Ten Awesome Webtools to Use in the Classroom (Part 2)

This is the second installment in a three-part series in which I am going to “tinker” with and review some webtools to enhance and transform your classroom experience! Please feel free to shoot me any questions about any of these tools, and I will answer them (or point you to the person who can answer them). 🙂

4. Poll Everywhere: You’ve seen those cases full of “clickers” (otherwise known as classroom response systems) that allow students to interactively engage with their teachers’ lessons–however, they are just too expensive for you to afford. Poll Everywhere may be your solution! This is a website that allows you to come up with any question in any format (multiple choice, true/false, or open-ended) and allows your audience to reply to the question in real time by texting their response. In multiple choice format, this looks like a series of codes (one assigned to each response) for your students to type in and text to a certain number, and each participant is only allowed one response. You may think, “Big deal! I could have them text my personal cell phone number and achieve the same goal.” However, the site also creates a giant bar graph for you to display on your projector or smart board. As the students text their responses, they are added to the graph in real time. It ends up looking something like this:

poll

Perhaps if I had chosen a more interesting poll topic, I would have gotten more participation? Womp womp. :-/

There are a few issues that I have with this website. For one thing, I can’t tell who is responding with which answers, or whether all of my students have responded. This is frustrating if the students are responding to knowledge-based questions, because if someone out there is getting consistently wrong answers, I won’t know who it is–and that makes Poll Everywhere kind of a worthless assessment tool. However, if I’m asking feeling-based questions or opinion questions, the anonymity might be a good thing, because it might give students the confidence they need to say what they really think without worrying about their peers’ reactions. A nice thing about Poll Everywhere is that I am able to just casually try it out without creating an account and giving out my information. However, if I decide that I really like the site and I want to use it often, I can create an account and start saving a file for my quizzes and polls. I did not have the opportunity to use this website with real students; however, I have spoken to a few teachers who have used it successfully with their kids. Of course, the biggest hang-up is that all of your students need to have cell phones with texting capabilities. In today’s classroom, this is likely, but not guaranteed. This website, though it can be used for educational purposes, clearly isn’t geared specifically toward education. It could be used during any public presentation or business meeting. After talking about Poll Everywhere with some of my teacher friends, they recommended similar sites that were more educator friendly, such as Socrative and Kahoot!. Those will have to go on my “too-be-tinkered-with” list.

5. Audacity: Audicity is free software available on the internet that allows the user to record and manipulate audio tracks. At its simplest, you can hit the record button and speak into the microphone on your computer to create “voice-overs” to use in multimedia presentations or to publish as podcasts. However, Audacity is capable of much more than that–there are many different ways to manipulate your recording. You can amplify it or clarify it (diminishing any background noise), slow it down and speed it up, change the pitch, and of course, edit out any long spaces of silence (either manually or automatically). The great thing about Audacity is that, even though it is a pretty complex program, it is inherently differentiated. I am not a “techie” by any means, so I was pretty intimidated the first time I took a look at the Audacity interface:

audacity

Screen shot of Audacity

However, I know how to push “record” and how to push “stop,” and the first time I used it, that’s all I really needed to know. However, as I tinkered with it more, I started to figure out how to edit my recording and make it sound so much better. And, if I continue to tinker with it even more, I’ll eventually figure out Audacity’s most advanced features (splicing and mixing tracks together–so I could do voice-overs on top of music or even insert myself into audio clips with famous historical figures to conduct mock interviews, importing and manipulating sound files, converting cassette tapes and records into digital files, removing the voice from hip hop tracks so that my students can create and record their own unique lyrics, etc.). The software requires downloading, which may be an issue in very restrictive school districts. However, it is reliable software that will not add any malware to your computer, and it’s completely free–which is pretty incredible considering all of the features and possibilities!

6. Weebly: This is a jack-of-all-trades kind of site that allows users to create their own websites (using user-friendly templates and add-ons rather than starting from scratch with HTML coding) and host their own blogs. This site is completely free (to an extent–it can support use by up to 40 students before a reasonable subscription fee is required to “Go Pro”). Weebly has a division devoted specifically to education, which I really like. Weebly for Education has all kinds of great features, like allowing me to make a website or blog that is password protected, so that only my students (who I would provide with the password) and students’ parents could access the site. They also give me the option of hosting my students’ blogs from my website, which I think is really cool. On just about any other blogging site, my students would have to create their own blogs and they would just be floating out there in cyberspace for anyone to read (which many parents may not like). However, with Weebly, I can create a class website, and then have unique links on the website that work as portals to those student blogs (as in, the ONLY way to reach those blogs), and I could choose to make those password protected as well. However, I like the idea of creating a site with one general password to get in, and then allowing the students to be able to freely read one another’s blogs and connect with each other online password free. I could also task my students with creating completely public websites that educate visitors about a certain topic or social cause. It would be a great way to let my students know that they have knowledge and opinions worth sharing with the world!

A screen shot of Weebly's admin page, where the teacher can edit and add student accounts

A screen shot of Weebly’s admin page, where the teacher can edit and add student accounts

Weebly also supports a variety of multimedia, so I or my students can upload pictures, videos, documents, interactive maps, or even audio players and entire photo galleries! That means that some of the amazing webtools that I’ve been reviewing on my blog can be used in conjunction with Weebly–I can show live polls and poll results from Poll Everywhere, upload audio files from Audacity, animated videos created on GoAnimate, etc. This is one of those sites that is hard to truly tinker with when I don’t have a full class to participate, but I am really excited about the implications that Weebly could have on transforming my instruction. We could take everything that we create in the classroom online, and also learn things online that carry over into the physical classroom! 🙂

An example of a teacher website in edit mode

An example of a teacher website in edit mode

Are we using Wikipedia too much?

