Choosing Tools

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Choosing Tools

Below I'll describe tools I've used and recommended for different purposes. In an emergency, however, the best tool will often be the one that teachers are already familiar with. Because the switch to online instruction is complex enough, I encourage minimizing the number of new tools staff and students need to learn.

Video Conferencing

There are a number of strong tools for video chats, such as Skype and Google Meet on computers and WhatsApp and WeChat on smartphones.

My go-to video conferencing tool is Zoom. Creating accounts is easy, especially if associating the new account with one's Google or Facebook account. Zoom can be used on all sorts of devices, including Chromebooks, as well. From a laptop, one can easily share one's screen, allowing a teacher to explain elements of an online assignment. Additionally, the person who launches the meeting can record the session onto the device (Mac or Windows) or in the cloud. Recordings can serve as resources for review or as fodder for critique.

The free version is also quite strong. Video chats between two connections can go on as long as the two people like, but with three or more connections, or when recording, the time is limited to 40 minutes. For someone like me who prefers shorter meetings, that's not a bad thing. Leaders at the school may consider Zoom's education package, which would allow longer, online staff meetings.

Keystone Academy in Beijing uses Microsoft Sharepoint, and after they had to switch to online, chose to offer daily staff development programs each morning. Even though these meetings are optional, they regularly get half or more of the staff participating in their programs.

The key with any video conferencing tool is to discuss what you'll use it for. Trying to run a class with a one-to-many video conference runs risks. Students might use chat features and get distracted, or thinking that the approach will be effective may keep a teacher from switching to something that is stronger in an online setting. One-to-one and one-to-small-group sessions tend to be best for teachers. Leaders should consider the same possibilities when communicating online with their teams.

Creating Videos

There are many tools for making videos quickly, and my favorite are Adobe Spark and Screencastify.

With Spark, a teacher can line up several visuals (images, icons, text, or even video clips), narrate each, and Spark converts the lot into a video with a link to an Adobe page to watch it. The Adobe page has no comments or "related" videos, so it minimizes the kinds of distractions one might encounter on a YouTube page.

With Screencastify or any screencasting tool, the teacher can share slides or web pages and explain (with or without a webcam showing the teacher) content or how to use a given online tool. I like Screencastify because it makes it easy to share the video you create in Google Classroom or as a link in some other setting.

The free versions of both tools include watermarks, or the names of the product, on the videos they create. However, the free versions may do everything you want, and if not, you can get to know the tool well enough to decide whether to buy an upgrade.

The best thing about each is the speed with which you can create content. After just a few tries, you'll be able to make short videos of prompts, explanations, etc., that you can easily share with your students as part of your online assignments.

Course Content

The term "Learning Management System" is one that covers many tools used by schools, including Edmodo, Canvas, Blackboard, Schoology, and more. While these LMS systems typically have more features than the free choices, there is also a cost and learning curve.

The school where I spend the most time is one that uses the free offerings from Google, and heavily focuses on Classroom and Drive. Microsoft's Office 365 for Education and associated tools are largely free, as well.

For your school, it is important to know that some kind of system for organizing communication and content sharing is a huge help in avoiding the headaches of trying to handle everything via email.

If you currently use any of the above or something similar, it is most likely best to stay with it for managing communication and assignments if suddenly needing to switch to online instruction.

Many schools will be using one of these systems, but teachers may not currently be meeting regularly to share tips and tricks. With a closure, I recommend offering video conferences multiple times a week to allow your people to learn from each other regarding ways to get the most out of whatever you have.

Discussions

One of the best ways to have an online discussion is to use what are called "threaded discussions" that allow one to see replies to specific posts, indented so that they are easy to keep organized for the reader.

If there are good threaded discussion tools available for free, I haven't found them. One can use tools in learning management systems that come with them, or mimic them as best as possible using the methods below.

Google Groups provides a way to build and follow a discussion, is easily integrated with other Google tools, and can happen on the Groups page or via email. If your school uses G-Suite (the range of Google's educational tools brought together under one management system), the person managing the system may need to "turn on" Groups as a tool.

Shared documents like one would use in Google Drive or Microsoft Office 365 can also be created to house discussions, and are easily linked to other documents or online assignments.

Another tool for developing discussions is Flipgrid, which allows students to see a short video captured (typically) from a phone, and then record themselves responding. Under a long-term closure of the brick-and-mortar school, this has the added benefit of allowing students to see each other, which can be good for how they cope with being at home for long stretches away from friends.

As with in-person discussions, what is important is that students have the chance to consider their ideas, try them out in pairs or small groups, and then contribute their refined ideas in a setting where they can be discussed and evaluated so that everyone learns something valuable. As mentioned on the What to Do Now page, if you can try this out with students before a closure, it will be easier to tweak your approach to maximize its value ahead of a full-scale switch.

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The writer, Rushton Hurley, is the founder of Next Vista for Learning, the author of three books (Making Your Teaching Something Special, Making Your School Something Special, and Technology, Teamwork, & Excellence) as well as the writer of the blog Inspiring Improvement.