Students in geogaphy class working on computers

What are some great interactive classroom technology tools?

The year was 1998, and my middle school mind was busy worrying about my favorite boy bands and if my overalls were cool enough. As if! Lucky for me (and my giant set of bangs), my middle school had added a computer lab full of iMacs to expose us to new technology. Like sweet snow cones, those strawberry, grape, and bondi blue computers called to us in all their colorful, bubbled glory. Our primary objective, of course, was to complete whatever typing task the teacher had assigned so we could then hop on Kid Pix and create a dazzling design or play Gizmos and Gadgets.

Times have changed — and so should education

Nowadays, many middle school students have more computing power on a tiny device that jostles around in their pocket or backpack than we had in that whole lab of iMacs. Naturally, this creates a certain level of disconnect between the technology we’re familiar with and what our tech-savvy students use. After all, we were just happy to touch a computer back then — but our students today rarely get a break from one.

Technology can be extremely engaging for students if (and only if) we as educators can figure out how to capture students’ enthusiasm and utilize it toward a productive end. Remember the typing task that I was assigned in the new lab of iMacs? My teachers of the 1990s saw the computer lab as a replacement for the typewriter and used it as such. Boring. Imagine the level of engagement we would have experienced if they had instead tapped into our collective passion for creating and elevated our process to higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy.

Take that analogy and apply it to today. We can use technology to do more than emulate or replace outdated machines and rote methodologies. Teachers have the power to redefine, reimagine, and create new (previously inconceivable) tasks for students to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not saying you should throw out everything, but there is certainly value in the natural engagement that comes with a fresh application of learning. If my teachers had assigned a creation challenge on Kid Pix or used concepts from Gizmos and Gadgets to create a scientific inquiry, my engagement (and that of my fellow game-loving classmates) would have naturally skyrocketed.

It’s an exciting time to be a teacher, but it can also feel overwhelming. Current EdTech tools can be used to increase student engagement, teach necessary academic content, and reimagine the demonstration of understanding. But, how? Let’s look at a list of some implementable possibilities for moving your EdTech tool belt out of the 1990s.

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3 educational technology tools for today’s classroom

1. Mind mapping

Visual brainstorming, drawing connections, or producing graphical representations of ideas and related concepts.

Ideas for engagement

As a formative or summative assessment or even as a review. Give students a list of vocabulary related to the unit of study and ask them to organize it into categories using an EdTech tool. They can share these with other collaborative groups who then analyze the sensibility of the categorization; the original group must defend their reasoning.

As a form of assessment or even within a project-based learning context. Students can visually organize and categorize images, icons, or symbols of related content. (Depending on your subject area, consider topics such as animal classifications, artwork styles, politicians, molecular diagrams, plot events, engineering processes, collected data, chart/graph types, etc.)

How I’ve used it

When studying traditional literature, I assigned my students a mind map assessment using all of the unit vocabulary such as re-told tale, variant, myths, and epics. They were to add any words, categories, or subcategories as they saw fit. After completion, they shared their mind-map and collaboratively noted similarities, differences, and inaccuracies among the mind maps of their peers.

Possible EdTech tools

Bubbl.us is web-based and allows users to save a mind map as an image. Sharing and collaborating is easy. The free plan allows you to create up to three mind maps (the premium plan is $4.91/month).

Popplet is a mind-mapping app for the iPad and web (it requires flash player).

Coggle is an online tool for creating and sharing mind maps. Sharing and real-time collaboration are easy. The free plan allows up to three private diagrams (while the upgrades are $5 for the Awesome-level features or $8 for the Organization-level ones).

2. Live video collaboration

Collaborative and synchronous interactions and conversations through video software allow students to connect with other people around the world in ways that would not otherwise be physically or financially possible.

Ideas for engagement

Join a Skype collaboration. They are searchable by subject, age group, and location. Educators and students can collaborate with other classrooms on a myriad of topics, including geography/culture (like Mystery Skypes, which uses questioning skills to determine the location of another class), social-emotional skills (like celebrating International Peace Day), STEM projects (like learning to code), and reading/writing skills (like book discussions).

Bring in guest speakers virtually. Many authors, speakers, researchers, and other professionals are willing to speak with your students, but in-person engagements are often impossible due to time, geographic, and financial constraints. Utilize live video collaboration software to bring the world into your classroom.

How I’ve used it

As a fully remote educator, I host live, synchronous courses and tutoring sessions weekly. My students interact through Zoom video software, Google Classroom, and other EdTech tools. In one class alone, I was working with students in New Jersey, California, Canada, and China. Through the breakout room function on Zoom, we collaborated on young adult literature with the added perspective of three different nationalities in five different time zones.

Possible EdTech tools

Skype is a free video and audio call software. It hosts a free community called Skype in the Classroom that offers live educational experiences. An account and access to a computer with a video camera, microphone, and the internet are necessary.

Zoom is a video conferencing tool. A free plan will give you 40-minute meetings with up to 100 participants. The paid plans open more features and options (like the breakout rooms that I mentioned).

Google Hangouts can be accessed for free with a Google Account. It requires a computer with a camera (for video calls), microphone, and internet access.

3. Virtual/augmented reality

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated 3D model that can sometimes be interacted with physically (through goggles or physical sensors). Augmented reality (AR) integrates digital information from the user’s environment in real time. For example, in virtual reality environments, I can experience new places in 360 degrees with a headset that shifts the view as I move my head. In AR, I am still in the science lab at my school, but I can see a digital representation of the solar system in 3D hanging in midair.

Ideas for engagement

Go on a virtual field trip. These can be found in lots of different places, including DiscoveryEducation, Google Expeditions, and Skype Virtual Trips. Like an actual field trip that is entertaining and educational, a virtual field trip can bring the world into the classroom. These trips can apply to any content type or age group.

Have students create their own VR or AR content. They can create projects such as digital stories, virtual exhibitions, data visualizations (like infographics), and 3D models. Once they create their content, students can share or even combine it together in collaborative projects utilizing VR or AR.

How I’ve used it

I had my students participate in a Google Literature Trip to see the locations of the setting in the text A Long Walk to Water on the Google Earth platform. Creating a personalized lit trip is possible (and you can even add images, videos, questions, etc.), but I used one created by others and found it by searching a website dedicated to Google Lit Trips.

Possible EdTech tools

Classcraft offers personalized learning adventures through Quests, an online platform, that takes students on a journey for knowledge and rewards their progress. Quests lets you overlay your lesson plans onto interactive maps, with each point containing a learning goal, activity, or resource.

Google Expeditions allow teachers to take students on journeys with both AR and VR capabilities. Expeditions are organized by arts/culture, science, environment, history, monuments, museums, and “reach higher” (this category allows students to take virtual college tours and explore different career options).

YouTube 360 is a free platform that allows you to explore VR experiences.

Nearpod allows users to create and embed interactive lessons including virtual field trips and 3D objects.

360cities provides free 360-degree views of cities around the world.

Augthat allows teachers to utilize augmented reality through shareable lessons.

Increase student engagement with edtech

New technology can feel too complex to use effectively because it’s always changing, but creating applicable and relevant lessons that allow students to create, connect, synthesize, and evaluate using edtech tools is a simple way to dramatically increase student engagement in the digital age. Start small if necessary, but do take steps to eventually dive in and embrace all that technology has to offer. After all, the fashion of the ‘90s might be making a comeback (yay, scrunchies!), but the technology of the past will remain there.

Photo credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

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