Evaluating Web Tools for the Classroom: A Guide
Wading Through Web 2.0 Tools
Perhaps the greatest thing about the internet is the plethora (my history teacher always gave extra credit if we could use that word in a sentence!) of free and relatively inexpensive tools. I have come across many sites that try to index all of the tools available, but it’s virtually impossible to keep up! The other issue we run into as educators is that the nature and interface of these tools can quickly become outdated and alien to our staff and students. So how can you make the most of what is out there?
1. The 5 Minute Scan
When I come across a potential web 2.0 tool, I am usually able to determine if it’s worth my time investigating in less than 5 minutes. First, I create an account with my generic username and a password (random password generators, such as Last Pass, add extra security). Then, I start clicking buttons. Here’s what I look for:
- Interface – how intuitive and easy to use is it?
- Design – can I quickly navigate through the site?
- Clutter – are there a lot of ads and junk?
- Accessibility – can I get my students connected without an email address?
- Coding – do I or my students have to enter code of any kind to make the website function?
- Plugins – are there plugins that will cause complications with our software?
- Downloads – do I have to download the program onto individual computers?
- Training – can other teachers pick this up quickly without a lot of training?
- Security – will my students’ identities be secure and does the website fall within the purview of district policy?
- Cost – is the tool truly free or low cost, or will my school/district have to fork out thousands of dollars to use it?
If I have issues with one or more these questions, I move on to the next candidate.
What else do you look for when doing a 5 minute scan? Tell us in the comments section!
2. The 10 Minute Exploration
If I decide the web 2.0 tool is worth a closer look, I spend another 10 minutes or so clicking on more buttons! I know that clicking buttons can be scary. In the 90s and early 2000s, randomly moving things around could mean disaster. You could permanently lose information, remove critical applications and files, or – the absolute worst – have to wipe your computer clean and return it to factory settings, losing EVERYTHING you’d ever worked on.
Fortunately, the web doesn’t work that way! On most 2.0 tools, you can click to your heart’s content without fear of breaking anything. Because these tools are on an outside server, you are not in control. So take a deep breath, and play! Most good tools I’ve found don’t actually delete items the first time through. A lot of them will “archive” items so you can restore them. Others will have a “trash” bin that you have to go into to truly delete. And your best friend is control (or command) Z. This undos anything you just did with text.
During those 10 minutes of clicking and exploring, set up dummy or test projects, students, accounts, etc. See what different settings do and how you can manipulate the content. As you look more closely, consider whether the tool can be integrated quickly and smoothly into your classroom. Consider how much time it would take to sign up and “train” your students. If you think it’s worth a shot, then move onto the next step. If you’re not sure, you can put in onto your back-burner for further exploration when you feel like you have more time to take it all in. And, if you decide you really don’t think it will be useful, forget about it!
What tools have you found to be the most beneficial, and for what? Tell us in the comments section!
3. The Plunge
Of course it’s much easier to introduce students to tools at the start of the school year (see this post for more information). But sometimes we don’t have that luxury. Maybe you’ve found a tool that you want to add to a lesson that you are going to present later in the day. Or maybe you’ve been given a directive to try a new program over the next three weeks. Trying something new will not derail your teaching. In fact, it can be extremely beneficial for you and your students. Here are some tips and tricks that will make the experience more palatable, and maybe even enjoyable!
- Prepare yourself for the unexpected. Know that hiccups will occur, and you will get past them.
- Inform your students that you are going to try something new. Why? Because this creates
- a feeling of “oh, Mr. So-and-so trusts us!”
- a willingness to make mistakes (removes fear of failure)
- a desire to explore and find new tricks
- pride in being able to teach the teacher
- a willingness to troubleshoot
- Get productive feedback by
- walking around the room and asking students what is and isn’t working
- having students report out to the class what they discover
- having students evaluate the usefulness and limitations of the tool
- asking students how they think you could use this in class
- Be flexible. Know that you may decide to toss the tool aside after a trial run, or that you may need to still pilot it for a few more days to decide if it’s going to work.
What tips do you have for taking the plunge? Tell us in the comments section!
Ultimately, I think it’s important not to get too attached to any one tool or method of doing something. As mentioned earlier, technology is continually changing. A tool that worked well five years ago may be obsolete today – and that’s okay! When you find that a tool you use is no longer having the impact it once did, be okay with letting it go. Try not to fret about “learning” a whole new system. If you continue to follow the guidelines in the 5 minute scan and 10 minute exploration, you won’t be overwhelmed, and your students will be grateful!
Special Notes for Extensions and Apps
Extensions and Applications are a little bit different. The great thing about these tools is that they can be integrated directly with web browsers (particularly Chrome) AND they come with ratings, just like you find with most online shopping places. These are additional criteria I take into consideration before adding an extension/app.
- Quantity – how many people have already added/downloaded the extension/app?
- Quality – how did people rate the extension/app?
- Comments – what are people saying about the extension/app? How many people have actually provided feedback?
Generally speaking, I take all these factors into consideration as a whole. For example, if the tool has a 4.6 rating out of 5, but only 80 downloads, I will generally move on to a comparable extension/app with more downloads. However, sometimes I take a chance. If I add an extension/app and don’t like it, it’s fairly easy to remove. But make sure you read the rating comments! The comments will reveal if the extension/app doesn’t function properly, has issues with certain operating systems, or has malware (viruses, trojans, etc.). Also, be cautious of you see rave reviews of 5 followed by a lot of reviews of 1 or 2. Developers can comment on their own extension/app, and it’s in their interest to talk up their own program. If you have any concerns after reading the comments, just pass!
What experiences do you have of “letting go” of a tool or working with extensions/apps? Tell us in the comments section!