10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Getting More from What You Have: Making Powerful Points

I spent a good deal of my time this past month preparing for and presenting workshops for two different groups of educators I have been working with, one of which is a cadre of language coaches who work with teachers to address the needs of English language learners. We’ve been exploring different technologies to support teaching and learning, and I focused much of our work on the process of creating digital stories using presentation software as a means to learn about using multimedia in the classroom. In others words, we used Microsoft PowerPoint to support teaching and learning. Even though it wasn’t designed for educators, it’s a really powerful tool that has the potential to support a variety of teaching needs. It’s also an application most teachers and students have access to, so I thought I’d share some of those ideas with you as a continuation of my series on using what you have.

Before we get started, let me say that I use both Windows and Macintosh Operating Systems and am familiar with PowerPoint, Keynote, and OpenOffice. You can accomplish most of the tasks I’ll present here on any of these applications, but perhaps because PowerPoint is so widely accepted in the business world, there are a few additional things you can do with it that you can’t do with the others, yet. I’m a big believer in the idea that if a technology feature is popular in one application, you’ll soon find it on others. I am also not going to include step-by-step instructions, but will try to guide you towards key menu items or functions to look for. The steps can change, even over subsequent versions of the same software. When in doubt, try two things: 1) right-click on an object to see what options you have, or 2) search the help menu.

Learning from Stories

I use digital storytelling as a framework for helping teachers learn about multimedia because it’s easy for people to relate to. Teachers often use or tell stories in their teaching. As a young teacher, I had to learn to tell fewer stories, or so my students would probably tell you. But you don’t necessarily have to follow a formal digital storytelling process to use the techniques associated with it (Leah, perhaps you can link to my previous article on Digital Storytelling from March). You might consider keeping a journal, a digital portfolio, or even a lab journal in science as storytelling. Following are just a few ways you can use presentation software to support teaching and learning based on skills you can learn from creating digital stories.

Conduct research and organize information. When I’m wearing my instructional designer hat, I use presentation software to create storyboards that present and organize information. I can keep notes, including pertinent research, either on a slide or in the notes field with a more formal reference list on the last screen. And by displaying the slides in the “sorter” view, I can reorganize my information easily. For long projects, I will color-code the slide backgrounds so I know which slides correspond to which topics. I put major concepts on the slide and the detail in the notes. After my research is over, I finalize the text and images on my slides for my formal presentation.

Revision and reorganization are common to many research projects, and presentation software makes it very easy. You can provide templates to students to support a project, either a formal research project or a more personalized story, and they can keep all of their information in one place. Presentation software will support images they’ve found or have created with a camera or scanner, notes from primary resources, URLs for pertinent websites, and even audio and video clips.

Create or edit graphics and images to augment written or spoken text. There are several standalone photo and image editors and design tools available, but the learning curve for some of these can be steep. Most teachers and students are already familiar with presentation software, and can use it to quickly create custom graphics. You can insert an image or clip-art graphic to a slide usually through a simple Insert command. Graphics that support learning often include labels or guides to focus the learner. You can add arrows, highlighting, shapes, or text to a graphic easily. You can also usually change the style, color, or opacity of an image to make text or other information stand out. (See example 1)

URL image + Student at Computer +
Student at Computer 2 + MP3 Player =
Image edited in PowerPoint

Example 1. Images from MorgueFile.com combined and edited in PowerPoint

It’s easy to find images online, but make sure you are following copyright or licensing requirements. Two websites to visit for images you and your students are likely to be able to use for free are Wikimedia Commons and Compfight.com. You can search Wikimedia Commons and each picture on the site will include a statement about how it can be used, such as whether you need to provide attribution or whether you can edit it or not. Comfight.com searches all of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site, for images based on keywords you enter. In your search, select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting to find images you are most likely to be able to use. No matter where you find your images, make sure you check the copyright or licensing rights.

Presentation software, like PowerPoint, often comes with several different clip-art galleries installed, but there are many others you can download for free from the Microsoft website. Clip art is actually a combination of drawn elements (lines, shapes, and fills) that you can actually ungroup and edit (this function can often be found in the Arrange or Grouping menus). You can delete sections of a clip art graphic, recolor it, or combine elements from one clip art graphic with another (see example 2). Clip art also usually resizes better than photos, including enlarging, with very little loss of fidelity. I won’t go into the reason here.

