Ten Types of Tech Tools That Every Teacher (and Librarian) Needs

Technology integration can be a daunting task, especially with the myriad of tools out there to choose from. Where do you begin? That’s what today’s post is all about.

Mulling it over, I have come up with ten types of tools that should serve as the foundation of a student-centered approach to technology integration. I chose the tools based on their ubiquity, multi-functionality, and potential for use across the curriculum. I also focused on function rather than specifically named tools (this is key to good technology integration), so I will discuss them in a categorical context (though I will give examples for each category).

Here are the ten types of tech tools I recommend for (almost) every classroom and library:

1. Screencasting tools: Screencasting tools, which run the gamut from free to quite expensive (e.g., Screencast-O-Matic, Camtasia, Jing, ScreenChomp, etc…), are truly multi-functional. While screencasting is commonly used for flipped learning or in the context of a technology project, it can also be used as a form of assessment, where students record their actions on screen (e.g., playing a serious game, searching in a database); or student-recorded presentations can be used as part of a peer teaching strategy.

2. Dictation tools: Dictation tools (e.g., Dragon Dictation, Siri, Google Voice) should be available in every classroom and library as part of a universal design for learning initiative. Students who are visually impaired, second-language learners, dyslexic, or who have fine motor difficulties benefit from dictation tools, which free up barriers to writing. Additionally, using dictation tools can help all students improve both enunciation and pronunciation, which are an essential part of presentation skills. Dictation tools can also serve as a central part of a storytelling curriculum in the early grades, allowing young students to “see” what they are saying (how cool is that?).

3. Collaboration tools: Collaboration (and communication) skills are necessary for success in project-based learning. However, they are generally not intentionally taught in today’s classrooms. The usual approach is “throw them together and hope for the best.” Instead, collaboration tools that allow students to communicate outside the classroom should be carefully integrated into project-based learning under the guidance of a teacher. One of the simplest ways to do that is by providing a collaborative space (e.g., wiki, discussion forum) through the course page. Another simple approach is through collaborative software like Google Docs or Office 365. If you want to go beyond that, the business world has spawned loads of tools designed specifically for collaboration.

4. Writing tools: Between my thesis and my just-released book (out today!), I did A LOT of writing in the past year, and I can tell you, I hate Microsoft Word for writing. Why? Because it’s a constant battle with formatting. Now, Microsoft Word works just fine in the editing and formatting stages of writing, but during the creative process of writing itself, at times it can present as a frustrating barrier to composing something decent. This experience has made me more empathetic to the needs of students, who are just learning to become writers. As a result, I highly recommend saving Word for the final leg of the writing process, and using a simpler tool for the construction of the composition. A few options: Google Docs, Scrivener (especially in higher education), or Texts. To go super simple, use Notepad. Even blogging tools provide a less distracted approach to writing.

5. Project planning tools: If we really want to help students achieve success in project-based learning, they need to learn how to plan. Project management is a real-world skill that I believe is under addressed in today’s classrooms. Good project management skills make students more organized, and those skills can ultimately improve student success across all areas of learning. There are many ways to go about teaching project management skills, and just as many tools to support it. A simple approach is the use of concept mapping software, like Inspiration, to help students visually organize project-based tasks. For group projects, a tool like Azendoo or Basecamp can be valuable. Even a spreadsheet or table can help students develop a timeline for tasks that need to be completed.

6. Graphic design (or drawing) tools: Visual literacy is an increasingly important competency in the area of 21st century literacies. Additionally, visual tools play an important role in supporting student understanding (i.e., can reduce cognitive overload). Graphic organizers, concept maps, infographics, figures, illustrations, and more can all be created using graphic design tools. At the very least, most Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)  include drawing tools and SmartArt, which provide the basics for graphic design. Likewise, Google Docs provides similar functions. Concept mapping software, like Inspiration, is a heartier tool for creating graphics and visual diagrams. And for more serious and precise graphic design, Inkscape is a powerful tool (and free).

7. Editing and formatting tools: The process of editing and formatting exercises higher order thinking skills, especially in the context of peer review. As I mentioned in the writing tools category, Microsoft Word performs better as an editing and formatting tool rather than a writing tool. In fact, all of the Microsoft Office applications serve as very powerful editing and formatting tools due to their review functions (e.g., comments, tracking changes). Add collaboration to that, and you have excellent and highly underutilized tools that go a long way to improve the quality of students’ research. writing, and presentation skills across the curriculum (an alternative is Google Docs). And don’t forget the dozens of video and image editing and formatting tools, which range from simple (e.g., Pixler, WeVideo, Screenr) to complex (e.g., Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere). Video and image editing in particular foster creativity and design thinking, as well as visual literacy.

