Examples of digital tools and how to use them the classroom

Content objects

ePDF

An ePDF is a digital document that is formatted as an embedded portable document. (PDF stands for portable document format.) ePDFs are commonly referred to as ‘books behind glass’ because they are digitised versions of paper books. Like paper books, they can be produced in full colour or black and white. To read an ePDF, you need an e-reading application on your device—ePDFs support only text and static images.

The benefits of ePDFs are that:

  • you can load many of them onto a single device
  • they allow readers to search the content easily
  • they allow readers to highlight important parts of the text.

An ePDF version of a printed textbook will look identical to the print book with the same page numbers. ePDFs can be accessed on smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptop computers or interactive whiteboards. They are downloadable, so they can be preloaded on devices, hence making an internet connection optional. This functionality is helpful for teachers who are using both print and digital books in their classrooms.

However, there are also some drawbacks to ePDFs. The static layout means the e-book does not reflow to the size of the screen. This means that ePDFs sometimes have usability issues on smartphones or smaller tablets, with part of the book being cut off. File size can also be a problem for image-intensive, full-colour ePDFs.

ePUB

An ePUB is an electronic publication. It is a widely used format as it can be used across devices and operating systems because it allows text to reflow and resizes to fit the type of device on which it is being viewed. To read an e-book, you need an e-reading application on your device. ePUB supports the following media types: text, video and audio.

The benefits of ePUBs are that:

  • text can reflow to fit the type of device onto which the ePUB is loaded (but this means that page numbers do not correlate to the print version of the book)
  • they can be used across devices and operating systems
  • they commonly contain enhancements such as digital audio or video
  • they can include hyperlinks (as with ePDFs) that allow readers to link to externally accessible content, i.e. on the internet.

ePUBs can be accessed on smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptops or interactive whiteboards. They are downloadable and can be preloaded on devices, so making an internet connection optional.

Enhanced ePUBs containing digital audio, video, animations, and other media are very effective teaching and learning tools for difficult concepts in Accounting, the Sciences and Languages.

Videos

Videos can exist in offline or online formats. A popular digital video format is an MP4, but others do exist. Offline videos are typically loaded on DVDs and screened on a television set (via a DVD player) or laptop. Online videos are embedded in ePUBs or can be accessed on websites (such as YouTube) on the internet.

Video is a standard digital tool traditionally used for entertainment purposes but is now increasingly used as a digital education tool. Video usually includes audio components but can also include text. Video can be stopped and started as needed. High-quality videos that cover a range of educational topics are now readily available. However, videos that are clearly integrated with educational content/skills and relevant assessment tasks are the most useful for learners.

The benefits of videos are that they can:

  • demonstrate abstract principles as they are applied to real-world contexts
  • demonstrate practical processes and methods, such as how to conduct science experiments
  • easily be created using smartphones, so making video one of the few digital education tools that learners and teachers can create.

Video can be accessed and played via DVD players and televisions, projectors, smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptops or interactive whiteboards. An internet connection may be required.

Students participating in a video lesson

Audio

Audio can exist in offline or online formats. A popular file format for audio is MP3. Offline audio is commonly accessed and delivered via radio, CD, and embedded in ePUBs. Online audio is commonly accessed through podcasts via the internet.

Audio is a standard format that is used in classrooms from the early grades. Teachers in the early grades use audio to provide learners with opportunities to practice pronunciation or develop their listening skills. Podcasts are now a standard feature on news websites. Increasingly, audio is being included in digitised textbooks to enhance teaching and learning opportunities and increase learner engagement.

The benefits of audio as a teaching and learning tool are that audio recordings:

  • are easier to make than video clips
  • require less bandwidth to upload and play
  • are easily combined with other media such as text or graphics
  • are a valuable way of developing listening skills or assisting learners with low literacy levels to improve their word-recognition skills.

Audio can be accessed via radio, CD players, smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptops and interactive whiteboards. Online audio requires an internet connection.

Animations and simulations

Animations are a series of slightly different pictures, photos or illustrations that are viewed rapidly in succession to create the illusion of movement similar to a video or film. Simulations are representations of real-world processes that allow learners to participate in the process to determine an outcome. Simulations could be an app or a widget. Animations and simulations can be used to demonstrate complex methods such as scientific experiments.

The benefits of these are that:

  • animations allow learners to experience representations of processes in motion, rather than having to imagine an interactive process through looking at static images
  • simulations enable learners to develop their decision-making skills by participating in activities in virtual reality situations.

Online animations and simulations require an internet connection. As with other computing-based tools, they are accessed via smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, tablets and interactive whiteboards.

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources broadly refers to educational material – typically electronic or digital – available for use at little to no cost. Teachers and learners can freely share and adapt the material for research, learning, teaching and development. OERs include software tools, implementation resources and educational resources such as quizzes, lesson plans, simulations, textbooks, games and assessment tools.

Although many OERs originate from educational institutions such as universities and colleges, they can also stem from libraries and archival organisations. Government agencies and commercial organisations such as publishers and faculty individuals who develop educational resources that they are willing to share also produce OERs.

robotics class using open education resources

OERs are readily available and easy to find. Although standard search engines such as Google and Bing are good starting points, specialised search engines are used specifically to find OERs. It is advisable to use more than one OER search engine as many listings are selective based on specific criteria. A popular OER search engine is OER Commons [https://www.oercommons.org/].

Digital learning programs

Digital learning programs are computer programs that teach content and test learners’ understanding of that content. Digital learning programs are classified as computing-based tools, i.e. they require a computer, and the programs can be accessed either offline or online.

