Tag Archives: search

Teaching with Google Images

canoes on google image search

In a recent meeting with the executive council of our student association, one of our class representatives suggested organizing a canoe trip.  Judging by the puzzled looks around the boardroom table, many students did not recognize this word.  So, I pulled up Google Images and did a search for canoe.  The results were similar to what you see above.  Instantly, students could understand the word and the discussion could continue.

I really enjoy the challenge of working with a group of students with a wide range of ability.  Using Google Image search is a good way to help level the playing field so that students can communicate with each other more efficiently.  If you have a projector and internet access in your classroom, images can be pulled up very quickly as a teaching aid.

A word of caution, though.  Be sure to set the Safe Search setting to “Use strict filtering” if you are doing a search in front of a whole class in order to reduce the chance of objectionable images appearing.  And be aware that even strict filtering is not 100% perfect.  So, if you are working with a group that is young or particularly sensitive to certain images, be ready to hit the back button immediately or, better yet, mute the image on the projector until the search comes up, preview the images, and then make the projection available to the class.

Once you begin using it, Google Image search is the kind of simple tool that you will wonder how you lived without.  While there are certainly benefits to having students define unknown terminology for each other, there are also times when you just want to provide a few words to define a term and move on.  In these cases, an image search is worth a thousand words.


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Google Labs


If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Visual Thesaurus

visual thesaurus word cloud

As a visual language learner myself, I really like the way Visual Thesaurus.com works.  Enter a word and synonyms, antonyms, and other related words appear on spokes around a hub.  Lines show relationships between the words (red dotted lines indicate antonyms, gray dotted lines indicate when a word is an attribute of another, is similar to another, is a type of another word, etc.) and definitions, color coded according to part-of-speech, fill a column to the right.

Thesauruses are very useful tools, but displaying results visually makes it even more so.  Other online thesauruses like Thesaurus.com organize search results in a more conventional way that is reminiscent of paper-bound versions: Columns of words are grouped by part-of-speech and meaning.  Why not display these relationships in a way that makes their relationship intuitive and more immediately obvious?  Thesaurus.com is also cluttered with lots of banner advertising and, interestingly, a link to Visual Thesaurus.com at the bottom.

In fact, I had thought I had seen visual thesaurus-style search results somewhere else on Google, but all I’ve been able to find is a now-defunct Google module that seems to have been the basis for Visual Thesaurus.com.  Surely other applications could also benefit from a similarly visual approach, but I don’t know of many.

Visual Thesaurus.com is not free, but keep reading.  A subscription to the online edition is available for $2.95 per month or $19.95 per year while a desktop version is available for $39.95.  I’m not sure I use a thesaurus often enough to justify the expense, though it would be a nice resource to make available to students (group and institutional subscriptions are also available).

In my experience, after the three free searches non-subscribers are allowed, I can close the window and get three more free searches immediately.  Aren’t you glad you kept reading?  Although opening and reopening the search window is inconvenient, it seems to have slaked my appetite for synonyms so far.  You’ll have to decide whether you want to pay for greater convenience, but Visual Thesaurus.com is a useful tool either way.

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Twurdy: Readability-Based Search

Twurdy = Too wordy?

Twurdy = Too wordy?

I came across Twurdy the other day and thought it was interesting enough to share.  In fact, I came across it on a blog post by someone that was recommend via Follow Friday on Twitter.  If I still had that electron trail, it would make an interesting story, but I don’t.

So, back to Twurdy.  This search enging is Google-based, but it also analyzes search results for readability using a proprietary algorithm.  The results are color-coded into the list of results.  If an item is determined to be easy-to-read, it is light in color.  Harder-to-read items are progressively darker in color.

Does it work?  I haven’t used it enough to be sure yet.  It’s certainly an intriguing idea, but the results will only be as good as the algorithm, the details of which are not shared on the Twurdy website.  But it may be a useful for learners with limited ability to start with the easiest-to-read pages or, conversely, for students to analyze the differences between easy- and hard-to-read texts.  I’m not suggesting students reverse-engineer the algorithm, but finding the features that make a page “hard-to-read” could start an interesting process that could aid students in their writing.


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Searching for Search

We all remember using Google this way.

We all remember using Google this way.

