Monday, March 8, 2010

Most Underrated Tools

As I mentioned yesterday, a conversation with a teacher prompted me to reflect on the question of what tools were the most overrated and the most underrated. Here's a look at tools that I'd like to see used more often in the classroom.

By far, the most underused tool. I cannot understand why every student doesn't have a blog. And no, it's not just because I am an avid blogger.

When I taught, I used reflective writing in the form of journaling extensively. It did so many beneficial things to my classroom, I had each of my student teachers I worked with develop their own journal prompts before designing lessons. Simply put, journaling gave every student a chance to reflect on their learning or a question posed before discussion. Writing then served as a springboard; any student I called on was better prepared to contribute. Moreover, it gave me a chance to assess every student, even the ones that I didn't call on, since I could gather their journals after class and read. And this process improved their metacognition and their writing skills in one swoop. This was my most powerful formative assessment tool at the time.

Then Will Richardson introduced me to blogging. All the power that had been in journals was magnified, because no longer was writing directed just to me. Students wrote for other students, who could read and react instantly to another's post. And, students wrote for real-world audiences.

Blogging can be done easily in any subject area. Have students create blog posts for how they solve (or couldn't solve) mathematical problems. Have students keep a blog reflecting on their individual fitness goals and progress. Have students document their learning in a lab-based science or FCS classroom by taking digital images and embedding them within lab writeup posts. Blogging is literally the easiest method of e-portfolio and can give educators great access to understand how students think and what they are struggling with. And it is the perfect tool for sharing and learning from each other.

I have now been out of the classroom for 3 years, and Etherpad is one of many tools I didn't have the chance to use. In all honesty, there are probably dozens of tools that should be on this list but aren't because of that fact.

I was perhaps the only teacher who excitedly taught with TextEdit, the Mac equivalent of Notepad or SimpleText. I'd consider it one of the most underrated tools as well, since I don't know of any other teacher who uses it in the classroom. My students would shrug the first time we opened it up, until they realized why we used it. It was simple. No toolbars. No 3-million fonts and formatting buttons. Loaded in a fifth of the time as Microsoft Word and took up basically no memory. It was the simplest brainstorming and notetaking tool there was.

Etherpad is better. Yes, a bit more bandwidth intensive, but the ability for multiple students to work collaboratively on the same set of notes changes teaching and learning. Much is made out of Twitter (or Edmodo) as a backchannel discussion board, but Etherpad will work just as well and adds the element of constructiveness to the work as well.


Just as I consider interactive whiteboards to be overrated since they are not really that interactive, I also consider classroom response system "clickers" to be underrated. Getting direct student feedback empowers more formative assessment and allows students to drive the curriculum.

Clickers are expensive, of course. But polling software, whether via laptops or cell phones, is a free alternative. A teacher can post some questions and get instant student data back, in graphical form. Heck, a student can just as easily post questions and get feedback from other students. I've seen teachers give a quick pre-assessment over the unit's new vocabulary, only to find out that there were several terms students already knew. She had more time to focus on the other terms and was able to have students who were comfortable in their knowledge share with the class what they knew. The entire lesson was driven by students. And it saved them time, which students could then use for their own individual projects.

We parrot the phrase "data-driven decision making" all the time, but how often do we use tools that exemplify it?

Just as I find Animoto and iMovie to be inefficient uses of digital storytelling, I find Voicethread to be the most powerfully efficient. And the differences between it and Animoto are slight.

Voicethread allows you to quickly upload images, video, or documents. It allows a by-slide annotation through text, audio recording, or video recording (including from your mobile device). Each commenters' image then appears around the slide, giving you a visual sense of the community discussion.

But what really sets this apart is its simplicity. Animoto's effects distract a student from learning by watching it. Voicethread pares it down to the visual and the narration. Its simplicity goes straight to the heart of what makes effective digital storytelling, a focus on the central story.

Like Etherpad, I missed out on this tool. I too required students to create and share their poems aloud, to get a sense for the oral tradition of poetry. It led to uneasy "polite" listening and boredom. Voicethread, as this teacher used it, makes the experience more visual and engaging, leading to better learning and expression.

Before Web 2.0, this would have been Microsoft Excel (or InspireData for younger students). With the advent of Web 2.0, there are now several online collaborative data analysis tools that would work well.

The thing that strikes me about most web 2.0 tools about there is their inclination to helping build creativity. That could be the rationale behind a tool like iMovie or any other, that it allows students to express themselves and built their creative thought, and this is definitely a good thing. Yet those tools don't have as close a connection to logical processing.

A data analysis tool, like a spreadsheet or a database that allows the entry of numbers and the creation of visual representations, is a springboard for logical thought. Having students collect and plot data, and then draw conclusions (a la the David Warlick ITEC presentation) represents an important wave of mathematical literacy and logical processing that we simply don't do.

There is some irony here. In my experience as a principal, I had few teachers who lamented students' lack of creativity. It seemed students were very creative, even to the point of being inappropriate. But I had many teachers lament students' inability to figure things out. Other than Geometer's Sketchpad, our students had little exposure to data analysis tools.

There is one tool that we discussed ad nauseum that I didn't put on either the underrated or overrated list. It deserves its own special category, which we'll look at next.

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