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.