Clip Art Example 1 + Clip Art Example 2 =
Combined Clip Art Image

Example 2. Clip-Art from Microsoft edited and combined in PowerPoint

After you’re done designing your graphic, you can export your slides as images (either one at a time or all of them at once) that you can use in other applications, such as on a class website, a presentation on an interactive whiteboard, or inserted into a document. They can also be used for more “video-like” digital stories created in PhotoStory, MovieMaker, or iMovie. And the export process tends to reduce the file size of your image, making it more practical for use online. In PowerPoint, you can export a single slide by first grouping all of the elements on the slide, right-clicking on your slide, and select “Save as Picture.” Of course, you can also export your entire presentation as shows that cannot be edited, but these may not be able to be shown online, especially since they may be quite large files depending on how much media you’ve inserted.

Address multiple forms of language representation. Obviously, presentation software supports written language. You or your students can create text elements on the slide or in the notes area that can be read individually or in group settings. But you or your students can include audio to provide support for listening and speaking or to augment the written text onscreen.

Some presentation software allows you to record directly into a presentation, either on a slide-by-slide basis or as a narration across slides. Narrations are harder to pull off, as you usually have to go back to the beginning of a narration if you make a mistake. Inserting sound by slide is easier to control and edit. At the very least, you’ll have a shorter section to re-record if you make a mistake. You can have your recorded sounds play automatically or force the viewer to click on something (look for an “automatic” vs. “on-click” setting) to hear them.

You or your students can also record or edit pre-recorded audio clips in an external application, which gives you more flexibility in terms of editing and the quality of the recording. The free application Audacity by SoundForge is very easy to use and is cross-platform. You’ll want to export your Audacity files into something your presentation software can use, such as a .WAV or .MP3 file. GarageBand is a free application on the Mac OS that allows you to create sound files that you can import into iTunes and then can be pulled into KeyNote or exported for use in PowerPoint. The best advice I can offer is use a microphone you plug into your computer, not the internal microphone.

If you record your audio in an external program, you can actually insert multiple audio files on the same slide in a presentation that you can trigger by different actions. You can create multiple buttons (by adding a shape) and link a different sound file to each (the sound is usually considered an “animation”). That means you can record a soundtrack in multiple languages, or have audio clips from different people to demonstrate different dialects or accents, and your users can pick the most pertinent one. Students can even record themselves speaking and use different presentation files they’ve created over time as a digital portfolio of their growth in language development.

Differentiate learning by providing scaffolding. The idea of providing optional audio is one aspect of scaffolding learning for different levels of ability. You can record examples or create an audio glossary for critical vocabulary within a presentation that students can access only if they need to. Having audio tracks both in English and a student’s native language can support English language learners or those learning a foreign language.

Presentation software also supports hyperlinking of objects and text. You can embed a link to a URL of related website to a text or a picture in your presentation that will open on your computer’s browser. You can also link to other screens in the presentation, or even different documents, so that students have greater control over their learning. You can link students to an assessment after completing a presentation, or have supplementary or enrichment material for those students who need them. Students who have already mastered concepts in one part of a presentation can follow a link to a later part of the presentation, or others may want to return to previous information for additional practice. If you’re creating a set of linked information, make sure to keep them all in the same folder or relative location when you distribute them. Otherwise you might break the links and your presentation won’t be able to find the appropriate document.

And don’t discount the value of your students creating their own multimedia presentations to differentiate their learning needs, whether they create reports about a country of study, personal stories they create on their own, or support for oral presentations. Based on your students’ ability levels—both language and technology skills—you can allow them all to address the same content standards but to do so with great flexibility in terms of student products.

Focus on Your Outcomes

In closing, I need to offer you the same caveat you might want to share with your students. Playing with these features can be a lot of fun, but can become time consuming. You can really get caught up in the technology. Stay focused on your teaching or learning outcomes, and don’t let the technology take precedence. Only use what is necessary to get your point across, but do have some fun along the way.

I hope you try some of these ideas to support teaching and learning in your classroom. If you’d like to see a short digital story I put together for these workshops, you can view it at http://teachlearntech.com/blog/?page_id=87. The example was created in PowerPoint and Audacity first, imported into MovieMaker, and exported for display on the web. Please feel free to contact me and let me know if you’ve used these or other ideas with presentation software. I enjoy getting feedback from you and will try to respond to additional requests for information through e-mail or future editions of this TechTips article.