Digital learning programs offer multiple benefits such as:

  • integrating multiple types of media (i.e. text, audio and video) in a single teaching and learning experience
  • allowing learners to study independently and at their own pace
  • providing feedback to learners on their progress so that remediation occurs immediately. This is a form of adaptive learning.

Digital learning programs can be accessed on smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptops or interactive whiteboards. Online digital learning programs require an internet connection.

Digital learning programs for Mathematics need to enable learners to understand key concepts and acquire critical skills. They also need to be aligned with the curriculum/syllabus. 

Collaborative tools

Collaborative tools are digital tools that allow multiple learners to access documents, spreadsheets or websites and work together on a task simultaneously. The changes to the document are saved online as soon as the changes have been made in the document. Google Docs is an example of a collaborative tool.

The benefits of collaborative tools are that:

  • they allow learners to work together on tasks
  • the process of working together on a task online in real-time matches a real-world work scenario
  • they are generally free to use and similar to paid-for software programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

Because collaborative tools are online, they require an internet connection. They can be accessed via smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptops and interactive whiteboards.

Online discussion forums

Online discussion forums and online chats, such as WhatsApp, enable groups to discuss topics with one another often from remote locations. Usually, some form of registration or membership of the forum is required to gain access to it. Common examples of online discussion forums are Facebook groups. Online discussion happens typically using a comment stream.

An online discussion forum

The benefits of online discussion forums and chats are that they:

  • enable learners to communicate synchronously and asynchronously with teachers and other learners
  • can be used to develop learners’ reasoning skills and ability to present evidence-based arguments
  • can allow learners to collaborate in a teacher-led environment to achieve a common goal.

Content delivery systems

Content delivery systems (also known as learner management systems) are like a website or a series of linked web pages. This is a collection of pages that together make up a pathway of learning where learners do tasks, including review and interact with content, and then test their understanding with assessments.

Content delivery systems can integrate multiple types of media and deliver these via the internet.

The benefits of content delivery systems are that:

  • learners can interact directly with learning materials at their own pace, repeating sections or moving ahead as needed
  • learners can receive immediate feedback on their progress using assessment systems, thereby increasing the depth of their learning experience
  • teachers and learners can communicate with one another directly, communally and more frequently than might be possible in a face-to-face, whole-class situation
  • teachers can streamline or reduce their workload by marking assessments automatically online
  • teachers can obtain rich data about whole-class and individual learners’ progress and gaps in knowledge and skills.

Assessment programs

Assessment programs could be part of a content delivery system or learning management system and can exist in various forms and degrees of complexity. The simplest version of a digital assessment program is a test completed on a computer using word processing software such as Microsoft Word. The more advanced versions allow teachers to set and deliver tests online and for learners to take the tests online and receive feedback either during the examination or immediately after that. These include programs that provide multiple-choice tests that are marked automatically and give immediate feedback.

The type of media that assessment programs can integrate will depend on the platform they use. For example, Microsoft Word will be more limited in the visuals that it provides than an online platform will be.

The benefits of assessment programs are that:

  • multiple-choice tests can provide immediate feedback and save marking time, but the focus on correct answers is limiting
  • flexible testing platforms provide opportunities for learners to practise skills as they will be required to apply them in real-world scenarios, for example, blogging or simulations
  • very advanced testing systems also allow teachers to diagnose the foundational knowledge and skills that learners lack and therefore enable them to remediate the gaps in knowledge and skills more effectively.

More advanced assessment systems can take advantage of adaptive technology. Adaptive learning tools/systems are programs that adapt (change) the content and process of learning offered to learners based on their response to questions and tasks. Adaptive learning has long been used in the military to train personnel through simulations and is also used in corporate training and digital services like Khan Academy.

Adaptive learning systems integrate multiple types of media. They may require an internet connection but could also be used offline.

The benefits of adaptive learning systems are that learners:

  • are allowed to move through the learning material/program at their own pace
  • can follow learning paths that match their skills and learning needs
  • are afforded a personalised learning experience, which includes targeted remediation and enrichment.

Massive Open Online Courses

In recent years, a global increase in access to the internet coupled with a demand for quality and affordable education has resulted in the substantial growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

These courses allow for new ways of learning skills and gaining accreditation and, as such, are essential digital education tools.

MOOCs are simply a kind of distance education, taking online courses open to any users via the World Wide Web. While there are some variations in the types of content they offer, the essential elements are:

  • course material (readings; video and audio lectures; problem sets)
  • online community components (forums connecting teachers and learners; collaborative learning)
  • testing (online multiple-choice assignments; essays; peer review, etc.).

The internet

Learners can access the internet to upload and download content, participate in social media forums and view a rich selection of secondary content. Some examples of this are listed below.

  • Geography: Google Earth – Google Earth allows you to do a virtual visit to any city or country and navigate to significant landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian Pyramids.
  • Interactive Whiteboard: SMART Exchange – SMART Exchange has existing lessons on an interactive whiteboard that teachers can download and incorporate in their classroom.
  • English: Cambridge online dictionary – Cambridge offers a free online dictionary providing definitions, pronunciation tips and synonyms for thousands of words in English.
  • Khan Academy – Khan Academy is a non-profit organisation with a mission to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere globally.

To fully use the internet as a learning resource, teachers and learners will need an internet connection and sufficient bandwidth.

Some of the benefits of the internet are:

  • it gives learners access to multiple sources
  • if managed well by teachers, this access can be used to equip learners to assess the validity and reliability of sources on the internet
  • it allows learners to engage with other contexts and learners outside of their immediate school environment.

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