Review by Jenny Bristol, Common Sense Education | Updated July 2019

Open Explorer

Compelling digital field journal site engages kids on multiple levels

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • Arts
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Skills
  • Communication & Collaboration
Grades This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
6–12
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Pros: High-quality visuals, an intuitive and functional interface, unusual expeditions, open-ended educational opportunities.

Cons: There's little help on the site, and teachers will need to decide on their own how to best fit Open Explorer into their curriculum.

Bottom Line: An eye-opening, fascinating way to explore the world from a personal perspective; students will learn about geography, culture, and science along the way.

Following along on others' expeditions on Open Explorer can serve as a base for lessons in geography, the sciences, and personal growth. Having your class create their own expedition can help students learn skills in research, investigation, writing, photography, videography, and geography, in addition to whatever subject you're investigating. With educational websites, you often get out of it what you bring to it, and Open Explorer is no exception.

Before your class dives into their own expedition, first follow along with several that are already on the site. Pick a few that relate to what you're covering in class, trying to find at least one well-funded project and one done by amateurs or students. Once your class understands the idea for the site and how information is organized, put together an expedition for your own classroom. Brainstorm some ideas, and then pick one that has a clear vision and purpose -- ideally something that can be done near your school or in students' own neighborhoods, since your class will need to gather information, photos, and videos for the project. Perhaps even pair up with another classroom that's also doing an expedition so you can compare notes. For older students, have them work in small groups instead of full classrooms.

Note: Each expedition's timeline and blog entries start at the very bottom and work up. The top entries are the most recent ones.

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National Geographic's Open Explorer site is a digital field journal where explorers of the world (or just their backyard) create and go on expeditions and share their stories along the way. Explorers can be doing serious scientific fieldwork, going on epic voyages, doing school projects, or just exploring their own backyard to satisfy their curiosity. They just need to be looking for something specific or be trying to answer a particular question. Using a blog-type format, explorers share text, images, and video on the site, describing their progress. Photos are geotagged and locations are displayed on a dynamic map, so those following along can see where the expedition has led. Registered users can follow any of over 1,000 existing expeditions, so they'll receive email updates when the expedition is updated and they can comment on blog entries. Some of these expeditions are already completed, so the entire voyage's story is already accessible.

As students scroll through an expedition, they can read along in chronological order, usually with informative text and helpful photos, and the map adjusts to show the current location as they read. They can also zoom in on the map and explore on their own that way. Many of the expedition authors include helpful educational diagrams and links, so reading through the entries isn't just a matter of watching someone else learn and explore; students can explore along with them.

Students can also create their own expeditions, either on their own or with a group or class. They can start with a clear purpose that's connected to some form of geography, and decide on a title, a starting date, a URL, and a brief description of the project. Adding regular updates will keep followers interested. Students can quickly access their own expeditions and the ones they follow from the user dashboard.

There are two distinct ways for students to learn with Open Explorer: They can browse or search the site for existing expeditions -- from school projects to fully funded science expeditions -- or they can create their own. By studying existing expeditions, students learn about physical and cultural geography and gain insight into any number of scientific subtopics, such as marine ecology, zoology, archeology, and climate change.

When students create their own expeditions, they'll brainstorm ideas, come up with a plan for implementation, and do the fieldwork, taking notes, photos, and videos of their findings. Back on the site, they'll create what amounts to an ongoing photo essay describing their project and its developments. This requires clear writing, storytelling with a clear sequence, relevant photos and videos, and regular updates. Done alone, it can be one kind of learning experience, but done in a group, it allows for collaborative storytelling, perhaps with each contributor playing a different role. Projects stay on the site even when completed, so visitors to Open Explorer can continue to learn from students' projects in the future.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

With a clean interface, compelling existing expeditions and photos, and a low barrier to participation, Open Explorer will pull students in from the very first browse. The geotagging and linked maps add significantly to the experience.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Two learning opportunities exist on the site: exploring and commenting on existing expeditions, and creating an expedition of your own. Students will both learn from others' experiences and write about their own journey of exploration.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

There's little extra on the site for teachers and not much help, but the site is very intuitive to use, and there are over 1,000 examples to refer to for ideas.


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