Resources for more information

Audacity by SoundForge
Free, cross-platform sound editor

Search tool for Flickr. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting.

Free images.

Wikimedia Commons
Media in a variety of formats that you may be able to use. Files use Creative Commons licensing.

Microsoft Clip-Art Galleries
Free images for school use

When Free Isn’t Free

My friend Laurene and I used to work together until she went back to academia to pursue her doctorate. I’m really glad she has this opportunity, but I miss the conversations we used to have about some new technology we had seen or other developments in the EdTech world. Her former experiences using technology in classrooms and school districts have given her a healthy perspective in terms of the reality of technology integration and she taught me a lot. For example, I am confounded by the number of new technologies that we would find for free. “How can a company afford to give this product away?” I’d ask. “What kind of business model is that?” And Laurene would say, “Free like a beer? Or free like a puppy?”

You see, when you get an offer for a free beer, or your favorite age-appropriate beverage, you thank your friend, drink it, and you’re done. No more obligation. But when your friend offers you a free puppy…it’s just the beginning of obligations. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take the puppy, because there are benefits to puppies that can outweigh the obligations, but I think you should consider those obligations first.

The Ning Heard Round the Web

My original article for this issue was about free social networking tools you can use to support language instruction. There are many different applications out there to support social networking, that in turn support a variety of instructional activities you can use in the language classroom. If you have a Facebook or MySpace account, you’re already familiar with social networking tools. You may even have some favorite blogs (short for Weblog) or wikis that you visit on the Web. You may not even realize that’s what they are, because they look just like a Web site. I hope to get back to that article at a later date.

Blogs and wikis have purposes they meet well, but one of the powerhouse social networking tools that has become popular in education, and elsewhere, is a Ning. Ning provides a powerful suite of tools all in one place. You can run discussions, post pictures and videos, embed a blog, attach documents, and many more things. You can limit access to your Ning to invited friends or approved guests, or it can be completely open to anyone on the Web. And just like smartphones, software developers have been creating “apps” (short for applications) that can be added to a Ning to provide even more functionality. And all this for free! Or it was.

New corporate leadership at Ning announced they plan to stop providing access to the free version of Ning software, sending reverberations across cyberspace. Ning supposedly refers to the sound a Chinese temple bell makes when it is struck. It means “peace” or “peaceful.” Ning. But the loss of free Nings raised such a cacophony that the reverberations have yet to fade away.

There are many, many education-based Nings on the Web with an untold number of participants. I use a Ning to support trainings I do, so participants in my workshops have a place to go during or after the workshop to download handouts, share ideas, upload their work, or communicate with me once we’ve left the computer lab. I’ve participated in two book studies through Nings (which is where I first heard the news), and I’ve used Nings with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. There, the Title III staff members have used Nings to create communities of educators who work with English language learners. My fledgling Ning efforts impact a few dozen people, but there are Ning communities with hundreds of participants, some estimates are hundreds of thousands total, who have been posting content for years. There’s a lot of information in those Nings.

Ning has always offered some for-fee services with the fees being relatively small. Just not free. The Ning leaders have been suggesting they will help their free customers transfer their content and data to other providers, and those providers have been jumping in to offer help, too. Others have thrown up their hands in defeat and there are reports of people just abandoning their Ning communities. Unfortunately, it appears the answer to my question is that unlimited services for free may not be the best business model, and I sympathize not only for the Ning communities that are stressed and struggling but also for the Ning employees who lost their jobs.

But we’re educators. We embody lifelong learning. We have a chance to learn from this. So, what have we learned?

The Care and Feeding of Your New Puppy

As educators, we’re pretty addicted to free stuff. As a teacher, I used to love to get free stuff. I’d come back from conferences with my arms loaded, carrying as much free stuff as I could gather. I would get books I’d never read, software I’d never install, and all varieties of knick-knacks and goo-gaws. And now I don’t have to leave the comfort of my own home to find free content, activities, and even free software. They’re available from my computer, and even my phone. And believe me, I see this love of free stuff in educators from the classroom to the state board room. To some, the only thing that can make a product better, it seems, is if it’s free.

