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

Getting More from What You Have: Productivity Tools

We’ve All Got ‘Em

Productivity tools are those software applications developed for the business world and so called because they make us more productive. They are also very prevalent in schools today. They include applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation software. Along with some Internet applications like e-mail and web browsers, these are the applications that most teachers and students will be familiar with outside of the classroom, but not necessarily to support teaching and learning beyond their basic functionality.

But these are the workhorse applications that many students use to create products and projects throughout their school career. Unless we help teachers understand otherwise, they may use them simply for document creation, classroom management, and record-keeping tasks rather than using them as powerful supports for learning.

While productivity tools were once designed primarily for a single task (i.e., word-processing software is used to create text-based documents, presentation software creates presentations that can be displayed to a group, databases store data that can be searched, etc.), commonalities exist across these applications. In fact, the extended functionality of many of these applications means that some of them can be used for multiple purposes. A document created with word-processing software, for example, can contain images or movies, links to web sites on the Internet, data tables and graphs drawn from spreadsheets, and many other functions. When used creatively, these tools support functions far beyond their original intention and can be powerful learning tools.

Supporting Learning

Obviously, productivity software can be used by students to create documents or presentations, but they can also scaffold learning for students, helping them to do more than had they tackled a task on their own. When used in this way, productivity software can be considered mindtools, tools that help document and scaffold thinking. Consider the following common functions in productivity software.

Supports for language. Unless students are required to demonstrate their knowledge of grammar or spelling, the spelling and grammar check functionality of most productivity tools can be implemented purposefully to scaffold student learning. I know this sounds like taboo—to have the computer suggest the correct spelling or identify errors—but many times the objectives teachers have to address are not focused on spelling or grammar. These tools can be turned on as students create documents in classes that require the use of academic language to learn subject-specific content (i.e., science, social studies, etc.) or students can evaluate their own documents after they are completed to determine correct spelling, punctuation, and even word choice. Debating the word choice options can also be a valuable learning exercise.

Reference tools. Many students are encouraged to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary or to use a thesaurus when writing or learning new vocabulary. These common reference tools are already built in to many productivity tools, are available online, and can even be found on phones and other handheld devices. I use the dictionary on my Kindle (digital book reader) often to look up words I’m unfamiliar with. No longer do I have to get up and go find a dictionary, which I rarely did, anyway. Now, with the click of a button, I’ve got the definition right there, and I know it increases my comprehension of whatever I’m reading.

Word processing software may also include dictionaries in multiple languages as well as translation tools. As long as students know when to use these tools and when they are not to be used, they can provide substantial support. This functionality can be added to applications, such as web browsers. One of my favorites is the powerful Hyperwords plug-in that conducts Google searches, provides access to reference tools, or translates text on a web page with the click of a button. I encourage you to try it out.

Text-to-speech. There are several applications you can download or purchase that read text aloud in a document or web page, but many productivity tools—including word processing software—have this functionality built-in. The quality of the voices, cadence, and pronunciation in these applications continues to improve. In writing this article using Microsoft Word, I had the application read this paragraph back to me as a reality check, and the quality of the reading was better than I remembered.

Struggling readers can have passages read to them that they can follow along or re-read. These tools may also include visual cues through the highlighting of the text as it is read or simply the display of each word. Text-to-speech is easy to use in Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF files, or may be used more comprehensively across multiple applications by accessing the Universal Access controls of your operating system. To access this feature on your computer, search the Help menu in your word-processing or PDF software for the term “text to speech.”

Commenting. If you’ve used the Reviewing Toolbar in Microsoft Word when editing documents with other people, you’ve used the commenting features. These functions include the ability to create notes or to track changes—each change being attributed to the individual (actually, the computer) that made them. Comments and changes are noted by color and name. I’ve experienced some resistance by people to use the commenting features. Some people choose to highlight or change the color of text, but comments and tracked changes can be found much more quickly through the use of the “Next” and “Previous” comment icons on the reviewing toolbar.

If you’re not ready to try out the reviewing features, simply highlighting text or changing the font color are strategies that students can use to organize their thinking, to indicate areas of confusion or that need further work, or to identify areas where help is needed. I was writing a book with a friend who taught me to color code text as it is generated. The color can help you keep strands of thoughts together, because sometimes, those thoughts just don’t come out in order.

Comments are not automated—meaning they are not suggested by the application as spelling and grammar are—but are input by peers or teachers. That means these comments can be used to track progress of drafts over time, to support peer review or a writer’s workshop forum, or for conversations between a student and teacher or between students. Toolbars that provide additional commenting functionality, such as a toolbar for indicating common errors in student compositions, are also available.

Incorporating These Features in Practice

We call these applications productivity tools because increasing productivity is central to business and industry. But as with most technologies, educators don’t always use technologies the way they were originally intended. Our productivity is measured in terms of student learning, and these tools can support powerful learning. Maybe “power tools” is a better term for them.

One of the best reasons to learn these features and how they can support learning is that productivity tools are ubiquitous. You can find them on just about any computer. There are also free, open-source versions of common productivity tools available that have some of these features. GoogleDocs are free, shared productivity tools online that offer additional supports for collaboration, such as through document sharing and group creation. Many of these tools are also available on common portable devices, such as smart phones or other handheld devices.

If you are considering using these functions in your own teaching, do acknowledge that many people know the basic functions of productivity tools, but most may require some explicit training to learn some of these more advanced features. Reluctance to use new things, as I mentioned, can also be a concern. Start slowly and have your students build their skills in using these features. Success breeds success. And, yes, students have to be taught when to use these functions and when they are not appropriate. But that knowledge and experience using them appropriately will go much farther than simply prohibiting their use at all times.

These are just a few of the features that exist on your computer right now that can significantly change the way you provide learning supports to students. There are other features that you may use that I didn’t address. I’d like to hear about how you use them to support learning, so please feel free to contact me about them. In the mean time, if you have not tried these, consider exploring one or two of these features and incorporating them into your own instruction. Design a lesson that incorporates one of them and get feedback from your students on how well it worked. After you’ve mastered a couple, move on to another one. Determine what works for you and your students and keep the best.

Resources for more information

Microsoft product and technology tutorials
If it’s from Microsoft, you can learn about it here, and this list is specific to educational uses.

Cyber-Grading Your Students’ Papers: Saving Trees & Much, Much More
Workshop from Randall Rightmire, UC Santa Barbara, with links to an ESL toolbar and an editing toolbar for English composition by Daniel Kies.

Plug-in to the Firefox browser that gives students one-click access to references, Google searches, and translation on the page.

Annotate for Word
A toolbar that can be added to Word for easy editing of student compositions.

T.A. Toolbar
Toolbar plug-in that identifies common errors in student compositions through the use of one-click buttons.

Note: Cross-posted to the June issue of the newsletter for the National Capital Language Resource Center.