Is there anyone left out there who hasn’t used Wikipedia? As a casual reference–let’s say, “How many seasons was Friends on the air?” or “When/why did Borders bookstore go out of business?”–Wikipedia can be a great tool. When you search a question or topic on any popular search engine–Google, Bing, or Yahoo–Wikipedia is generally one of the top hits listed on the results page. According to Wikipedia (haha–yes! There is a Wikipedia page about Wikipedia), the free-access internet encyclopedia is the “sixth most popular website” on the internet and it gets “nearly 500 million unique visitors each month.” But should we let students use Wikipedia as a research tool in the classroom? The answer, surprisingly, may be “yes.” I may have lost some of you naysayers at this point. You know who you are–many of you still proudly display your leather-bound sets of Encyclopedia Brittanica on your shelves, and you wouldn’t be caught dead pulling up Wikipedia on the library computers on your university campus. But hear me out…

Argument #1 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: Wikipedia can be edited and “vandalized” by literally anyone using the internet.

It’s true–anyone can add material to a Wikipedia article. There aren’t designated authors out there; we are all authors. However, my husband and his friends tested the limits of Wikipedia several years ago while they were in college. They played a joke on one of their friends by writing an entry all about their poor victim and his…ahem…bathroom habits. They screen captured it and printed it out as proof that it existed. However, in a matter of minutes–minutes!–their entry was deleted. While there are no professional authors out there, apparently there are some pretty serious Wikipedia editors that watch the servers very closely for new information being added to their site. The Wikipedia Wikipedia article (I’m running out of clever ways to reference this) describes their bureaucratic system in extraordinary detail, explaining the process of becoming a site administrator and referencing the Wiki page that details policies and guidelines for editing. Just the idea that it only took minutes for my husband and his hooligan friends’ false article to be noticed and deleted is pretty impressive–and this was years ago, long before Wikipedia was being used on smart phones and tablets. I’m sure the turnaround rate for what Wikipedia terms as “vandalism” is much quicker now–it may only be a matter of seconds for false material to be detected and disposed of. I would also argue, from a teacher’s perspective, that Wikipedia’s editability (is that a real word?) could be an asset to the classroom. Imagine assigning your students to write research papers not just to be turned in and graded, but to be published online to Wikipedia? Our students will take a great deal more care with properly citing their sources and editing spelling and grammar if they know that they are writing an article for Wikipedia. Their writing will be published online as a source for other people to use for years to come–how exciting!

Argument #2 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: The content included on Wikipedia is not always strictly academic.

Your Encyclopedia Brittanica probably doesn’t have an article about the life and career of Kim Kardashian. Most printed encyclopedias are mindful of their page count and restrictive with their content. Wikipedia is much more open about the type of material it includes, and it’s one of the reasons that it’s become one of the most widely-used reference tools on the internet. You will find science articles right alongside pop culture biographies, with up-to-the minute updates on noteworthy events almost as soon as they occur. That is one major advantage that Wikipedia has over a traditional printed tome–it avoids the lengthy publication process, so the information it provides is never out of date. According to the WW article (again), “50% of US physicians have consulted Wikipedia.” That either promotes your confidence in this vast online resource or it undermines your trust in your family doctor. 🙂

Argument #3 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: The information it presents simply isn’t as reliable as the information in a published text.

I would have made this same argument several years ago. However, Wikipedia has changed quite a bit over the years, and the organization and administrators behind the scenes are working hard to make it just as reliable as any published reference tool. And, to reference the WW article again, “a 2005 survey of Wikipedia published in Nature based on a comparison of 42 science articles with Encyclopedia Britannica found that Wikipedia’s level of accuracy approached Encyclopedia Britannica’s and both had similar low rates of “serious errors.” Again, part of what makes Wikipedia more error proof is its changeability. A printed encyclopedia contains out-of-date information as soon as it hits the shelf–it’s inevitable. However, Wikipedia is constantly being updated and improved. It’s a living, breathing document, and one that contains far more (increasingly reliable) information than a printed text. One of the other things that I like about Wikipedia is that authors are required to cite their sources. We don’t have to take their word for it if we don’t trust them–we can simply check out the works that they cite at the bottom of the page, usually printed in hyperlink form for easy access. That means that when a student uses a Wikipedia page as a research tool, we (as teachers) can have them also use the works cited in the article. The Wikipedia article could theoretically be a springboard to searching even more (and more reliable, a skeptic might argue) sources like government sites and university databases. In this way, Wikipedia can provide a powerful blueprint–a “start here” guidemap–to more in depth research on any given topic. If the works cited on an article look a little slim, that may also be a good indication that very little is known about the topic being researched, and it might guide the student to choose a topic that’s a little more researchable.

Argument #4 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: If we don’t set some boundaries, students won’t stop at Wikipedia–the next thing you know, they’ll be searching Twitter for their research papers!

Perdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)  is one step ahead of you–they’ve already explained a way to accurately quote and reference a tweet in MLA format. So if you’re worried that Wikipedia is just the beginning, your fears are founded. But really, I don’t think you need to be afraid. After all, what the internet boils down to is simply information that we’re accessing from our computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Introducing and permitting Wikipedia to enter our classrooms is also a great way to springboard into teaching our students how to determine which web resources are reliable and which are not–a skill that they will likely use for years to come. So embrace the change! Or endure the fate that ICT teacher Nigel Willetts mentions in his quote: “When faced with a steam-rolling technology, you either become part of the technology or part of the road!”