But I hope the ning that is still resounding serves as somewhat of a wake-up call to us and we stop to think a bit more about the obligations before we just go with the free option. Ning may have been free like a beer for a while, but sometimes you may just want that puppy. You just have to know what you’re getting into and accept the obligations. Following are a few suggestions you may want to think about as you’re considering your next free puppy, er, technology.

Focus on the process, not the product. About the only thing constant about technology is change. How much do you depend on something that wasn’t available just a few years ago? Wikipedia? Your smartphone? Facebook? And will those things be available a few years from now? In a textbook I co-authored, we deliberately set out to write a technology book that did not tell how to operate technology. You won’t find any tutorials about word processing, spreadsheets, or databases. Instead, we focused on why to use technology, and we embedded a process that encourages the reader to develop strategies for learning about new technologies and how they can be used in order to better deal with the element of change. I know how to copy and paste, format documents, insert images, and other skills that apply to a range of applications. If I lost my word processor today, I could pick up tomorrow with another one. A process that is wedded to only one product may be doomed.

Do it yourself. Once you understand your process, you may find that you can do a better job if you use in-house resources, including people. At least, if you develop a means to support your process in-house, you may have a better opportunity to overcome obstacles like the loss of a product because you and your colleagues will have skills, knowledge, and some vested buy-in about the process. You may also be able to pool resources to get more from your time and effort. The in-house communication you spark may even provide ready-made solutions. I often work with state departments of education, and one of the greatest benefits they report from working with my colleagues and me is that they communicate with more people internally more often and so have a better feel for what resources are available and how they can be used. Very often, we find technology support and resources already available. We just get the two connected.

Build a routine. Once you’ve identified a solution for your process, develop a routine of checks and balances, because either your process, solution, or even your goals are going to change over time. When I’m asked to provide input on product design, I focus most of my time on trying to get people to think about the future. And the end of the product development stage is not far enough in the future. Products evolve. You may have the goal of setting up an online course by the end of the semester, but are you really just going to offer it once? What happens if things don’t work as you planned? Better yet, how about when your course is successful? How will you handle requests for more classes? More students? When you use technology to solve a problem, think of your use as a cycle. You identify needs and your audience, find out what’s out there that matches them, implement a solution, and evaluate what went well and what did not, so you can go back to the beginning of the cycle, always keeping your eye on those needs and potential solutions so you can adjust the next time around.

Housecleaning. Sometimes we focus so much on getting and implementing a technology that we don’t think about the ongoing consequences. All technologies and the processes they support need a little housecleaning, especially those where information may be created that becomes quickly outdated. These can be class web sites, student portfolios, or even social networking communities. When I worked in an office, we used to have “Back-up Fridays,” on which I would remind everyone to back-up their computers before leaving work. While you’re doing that, also consider getting rid of what you don’t need. A process to think about is: sort, prioritize, cull, back-up. Then, if you have a major loss, like the lost of a critical piece of software, you have a strong foundation from which to get back up and running.

It’s all in your mind. Ironically, there is already a free solution to replace Ning that is more popular and may have even more functionality. Facebook. But most schools and districts—and even workplaces—block Facebook and sites like it. That’s a common reaction in the education space to new technologies. All kinds of powerful technologies, like Internet access, e-mail, cellphones, and others were, and in some cases still are, banned from use in schools. The solution for getting these technologies into teaching and learning has been helping students understand how to use these technologies appropriately. But in order to do this you have to think about the technology differently. It’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity. I can’t predict that Facebook is going to stick around forever, but I do think that some schools will begin to open their virtual doors to it and similar tools—just as we’ve done with previous technologies—so they can capitalize on the power these technologies have to support teaching and learning when used appropriately.

Sometimes, it’s o.k. to pay. Before you select a technology, you should determine what you are trying to accomplish. Be clear. Describe it. If you can do this, you will have a better chance of identifying a range of technologies that might meet your needs. Then, as you review technologies, you’ll start to see what is consistent about them, as well as some unique features. Those unique features can either support your goals, or completely distract you from them. One of those features is free. Sometimes, the free solution is the best solution, but not always. Instead, consider whether the cost might help you reach your goals better. Sometimes, even a minimal cost can provide tremendous value added well beyond the reach of a free tool.

I’ll get back to the original social networking article that will provide some strategies for using them in language instruction. In the meantime, I’d be glad to hear from you with questions or concerns.

Crossposted to the National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC) May 2010 Newsletter: www.nclrc.org/newsletter.html