Earlier this year, a new idea in search hit the internet: Wolfram Alpha.  Although there was a lot of buzz around it for a couple of months, I didn’t really see what the big deal was.  Wolfram Alpha does take a different approach from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing, the Big Three of search.  Rather than using an algorithm to rank pages based on how often pages are linked to one another, Wolfram Alpha enables the user to search information compile from several databases.

Some of the results are impressive.  For example, type in a city like Columbus, Ohio and you’ll get an encyclopedic snapshot including population, elevation, and current weather.  But Wikipedia can do this better.  Wolfram Alpha does an impressive job making calculations like x^3 sin(y) but Grapher, which is included with Mac OS, does a better job there as well.

Besides some of the interesting Easter Eggs that are hidden within it (See: list, the most popular, the most useful), having all of these capabilities in one place, is handy, but… now what?  Once the excitement had passed, Wolfram Alpha remains, unable to live up to the hype that preceeded it.

Speaking of overhyped search, Microsoft recently unveiled it’s new Bing search engine.  Is it better than Google or Yahoo?  I’m glad you asked.  Try Blind Search, which blindly returns either web or image search results from all three of these search engines and asks you to choose the best one. For example, search for images of Columbus, Ohio and see which search engine returns the best set of results.

The results are a little surprising.  (Warning: some of the searched-for terms in the results may not be work / school safe, but there is no inappropriate imagery.)  In general, the three engines are ranked quite closely, with Google placing first.

Most striking is how simple and effective this process is.  Instead of wondering which search engine is the best, a simple test was devised and data was gathered.  What a great project!  It makes me wonder what other technologies could be pitted head-to-head in a similar way.

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Captioning Digital Video

A screenshot from MP4Box.  This is going to take some figuring out.

A screenshot from MP4Box. This is going to take some figuring out.

Got the lowdown on how the Web Accessibility Center at OSU captions digital video at the Digital Media in a Social World conference, which I have been attending today.  MP4Box, which is freely availalble, can be used to import a variety of video and caption formats, which results in a compliant stream.

As I’ve blogged before, this is exciting from an accessibilty perspective, a language learning perspective, and because digital video can become searchable using these transcripts.

From what I’ve heard, this process is a bit geeky.  I’m planning to roll up my sleeves and give it a shot.  I will, of course, report my results here.  If you have experience with this, or similar software, leave a comment.


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Searchable Video – Enter the Dragon

I caught the tail end of the monthly Exploring Learning Technologies community meeting recently and became intrigued by the topic: accessibility. (Full disclosure: I’m part of the committee that plans these meetings.)

This is an important topic because, as more and more educational video is put online for class use (lectures, for example) accessibility becomes a greater issue. The more I heard, the more I thought about how processes like captioning video can be helpful with second language learners as well as people with hearing impairments. So, in general, the conclusion was, it’s good to make captioning part of your practice if you post video online. The most difficult part of this process, obviously, is transcribing the text.

There are several ways to do this, but, in general, you will need to pay someone to listen and type. Whether you hire someone yourself or use an online service, the cost of both kinds of service increase with the accuracy and rapidity of the completion of the transcription.

Dragon speech recognition software.

Dragon speech recognition software.

An interesting alternative incorporates Dragon speech recognition software. Unfortunately, you can’t just have this software listen to the video and produce a transcript. Background noise and other issues make this impossible. But you can have someone watch the video and repeat the transcript for the software. In effect, this someone becomes a biological interface between two digital entities! For a moment, I was distracted by images from the Matrix movies, in which machines use humans disposably, but then I started to realize the most useful feature of captioned video: searchability.

If you want to find a phrase in your favorite movie, you likely have to guess where it is and then skip forwards and / or backwards until you find it. This is difficult.  Now imagine looking for the same phrase in a movie you have never seen.  Or, searching a dozen movies. By searching a text transcript which is linked to the timeline of the movie, it would be extremely easy to find the phrase. Looking for “classroom technology?” The phrase is used at 03:58 and again at 17:22.

This process is costly and labor-intensive now, but eventually, whether speech recognition software is able to scan video and automatically transcribe speech accurately, or there is an offshore matrix of borg-like transcribers scouring YouTube, all video will be transcribed in a searchable way. This will make video useful and accessible in the same way that the Internet has made texts useful and accessible. And we’ll look back and say, why did we wait so long to do this?


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