Note: This entry is a cross-post for a blog I wrote for Jossey-Bass Education.
Today the World Wide Web is absolutely overflowing with new web 2.0 tools. From video editing to file sharing to image manipulation to brainstorming, there’s a tool for every possible task we could ask students to do. At every conference I attend, I’m asked, “So, what tools do you use with your students?” Everyone is looking for the latest and greatest websites, hoping for the silver bullet in their classroom. I think that seeking out the best tools and making our classrooms as current as possible is a noble goal. However, I think we also have a professional responsibility to start thinking about which tools are “best” for our classrooms and limiting the field to just those tools that are really powerful. Otherwise, we risk spending just as much time teaching students how to use technology as we do teaching them our content area.
That’s why, starting a few years ago, I limited the number of tools I use regularly with students. I forced myself to limit drastically to just six tools total all semester. That small arsenal of websites then became the ones we went back to time after time to get the work of learning and demonstrating knowledge done in my class. By the end of the course, students were experts with those tools because they’d used them several times, not just once for a single project. Not only could they create efficiently within the tool, they also began to distinguish within that tool set to determine which tool was best for each task, an extraordinarily sophisticated skill (and one that is more what the real world looks like!).
Although every content area and classroom may look different, below are the basic tools that I use regularly in my classroom along with a brief rationale for each. I try to choose those tools that are most powerful and most flexible for my needs. Each of them is explained in far more detail with example assignments in my forthcoming book, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for the Online and Blended Classroom.
- First, a Learning Management System is an absolute requirement. My classroom is fully online so an LMS is where students access all of our collaboration tools, assignments, and grades. However, even in a face to face classroom, using an LMS can make the classroom more engaging and more efficient (as I mentioned in this post). My school district uses Schoology and really likes its powerful, intuitive interface, which looks a lot like Facebook.
- Second, a powerful wiki tool is needed. I use wikis for all sorts of projects in my class, from completing the prewriting for research papers to demonstrating competence on a final project. Wikis are flexible, powerful, and engaging for all sorts of tasks. I currently use Google Sites but have also had success with Wikispaces.
- Third, students need access to a drawing tool so they can demonstrate their understanding of a concept in a non-linear, sometimes even non-verbal way. At first, I used Webspiration as my core drawing tool. Now that they’ve moved to a fee-based service, my default is Google Drawing. It’s easy to use and powerful, especially if you teach students how to find and use templates.
- Fourth, we rely on a presentation tool. Students need a flexible tool where they can demonstrate their understanding in a visually pleasing way and also add more complex elements such as video, web links, and audio. For my class, we use Prezi. It’s a relatively simple tool to use with the possibility for extraordinary complexity when needed and as students become more experienced with the tool.
- Fifth, because I believe wholeheartedly in the power of digital storytelling, a video editing tool is needed, preferably one that allows students to add images, music, and voice as easily as adding actual video. Right now my students prefer Windows MovieMaker but we’ve also experimented with Photo Story 3.
- Sixth, since we attempt some collaborative writing, an online word processor with the option to share, comment, and write together is important. Google Drive, specifically the word processing tool, has proved to be powerful and simple to use.
And that’s all. Although students occasionally choose to go outside these tools, these six tools are the ones we use regularly throughout the school year. We spend time learning the ins and outs of them during the first six weeks and then for future projects, I expect that my students already know how to use the tool and can instead focus on the learning. I’ve found that the result is a more efficient classroom and far fewer problems with technology and learning new tools.
What do you think? What tools am I missing from my arsenal? Or, are there some that are even more powerful that could replace my current go-to’s? Just like you, I love to stay on the leading edge and make sure I’m using the tools that are best for my students, just as long as there aren’t too many of them!