An overview of digital education tools
Education is going digital at an ever-increasing rate. When done well, going digital provides great potential for the classroom. The content that schools rely on (textbooks, exercise books, teaching manuals) “wants” to be digital. Schools deal in content, and content wants to be digital. They also deal in individual needs, which are often well met by digital products. Teachers can create entertaining and effective learning materials. Research projects become much easier. Communication within the class and with parents can become much easier. And good research exists that motivation and learning results can be greatly enhanced. Worth considering, to say the least.
To go digital, a school of course needs hardware such as PCs or tablets. But without good software and content, those PCs are of little use. Computers are often acquired without an integrated approach arising from a clear didactic vision. A scenario that unfolds all too often is that the person taking buying decisions for the school focuses on buying excellent hardware. The hardware arrives in the classroom with some pre-installed apps on it, perhaps a drawing program, a blogging module or an e-book browser. After a few days, the teacher discovers that there is little overlap between her teaching needs. And because she has little control over what happens on the tablets, the children can access unwelcome content. And again, the box of tablets becomes just another example of abandoned hardware.
In short: going digital requires a software and content focus. What do you need for your class? In a series of articles we will investigate this issue and provide practical insight into the selection process for digital learning tools. As a first step, this article focuses on an overview of the types of services available for your teaching or parenting needs.
An overview of the available digital tools
The world now contains thousands of digital learning tools, and a teacher in a certain language area is likely to be able to choose from hundreds of tools. A complete list cannot be presented, but the major categories of products are described below. The main focus is on tools that can be used for younger students in primary and middle school, but much of this list is also valid and useful for high school teachers and pupils.
- Digital textbooks – in many countries, digital textbooks have been the main focus of the efforts of publishers to go digital. The most basic way of doing this is to scan books and provide a PDF/e-book to teachers, usually bundled for free with the paper book. More advanced digital textbooks allow for taking notes on the PDF, making fonts larger or smaller, written notes or software links to useful referenced content.
- Digital exercise tools – such platforms focus on replacing exercise work in the class with digital exercises that provide immediate feedback to teachers and students. Examples include Snappet and our very own Kpito. Integrated exercise tools include also theory text linked to the exercises for that piece of theory. A good example is Learnbeat.
- Creativity tools – mostly, these focus on drawing and e-painting. Other tools focus on making presentations, music, programming code or maps. Much of these tools come bundled with your hardware such as tablets or Chromebooks.
- Teacher-created content – using tools such as Microsoft Office or Moodle, teachers can create texts, exercises, multimedia presentations and other learning materials to present to the class.
- Interaction tools – these focus on teacher-created quizzes, usually to spur classroom discussion but also to run tests on student understanding, progress and performance. Kahoot is an example.
- Digital workspaces – often with a classroom image interface, these organize school work, allow children to interact with instant and email messaging, and can also be a location where pupils extract learning materials and present their work to teachers. Examples include itslearning and Canvas.
- Monitoring and analysis tools – depending on the local school system, these tools focus mostly on tracking pupil progress over time, and on providing tools and recommendations to teachers about how to support the class and pupil learning process.
- Admin tools – often combined with analysis tools, admin tools register the presence of children and allow teachers to fulfill their admin duties. They can also be the platform to organize report cards and share them with pupils and parents. They can also be used to order or request school supplies for the class.
Selecting the right digital learning tools for your class
Most of the tools described above can be used simultaneously and may even reinforce each other. In fact, if you have the budget and training/implementation time, it is probably a good idea to work towards using most of these tools to some degree.
A piece of good news is that most of the above types of tools are available for free, at least for a pilot version. So it makes sense to try out the various options, going for a free product in a certain category if the more famous names cost money. That way you will get an idea of how useful a type of tool can be to you and your class. If you like a certain type of instrument, you can then go for a more high-quality paid option of your budget allows it.
Presenting a list of options is nice, but how to choose what specific tool to use? This is the subject of another future article. But a short summary of the practical considerations can be given.
- If you are looking for faster learning or if you want to individualize learning and accommodate the special needs of your students, digital exercise books are the best first step. They often save money and lots of time (no more photocopying or grading work!), and they generate data and insights which provide a good base for an integrated digitalization program
- Anything to do with communication between teachers, students and parents is part of a wider societal discussion: do we want to communicate digitally or personally? A pragmatic answer needs to be found that works for you.
- Digital workspaces are a good way to organize class work, but do not expect them to contribute much to faster or deeper learning
- You need to comply with the law and your school’s regulations, which usually dictates what admin and monitoring tools to use
- Creativity and computers are not natural friends. This is not to say that computers can’t help develop creativity, but don’t expect creativity miracles from going digital.