have been used to increase student engagement.  From a pedagogical sense they can be used as part of an anticipatory set or as a means to review prior learning, check for understanding, and close a lesson. They can also be used more broadly as part of a larger student project to assist with making their learning more visible.

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Even though words clouds are used as a pedagogical strategy in class their true power lies in their ability to communicate ideas at a glance. They can be used to highlight successes and achievements as well as articulate how stakeholders feel about our schools and districts. There are many other benefits of using word clouds in general.  They are relatively easy to comprehend, can provide clarity on overreaching ideas, and are easy to share across digital networks. It is no wonder that these tools have been embraced in education and business.

Popular word cloud generators include Wordle and Tagxedo. Even though these are extremely popular there are some apparent downsides. Let’s analyze the description of Wordle:
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. 
Herein lies the problem with tools like this. For starters they are openly referred to as toys. The second issue stems from the fact that the cloud itself is created in a relatively low-level way when it comes to thinking. All one has to do is input words and paste text to create a cloud. My issue with Wordle and Tagxedo is that little to no critical thought is aligned to what could be a powerful way to aid in conceptual mastery. This is not to say that word clouds can’t be used to support higher order thinking skills. The key here is to begin to look beyond traditional tools and begin to integrate those that allow students and stakeholders alike to respond to open ended questions.

Enter Mentimeter and AnswerGarden. Both tools can be used for formative assessment.  Responses to an open-ended question of your choice can be used to create a word cloud.  Each is simple to use and will only take minutes to set up. With Answer Garden all responses form a growing word cloud, which can be exported to Wordle or Tagxedo if you wish. You can even set up an administrator password to remove inappropriate responses. When setting up Mentimeter there are seven different question types to choose from, one of which is a means to have answers curated into a colorful word cloud. It even has a profanity filter. 

With all the tech tools integrated in schools we need to also be more mindful of the questions to which we ask our learners to respond. Let’s move away from the use of toys to support low-level learning and begin to integrate the power of word clouds to support high-level learning. 


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  2. Eric, I read your article on raising the bar on word clouds. Word clouds, word walls, and word study are a topic of great interest to me. An obsession would not be an overstatement. I'm the founder / mayor of VocabularySpellingCity. We're a service (web/app) used in lots of elementary schools across the country and in more MS, High Schools, and Adult Education programs that we ever imagined possible. We've recently sharpened our focus onto improving students' comprehension and academic success by improving their vocabulary retention.

    We are studying the research and talking with practitioners trying to refine and extend our system for improving retention.

    We've thought about integrating word maps, word relationship graphic organizers, word clouds, and digital word walls but so far, we've focused on more interactive exercises. I'd be interested in your thoughts on how effective word clouds are and whether we should add the as a priority?

    Below is a quick summary of our vision, more on my blog at:

    1. Improved vocabulary retention often has the most potential for improving their students' comprehension.
    2. In most schools, students get exposed to and taught ample amounts of vocabulary and concepts. The problem is retention: the enemy is the weekly instructional cycle which is not that good for retention.
    3. VocabularySpellingCity provides a program and the training so that the weekly instructional cycle is supplemented by a multi-week "vocabulary-practice" cycle which provides the spaced practice, the dozen plus encounters, and the wide diversity of multimodal contacts with a word that research prescribes as critical to building vocabulary.

    1. In my opinion word clouds can be an effective tool if the are used in a way where students have to respond to a question. It all comes down to the types of questions that are asked, preferably at the higher levels of knowledge taxonomy. Both Mentimeter and AnswerGarden allow for this. With AnswerGarden responses can be set to 40 characters allowing for more in depth answers.