Finding the Best Tools for eLearning

Not long ago I was working in an office and needed to hire a new employee.  The work was basic office stuff, answering phones, using word and excel for letters and reports.  Going through a temp agency, I was able to “try” people out.  After two people didn’t work out I told the agency that I needed someone who understood Excel.  The next call I got from the agency told me they found someone who declared that “Excel was her best friend.”  Great!  I was ecstatic.  I had some concerns that perhaps she may need some new friends, but she knew Excel so I knew I could teach her the rest.

Excel is a specific type of software.  It does more than most people would ever think about doing with spreadsheets, however there are limits.  Most people learn Excel and then want to do things that are complicated at best for Excel, but are perfectly simple for a database program like Access.  Unfortunately, Access “thinks” differently than Excel and requires a bit (or a huge chunk) of a learning curve.  Finding the technology tool for the job at hand can be daunting, but must be done if technology is to be used well.

I tell you my story of Excel, because it is an easy example of how people gravitate to one program or software type and cling to it as the solution to everything.  It is like they take their beloved Excel and brandish it like the hammer which will solve all technological problems.  “We’ll just put it in a spreadsheet and then we can have these formulas combine these cells and voilà….it will be easy.” (There has got to be a Dilbert comic about this.)

There are limitations to all software.  Taking the time to understand the limitations of the software could save much heartache and time for educators and administrators.  Taking time to understand the problem is key in choosing software.  All too often, people have adopted software without understanding its limitations, expecting it to turn education around.

I have collected a number of links to Technology Tools that could be useful for an educational setting.  I have not tested them all.  I do not know the limitations of ALL of them.  However, given a situation, I can search with the specifications in hand to find a smaller list of possibilities which can then be tested.

Here is what I would do

  1. Understand the context.
    •  Who are the students? (k-3, 8th graders, graduate students) What is the content? (Math, Computers, Philosophy) What do they need to DO? (presentation, pictures, video, screen capture, audio) What is the bare minimum you want from the final product? (in other words what is absolutely essential)
  2. Evaluate the limitations.
    • What are the people (both students and instructors) familiar with?  How difficult is the content of the final product? (You could have more complex technology if the content is on the easier side of things.)  What are the technology limitations? (file size, varying Operating Systems, bandwidth, accessibility, cost)
  3. Evaluate current options.
    • Using the base familiarity are their functions in a current tool that people just need to learn?
  4. Search for alternatives.
    • All too often instructors feel that if they use a tool they need to be the support desk for all possible problems.  This is impossible.  One item that I feel is important in a tool is its own help documentation.  With  decent help documentation many students can figure out what they need.
  5. Be flexible.
    • First and foremost the learning objectives need to be met.  Don’t let the desire to use a new technology detract from the learning. Understand that there will be limitations but by emphasizing the learning objective you can assess a final product regardless of the technology.

So, for a concrete example… You want the students to put together a presentation that can be shared with all the students in the class.  Your students are mainly in your hometown, but you have some students in New York, Texas and China.  You’ve establish the criteria for the content, you would like a visual (like PowerPoint) but you also need the students to record audio to accompany the presentation.

Yes, PowerPoint is able to record and embed audio – but the files are large and there will be some extra saving options to make sure the audio is contained in the file.

On my list of Tech Tools you will find many options for presentations, not all of them will meet the requirements of the project – visuals and audio.  But knowing that you NEED those items can help filter out others fairly quickly.

Again, the instructor DOES NOT need to be the expert on all the possibilities.  The instructor does need to be the expert on the content, assessment criteria and know where support options are available to the students.  If anything, the instructor should understand what kind of final product file or link is needed so that ALL the students can view the presentation.  Who knows, you may have a student in the class that is really comfortable with an amazing tool.  But if you require everyone to do a PowerPoint, that student will never share their expertise.

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Great list of Technology Tools for Teaching

http://www.speedofcreativity.org/2010/10/22/do-the-mash-mixing-tools-to-create-a-custom-cloud-based-learning-tool/

For more technology tools for education check out the links under “EdTech” just above the Archives.

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