5 Tech Tools for the Newly Connected Educator

This one is for the teaching with technology newbies.  I know there are lots of you out there; I find myself teaching you quite often.  Sometimes those of us whose lives are threaded through with technology in every possible way forget that somewhere out there, there is a teacher who doesn’t understand the difference between a tweet and a status update. If the extent of your online activity is looking at pictures of your grandkids on Facebook, this post is for you! As you go through this post, you’ll see words and phrases that are underlined.  Click on those for more resources related to that word or phrase.

So let’s say you’re one of those educators, and you want to know where to start.  Slogging through all of the available information out there is a daunting task, so I’m going to give you the top 5 tech tools I think you should start with; from there, the technology you can branch out to is virtually infinite.

1. Prezi
Prezi is basically like a souped up version of PowerPoint.  You can import slides from PowerPoint, as a matter of fact, but I think that kind of defeats the purpose of this tool.  What Prezi does is allow you to zoom, spin, add images and videos, and share and collaborate with others on the web.  It is really useful for minilessons, because it’s much more visually engaging than PowerPoint, and it’s also a great tool for students to use to collaborate on projects together.  The best parts are that it’s free and easy to learn.  Give it a try and I guarantee you’ll never be going back to PowerPoint.

http://prezi.com/ck5bxv2jxtrz/a-library-for-the-future/

2. Dropbox
Dropbox is what we call “cloud storage.”  This means that (in very simplistic terms) instead of, or in addition to, saving files on the hard drive of your computer, you can save them to a really safe and secure hard drive that Dropbox manages for you.  The files basically live online, and you can grab them whenever and wherever you need them.  So here’s what you do:

  • Download the Dropbox software and install it on your computer.
  • Start dragging and dropping files into your new Dropbox folder on your computer.
  • That’s it!  Now your files are backed up, and if your computer gets run over by a truck, you can restore your files without losing anything.

If you want to get fancy, you can also create shared or public folders, and put things in them that you want other teachers, parents, or students to be able to access.  One word of caution; I don’t recommend storing student data in Dropbox for security/privacy reasons.  Dropbox is generally very safe and private, but why take the chance?

A section of my Dropbox folder in the online interface.

3. Twitter
Ah, Twitter…To the non-initiated, Twitter probably seems like a neverending stream of random, disorganized thoughts.  However, Twitter is probably the most powerful way for you to connect with your fellow educators to engage in professional development, discussion, and debate.  Go set up an account on Twitter, and you’ll have the option of “following” people and organizations.  This means that every time they “tweet” something (or share an idea or resource with their fellow Twitter users) you will see it.  You can then share it yourself or reply to it.  You can also share your own stuff; the one restriction is that you only have 140 characters in which to do so.  At first this seems restrictive, but what it actually does is forces people to post only the most important part of what they’re trying to say.  The key to Twitter being useful is that you need to carefully curate who you follow.  If you load up your Twitter feed (the ever changing list of things people are tweeting) with celebrities and teenagers, Twitter is going to quickly seem useless.  However, if you follow political figures, scientists, organizations, your students, your colleagues, authors, etc., then all of a sudden the Twitter feed becomes this amazing real-time source of information.  You can also engage in real time conversations with other users by using “hashtags.” A hashtag is like a label for your tweet to let other people know what it’s about.  People can then search by hashtag and find all of the tweets about a given topic.  Take for example, one of my recent tweets:

In this tweet, I shared a link, and added hashtags to it so that people looking for tweets about certain topics could find it.  I used the hashtag #teaching for people who might be searching for teaching tweets, the hashtag #edchat, which is a popular hashtag for general discussion about education, #edtech, which is for discussions about educational technology, and I also did something called “mentioning,” where I put the name of another Twitter user in my post so that people that follow that other user would see my tweet as well. Here’s what a quick search for people tweeting about #edchat brought up for me:

I know this seems like a lot to take in, but trust me, once you get the hang of it, this will be a great source of information for you, and an invaluable way for you to share your expertise with the world.  You can even set up hashtags and get your students tweeting about lessons.  It’s a great way to communicate with students in a medium with which they are already familiar.

4. Facebook
You’re probably already on Facebook.  I bet you have an account where you “like” pictures of family, share things, and post status updates.  However, you probably don’t have a Facebook group set up for your students.  You have the ability to, for free, set up a closed or private group for your students to interact with.  If you already have a schoolwide LMS (Learning Management System) then you don’t need this; of course, if you already have a schoolwide LMS, you’re probably not a newly connected educator.  The benefit of using Facebook with your students is visibility.  Just like with Twitter, you can connect with students in the way that they are already communicating outside the classroom.  You can share files, post information, links, photos, and videos, send out reminders, etc.  Take some time before you do this, though, and read about the difference between a closed Facebook group and a secret Facebook group.

Image courtesy of Facebook for Educators

5. YouTube
You’ve probably also already been on YouTube.  YouTube is ubiquitous these days, with even 95 year old great-grandmas commenting on cat videos.  However, you can harness the power of YouTube for your classroom.  YouTube offers you the ability to upload videos to the website for either public consumption, or for specific people.  You can create videos of yourself explaining concepts.  You can create videos of yourself walking students through the syllabus, or addressing questions about assignments.  You can have students record themselves talking about topics, or presenting projects and post it for the world to see.  This tool allows a level of collaboration and sharing of ideas that is unprecedented.

Now here’s the sad part.  Many of you are working (or will be working) in districts or schools that block some or all of these sites.  If that is the case, you have a few options:

  • You can fight it.  Take it to the school or district level, and challenge the policy.  Here’s a good article to get you started on why you should fight it.
  • You can use these tools at home, and encourage students to do the same.  However, if you’re in a high needs school, this may be a challenge.
  • You can break policy and use a proxy server to do it anyway.  Of course, if you choose to do this, all potential consequences fall on your shoulders, and you risk your job if you get caught.  I will tell you, however, that most of your students already know how to do this, and are doing it on a daily basis.

I know this is a lot of information, if you’re not currently a “connected” educator.  I encourage you, however, to try one of these technologies at a time.  Use what works for you, and make an effort to become connected globally to your fellow educators.  We can’t wait for you to join us!

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