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5 FREE Web Tools for the New School Year

Jacqui Murray

When you were a child, your parents worried that the educational content you were learning might be out of date. Did history include the most relevant theories? Did science have the latest discoveries (and was Pluto still a planet)? When you became a teacher, you probably thought one of your big responsibilities was to stay current in your subject. You're right -- but today, “current” is as much about content as it is how the message is delivered.

That delivery is powered more and more by technology.

When you read about tech tools used in cutting-edge schools, your stomach churns. Is there enough professional development time in your life to learn all the tech you need to know? What if you can't learn it?

Truth, you don't have to know all 2,878 (and counting) tech tools being used around the country. You just need to know five.  Learn them. Use them with students. Expect them to use them. When those are solid, pick five more.

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Ready? Here are your first five tools to help you learn how to use technology in the classroom:

TuxPaint

Everyone isn't a textual learner. To differentiate instruction requires assessment tools for all types of learners. Let's start with art. Art programs are critical in the K-8 classroom. There are some wonderful free art tools online (i.e., Mutapic and Scribbler), but nothing beats the versatility and Wow factor of KidPix. Unfortunately, it's expensive, so I've found a wonderful alternative in TuxPaint. This free gem of a download has lots of tools, colors, toys -- everything to allow student creativity to flourish as they communicate their ideas. Plus, if you focus on digital citizenship in your grade-level curriculum (and I hope you do), what better way than having students use their own images rather than someone else's?

Classroom uses: to teach tools/toolbars, communicate ideas, compare/contrast visually, to model digital responsibilities, to continue to demonstrate how to use technology in the classroom.

GIMP

All students love the big bold strokes that are part and parcel of TuxPaint, but after a few years, they're ready for an adult art program. Unfortunately, a school license for Photoshop -- the biggest name in image editing -- costs thousands, so most of us are forced to choose an alternative. Luckily, there's a good one. GIMP is a FREE downloadable program that offers just about as much as Photoshop (with enough changes to the process that they don't have copyright infringement worries). You and your students will be able to create and edit images, repair photos (in any number of clever ways), add clever filters, and more. This is a great tool to teach visual organizers and multi-media tools. And it's easy enough, once it’s earned, that students will be willing to select it for projects outside of tech. 

Classroom uses: To communicate ideas, to compare/contrast visually, to avoid plagiarizing other's work online by creating your own.

Open Office/Google Docs

Back when MS Office was used on 97% (I'm exaggerating, but not much) of computers, it made sense to teach it in school for productivity needs. But we have options now, and the fancy borders and pretty fonts offered by Office no longer overshadow the benefits offered by competitors.

Enter Open Office. This is a long-standing free alternative to MS which can do pretty much everything MS Office 2003 can do--word processing, spreadsheets, presentations. It'll even import Office docs and save as Office docs. It is software, so it's downloaded to one computer, to be used by one person. Many people like it better than Office because it's stabler--doesn't crash or corrupt documents as often. It's a great option if you're looking for an Office look-alike that's cheaper.

But the 21st-century classroom wants to publish, share and collaborate. The growing (also free) favorite of schools is Google Docs, which offers word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Its academic popularity has skyrocketed because students (up to 50) can work in groups to prepare a project, submit it for grading, receive comments and assessments without ever printing it. It is a transformative education tool which has Microsoft playing catch-up with its (pretty cool but not free) suite, 365.

Classroom uses: Multimedia communication of ideas. For Google Docs: collaborating, sharing, publishing.

Evernote/OneNote

Both are free in their basic versions. On balance, most teachers I know use Evernote because it's intuitive, versatile and stable over more platforms than OneNote. One difference: OneNote's note page is more like Word. Where Evernote records notes as either text, photo or a sketch, Onenote starts with a blank page where you type, add a drawing, drop a photo -- like you would with a Word doc.

Whichever you pick, pick one. You (and your students) need an Internet-based method of collecting websites, images, screenshots, videos, research and then organizing them into one spot. Start using one of these and you'll never go back to whatever you used before you became enlightened.

Classroom uses: Researching, comparing/contrasting, collecting evidence, displaying a strategic and capable use of tech tools.

Screencast

YouTube has changed the way we teach. I don't mean the gotchas that garner thousands of viewers, but the how-to videos that teach everything. Do you want students to create a project with Scratch? Give them a list of YouTubes to watch and make it student-centered. What about Alice? or Animoto? Same answer. What if you want to personalize training to your student group? You can easily do that in any number of screencast programs, and then upload it to Vimeo, TeacherTube, or YouTube. Two online screencast tools I like are Screencast-o-matic and Jing. Both are intuitive, simple to use, and allow you to record your screen, create how-tos of tech skills, and share them with students via embeds. No more hoping someone else uploaded the exact video training you require to a spot your school doesn't block.

Screencasts are perfect for students to show their understanding of a skill and their ability to teach others to use it.

Classroom uses: How-to projects, strategic use of tech tools to transfer knowledge, produce and publish knowledge, preparing a lesson for a sub to deliver in your absence.

Do you have any favorite daily tips for how to use technology in the classroom? I'd love to learn from you.

 


 

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, a columnist for Examiner.com, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.