10 Tools to Get Started with Blended Learning

I’m often asked by teachers how to get started doing Blended Learning. My answer is always “why do you want to try Blended Learning?” Rather than trying to be cheeky or coy about my practice, I’m trying to begin a conversation about the value of moving learning online. If you haven’t determined why you’re doing it, your attempts will be unfocused and confusing for students. So my suggestion is that you consider your goals – what I refer to as the “verbs” (connect, network, collaborate, cooperate, create, etc.) – and then create the Blended Learning experiences that fit.

Once you know what you’re trying to do, here are the 10 tools I recommend to get started with Blended Learning.

1. For those of you who don’t have a LMS (Learning Management System) at your school to host your online learning activities, I highly recommend Edmodo. It can do most everything that an expensive LMS can do, but is free for individual teachers. An interesting option with Edmodo is the ability to connect with other teachers’ courses. Edmodo has iOS and Android apps, so it’s a good mobile solution too.

2. If I were looking to begin a course from scratch and wanted a LMS, I’d probably choose Schoology. Envisioned as more of a social learning network than the typical LMS, Schoology looks and feels like Facebook, but with the powerful features teachers want. Students report they don’t want their classes interfering with their Facebook life, and Schoology gets the most out of students already well-honed social networking skills in their academic life. Best of all, it’s free. There is a fee for adding “power features”, but prices are fairly low.

3. WordPress is my favorite tool. Reading and writing are more important than ever in the 21st century, and blogging allows students to improve not only as writers but also as readers and thinkers. WordPress is the platform of choice for professional bloggers, and I think it’s one all students should learn. (If you have Google Apps for Edu, Blogger is a good alternative.) WordPress.com is free, and hosted for you, making it easy to start blogging in minutes. With WordPress.org, you can self-host your blog, and customize it a thousand ways. [NOTE: WordPress can also be a powerful LMS! For details, contact me!]

4. Evernote is a complete information management system that my students and I can’t do without. This free tool allows you to take notes in many formats, including voice and handwritten, and stores them on your devices or in the cloud. Evernote has excellent apps for all mobile devices, and users with an account can sync information across all devices instantaneously. My students keep all their research information in Evernote, and can make these public for me and others to view. Evernote also has “clipping” plug-ins for browsers that make capturing information super easy.

5. Twitter is both an excellent tool for connecting students and teachers, as well as a valuable learning resource! My students and I use Twitter as our base social networking platform for our Personal Learning Networks, bringing in the collective wisdom of crowds (up to half a billion users now!). Teachers can use Twitter to follow leading innovative educators, and to follow “hashtags” that fit their interests – #isedchat, for example, is a weekly chat of hundreds of independent school teachers. Twitter can be a great tool for “backchanneling” during lectures or research projects, allowing students to ask questions that many people can answer. (I have my students create accounts they use for academic purposes – part of building a positive digital footprint!) To start building your PLN on Twitter, follow me (@MikeGwaltney), and find more Educators on the Twitter4Teachers Wiki. Read my recommendations for how to use Twitter in your class.

6. Use Screencast-o-Matic to produce instructional videos. Screencasts are also a great way to answer the same question time after time after time.  Many teachers who have flipped their classes use Screencast-o-Matic to record their  content delivery videos (less than 10 minutes apiece, typically). While Screencast-o-Matic is a free service and does not require  software download, the $15/year Pro Account is well worth the price.  This small fee gives you access to easy-to-use editing tools, storage and organization of recordings, and more efficient ways to upload videos to YouTube (if desired).

7. If you have ever been frustrated that your bookmarks from one computer aren’t available on another, Diigo is a solution.  At its most basic, Diigo allows you to access all of your bookmarks from anywhere on the web.  There are a variety of toolbars and shortcuts to make this process seamless.  Other great features include the ability to tag, highlight, and annotate webpages that you bookmark.  Your notes appear when you re-visit those page and can be aggregated by visiting your list on Diigo’s website.  Perhaps the most powerful feature are those that support collaboration and sharing.  Your bookmarks and lists can be made public or shared with a defined group.  Group members are notified when new sites are added to a list and comments can be read by others that visit the page. Diigo also has numerous groups you may join (such as Classroom 2.0), making it another great tool to grow your PLN.

