E-Learning Platforms and Tools: Part 2

By: Mathew Byrne

Are you ready to bring some new technology tools to your classroom or online learning environment? Let’s review some practical tips and ways to evaluate which tools may be best for you. Part 1 of this two-part series offers considerations for selecting a platform (a collection of tools and services). Part 2 discusses specific supplemental technology tools and how to pick the right tools to promote learning and enhance your teaching.

I recently found a spectacular evaluation instrument created by Lauren Anstey and Gavan Watson (2018). It is a rubric intended for a deep and comprehensive review of e-learning tools across several domains including: functionality, accessibility, technical, mobile design, privacy/security, social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. The rubric helps to evaluate how well a tool promotes learning and engagement versus its becoming a distraction or barrier to the learning process. I strongly encourage faculty who are exploring new technologies to take a close look at the full article and tool. Here I focus on just two aspects, notably functional ease of use and teaching presence.

Functionality speaks to what the tool can do and how easy it is to do it. A tool that allows students to easily collaborate and create and share a digital presentation would appear to have a high degree of functionality and attractive features. But beyond just a list of functional options, it is important to consider whether features are easy to learn and use (by both you and your students). Ease of use may sound like a simplified criterion so, if helps, here are the two 20-minute rules that I use.

  • First, my rule is to spend no more than 20 minutes trying to get a specific function to work before I seek help from a peer or support person. Typically, my patience has run out by that time and I begin to miss obvious solutions.
  • My other rule relates to using a new tool for the first time. If I am unable to use or understand the tool at a basic level within 20 minutes, then it is probably not a great fit for students (whose patience and attention are probably far shorter). A steep learning curve for students and faculty equates to lost time and frustration, which may be an impediment to the original intent and the achievement of student learning outcomes.

For me, teaching presence stands out as key to ensuring fit to teaching style and teaching context. I like to think of this criterion as being the digital “teacher tunnel.” The tool must allow for your enthusiasm, passion, and wisdom to be channeled to students. It must make it easy for you to be present to students, in terms of quantity, quality, and types of interactions. Regular, meaningful, and genuine interactions are a key aspect of ensuring student engagement (Bonnel, Smith, & Hober, 2019). For example, if a faculty member is limited to text-only interactions, the interactions may become repetitive and feel depersonalized. A tool that allows for use of voice, video, or emojis can make it easier to widen the tunnel of faculty/student interaction.

Whether you are searching for a creative alternative to traditional assignments or a better fit to a new learning experience, there are now limitless tools and platforms to be explored. Always be sure that you don’t venture too far into a complex digital option that becomes extra work for you or a barrier to learning. Where do you go from here? Here are four tips to follow.

Tip 1: Consult with internal tech-savvy peers and instructional designers. They can often give you a head start on some ideas or help you if you get stuck. There may be existing options that you were not aware of in your primary course management system or new tools that are being trialed within your institution.

Tip 2: Check out ed-tech sites like EDUCAUSE (educause.edu), MERLOT (merlot.org), and even the QSEN site. They provide teaching/learning tips, reviews of tools and techniques, and articles about everything tech in education.

Tip 3: Think about what your objective or learning context is and investigate focused options. Are you looking for a creative way to get students to communicate and share ideas with each other (e.g., FlipGrid or YellowDig)? Perhaps engaging audience response software (e.g., Slido or GoSoapBox)? How about PowerPoint alternatives for student and faculty content creation (e.g., Haiku Deck, Prezi, or ExplainEverthing)? Focused research on specific types of tools will help narrow your search. There are often sites devoted to rating and reviewing specific types of digital tools.

Tip 4: Get out there and try something new! The best way to find something that works is to test out different options. Taking some time to enrich your learning and take some risk can be a great opportunity to find new technologies that support significant learning for your students.

Anstey, L., & Watson, G. (2018). A rubric for evaluating e-Learning tools in higher education. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/9/a-rubric-for-evaluating-e-learning-tools-in-higher-education

Bonnel, W. A., Smith, K. V., & Hober, C. L. (2019). Teaching with technologies in nursing and the health professions (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

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