8. Spreadsheet software: Let’s focus on Excel (or Google Sheets) for a minute. Why is spreadsheet software included here? I included it because of it’s multi-functionality and capability as a problem solving tool. Whether using the tables as a way to categorize and organize information (planning) in a language arts classroom, or using the computational functions for data analysis in a science classroom, or using the graphing functions in a math classroom, or even using its capabilities to build a database for an information literacy session, spreadsheet software is the little engine that could (but one that many teachers shy away from) when it comes to problem-based learning.

9. Adaptive tutoring systems: Adaptive tutoring systems are typically self-paced e-learning systems that use artificial intelligence to adapt to the learner’s needs and pace. I believe adaptive tutoring should play a central role in the flipped classroom, especially in the areas of language, math, and reading because it allows teachers to track students’ progress and personalize learning, allowing some students to move ahead (reducing boredom) and giving other students the extra practice they may need to master a skill. ALEKS is an example of one of the older adaptive tutoring systems, and it is heavily used at the higher education level for math remediation (it offers K-12 tutoring as well). DreamBox Learning is a newer math program, and one worth evaluating. Knewton is a free personalized learning software that covers a variety of subject areas. And there are a growing number of adaptive reading programs available. A word of caution about adaptive tutoring though: be sure to fully evaluate any program before adoption. You want to look for evidence-based research that supports its learning effectiveness (a good job for librarians).

10Transmedia tools: Finally, number 10 (phew!) is transmedia tools. This is an emerging trend in education, more accurately described as transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling combines story worlds with gaming elements (and sometimes gaming worlds) to create a powerful combination of the critical thinking and problem solving skills that good games (e.g., Portal, Minecraft) support and the content retention and empathy that storytelling supports. Excellent examples of transmedia storytelling include Inanimate Alice, Rockford’s Rock Opera, and Ruby Skye P.I. This is an important trend to pay attention to, and you can learn more about it in my new book, Transmedia Storytelling, The Librarian’s Guide (ABC-CLIO), available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

To Foster a Love for Reading, Think Outside the Book

The principal at my daughter’s school has been waxing poetic lately about the 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents, as identified by the Search Institute, a research organization with a mission to discover “what kids need to succeed.” Number 25 of the developmental assets is reading for pleasure. For librarians, this comes as no surprise. The million dollar question, though, is how do we get kids reading more, especially at the adolescent stage when the voluntary choice to read begins to wane?

It’s time to think outside the book…

…and graphic novel (though these are great)…

…and magazine (not sure that these count as sustained reading when they are formatted as bits and bites of information).

So, what other modes can give that same sense of sustained reading (I’ll call this a state of flow) that really good books (including graphic novels) so often do?

Here are some ideas:

  • Text adventure games. These harken back to the days of DOS, and I think any self-proclaimed gaming geek will be familiar with them. This is reading plus gaming, which makes for a powerful literacy tool. You can still play some of the classics, including Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork. Additional titles can be found here (you can even create your own). Text adventures are a great way to bridge gaming literacy with traditional literacy.
  • Story exploration games. Consider these a more modern take on the text adventure games with multimedia and (sometimes) transmedia elements. They are story-driven, so combine traditional reading with the multimodality of more contemporary gaming literacy (including visual, information, media literacies). Here are some examples:
    1. Gone Home
    2. The Stanley Parable
    3. The Minims
    4. Minecraft: Story Mode
    5. Cloud Chamber
    6. For other titles, check out Games for Change
  • Interactive fiction. Technically, text adventure games and story exploration games can be thought of as interactive fiction (and are sometimes categorized that way). For the purpose of this post, I am using the interactive fiction category to include titles that are not necessarily games, though most include gaming elements. Interactive fiction comes in many flavors, from “choose your own adventure,” hypertext, multi-ending stories to digital novels and multimodal audiobooks. Reading (or narration) is a central component of interactive fiction. Here are some examples:
    1. Inanimate Alice
    2. Hilda Bewildered
    3. Rockford’s Rock Opera
    4. Beneath Floes
    5. Flight Paths
  • Story making. Writing is an active approach to reading, so what better way to foster recreational reading than to foster recreational writing? Internet technologies make it so easy. My favorite story making tools include Storybird, My StoryMaker (Carnegie Library), and Drawp (also, Drawp for School). For a list of more tools, click here.
  • Transmedia franchises. Hollywood has handed librarians a pot of gold with the proliferation of transmedia franchises. We can now enter a story world through a movie, a video game, or a social media platform (and more) before we ever discover the book. The Game of Thrones franchise is a massively popular example of this, as is Star Wars. Take advantage of transmedia franchises by helping students make connections between the story worlds, so that they eventually land on the book.

If you want to explore more innovative ways of thinking about reading “outside the book,” be sure to check out my upcoming publication, titled Transmedia Storytelling: The Librarian’s Guide (click on the image below to find out more):