8. Voicethread is one of the most popular online learning tools in use today. Teachers may create voicethreads for students to record comments demonstrating knowledge or problem-solving methodology; students may create voicethreads to tell a story or hold an asychronous conversation with classmates; the possibilities are endless! Post images or video for others or have them create their own threads as an alternate presentation and collaborative tool. Art teachers use it to post images of student works and perform peer critiques.  Dance instructors and physical education teachers and coaches could post videos of rehearsals and games for analysis and feedback. Voicethread has an educator version that is reasonably priced, providing greater privacy and easier account management.

9. Google Drive is “a place where you can create, share, collaborate, and keep all of your stuff. You can upload and access all of your files, including videos, photos, Google Docs, PDFs and beyond.” (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/…) Google Docs is built into Google Drive, perfect for creating and collaborating in real time on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You can add and reply to comments and receive notifications when other people comment on shared items. You can get started with 5GB of storage for free.

10. TodaysMeet is a great tool for creating “backchannels” during class meetings or as a chat room for students to use asynchronously.  No accounts or sign-up is necessary.  Name your room, choose how long you’d like it available, then send the link to whomever you’d like to have access.  It’s also great for public note-taking, brainstorming, etc.

This is a Top 10 list, but a bonus tool I can’t ignore is Wikispaces. I’ve used Wikispaces with my students for years as a site to host student-created work and for allowing students to collaborate on large projects. For a sample, check out our AP U.S. History wikispace: http://apush-wiki-marlborough-school.wikispaces.com/

Many thanks to my colleagues Craig Luntz and Melissa Wert for collaborating with me on this list as co-facilitators in our OSG professional development course on Blended Learning.

Quotes From My Notes, ISTE 2012 Day One

Here are my top quotes and notes from all the sessions I attended on Monday at ISTE 2012.

1. Mobilizing around Mobile Learning (panel discussion, developed by Lucy Gray), notes: http://bit.ly/KJR1O1

“Students demonstrated more agency when they had mobile devices: they searched for need-to-know information more often on mobiles than on laptops.” – Students don’t need to be taught on-demand learning on mobile devices. They do it naturally.

“We’ve reached the mobile learning tipping point. Every corporate education vendor is at work on mobile learning.” – As in the opening keynote, Qualcomm had a presence here. The rep reiterated they aren’t direct marketing to education. Then why are they at ISTE?

2. Web-Connected Minds: Connections, Constructivism, and Brain Plasticity (Yvonne Marie Andres, Global SchoolNet), notes: http://bit.ly/KJSfZr 

“We’ve arrived at a Tipping Point: this is the perfect time in history for the joining of the web, constructivism, and brain plasticity. This is the direction education is going.” – Using social media to make class more student-centered is popular, and supported by brain science. With some caveats.

“Constructivist theory works effectively today when there is a real public audience that gives effective feedback.” – Students who share their work online and receive critical comments from peers and others on the web are more likely to show engagement and improved learning results.

3. How to Start and Sustain Conversations around Change (Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli), notes: http://bit.ly/LyIYTI

“Big changes are coming for schools. The question we should all be asking is ‘What is the value of schools in the new 21st Century context?'” – Will challenged us to start conversations at our schools about why we’re relevant in a world of free abundant information and connections, in which people learn anytime and anywhere.

“People have an emotional reaction to these conversations. Remember to address the emotional as well as the logical: – Rob’s point is that many we need to show some empathy and come at the conversation with teachers from a place that honors their personal investment in their work.

4.How to use Twitter, Diigo, and YouTube in the Classroom (Roseanne Sessa, Abington Friends School), notes: http://bit.ly/KAXyWr

“Every student should graduate high school with a Twitter, Diigo, and YouTube account.” – Roseanne quoted Alan November when explaining why she started using social media with her science classes. This was a great session for teachers new to these tools, but a little too elementary for me and I left early. My notes are short.

5. Trends and Issues in Online Learning (SIGOL Forum), notes: http://bit.ly/KAYoCs

“How many of you have enough college counselors? No problem, we have an app for that.” – From the introduction of one of the panelists who’s developed an app for students to connect with school counselors and share their personal information. Honestly, this one rubbed me wrong for some reason.

“I hate to admit it but we’ve wasted so much money over the last 15 years with our 1:1 laptop program, because we haven’t used them for collaboration and deep learning.” – refreshing honesty about why going 1:1 doesn’t change learning! Vicki Waters, Principal of Pymble Ladies College in Sydney, Australia spoke about how they are transforming their school by doing focused professional development, and by creating online and physical partnerships with local and global communities. Impressive!