Types of digital tools you can use in the classroom

There are many different types of digital tools available for use in education environments. The access you have to digital tools will depend on the context in which you teach and learn.

For this discussion, we classify digital tools into the broad categories of:

  1. digital devices (which enable access)
  2. digital content
  3. digital programs
  4. digital platforms

Types of digital devices

A digital device is any piece of equipment that contains and uses a computerised system to perform the tasks for which the device is designed.

Below is a list of common examples of digital devices that are used to enable digital education.

  • Desktop computers (also known as personal computers) are designed to fit on a standard desk, hence their name. Desktop computers have several different components (as shown in the image), i.e. a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and a central processing unit (CPU). If internet connectivity is available, the desktop user will access websites and other internet services.
  • Laptop computers: laptop computers can perform the same tasks as desktop computers but are much smaller. They can be carried easily and, as their name suggests, can easily fit onto the user’s lap. The monitor, keyboard, mouse and CPU are all contained within a single device, unlike the desktop computer that separates these components. If internet connectivity is available, the laptop user will access websites and other internet services.

laptop computer is a digital tool
Modern Laptop isolated on white background
  • Tablets: Tablets are handheld computers. They are much smaller than both desktop and laptop computers. Tablets are flat devices that range in size from 7 inches to 10 inches. They can be held in a person’s hand. They have touch screens, i.e. computer display screens where the user interacts with the computer by touching pictures or words. Touch screens include the keyboard, which exists as software in a tablet. If internet connectivity is available, the tablet user will access websites and other internet services.
  • Smartphones: smartphones are mobile phones that can access the internet. They commonly also have touch screens and can contain the same software as most other digital devices. They are much smaller than tablets and therefore more portable. However, they also have much smaller screens and are not always suitable for all types of digital tasks. The added advantage of a smartphone is that you can use it to make calls.

smartphones are digital tools
Mobile smart phones with black screen and colorful apps. 3d image
  • Interactive whiteboards/smartboards: an interactive whiteboard is a large board that is connected to a computer. Interactive whiteboards use touch screen technology similar to that used in smartphones and tablets. They are as large as usual (non-digital) whiteboards, and you can perform all the tasks on them that you can on the computer to which it is connected. In addition, interactive whiteboards typically allow you to perform other tasks, such as enlarging the size of images. Interactive whiteboards are helpful teaching tools for whole-class teaching.

Digital devices are not just about internet access or computers

Only smartphones require access to the internet. Desktop computers, tablets, and laptops can be used to access online content and platforms, but they can also be used offline. Many other digital/electronic media devices, for example, projectors, CD players and televisions, are also used to deliver content to learners, and these are commonly used offline.

This means that digital education encompasses tools that use computers and those that use other types of digital/electronic devices. Therefore, a comprehensive definition of digital education must go beyond just the internet or education tools accessed by means of and operated on computers.

Digital content

Digital education content is material that you access from a digital device. This content could be stored online or downloaded to the device as an e-book or app. It can even be distributed offline via a USB disk or CD-ROM. Some of this content is freely available for re-use and adaptation and is called Open Educational Resources (OERs). Commercial publishers have developed other content, available for purchase, similar to a print book.

Digital content can take many forms, including videos, animations, interactive diagrams or widgets, audio clips, assessment content, images and text. Some types of content work better on a laptop or PC, but all should be accessible on a smartphone or tablet.

Examples of digital content and how it could be used in the classroom:

  • Videos: a Social Studies teacher could use an archival video clip of an African leader talking to start a class discussion on the struggle for independence. A teacher could use the same video clip in a lesson on life skills as the basis of an assignment on forgiveness. A video clip of a curriculum required science experiment would be helpful for a Science class at a school that is missing equipment or supplies or has no Science laboratory. An example below is a maths video from Khan Academy.
  • Animations: a Social Studies teacher could use an animation of the water cycle to illustrate how water evaporates from standing bodies of water before condensing and forming clouds, creating rain that falls back to Earth. While this could be shown as a static diagram, the dynamic nature of this concept is best explained using animation. In calculus, a Mathematics teacher could demonstrate the involution of a circle and an ellipse using a short animation.
  • Interactive diagrams or widgets: these rely on input from a learner or teacher and would best be used on an interactive whiteboard (as part of a lesson led by a teacher) or a tablet (self-study by learners). A ‘click and drag’ widget could show an illustration with no labels in a primary English class. The teacher could lead the class in deciding what word to ‘click and drag’ into the label space on the illustration. The widget gives instant feedback on whether the selection is correct or not.
  • Audio clips: audio recordings of required readings could allow a teacher to test learners’ listening skills. Furthermore, these recordings can be used to show the correct pronunciation. This is particularly useful when learners are learning in a second-language or indigenous language.
  • Assessment: assessment of content can be displayed as one-word, multiple-choice, and/or true/false answers. The interactive assessment is automatically marked, providing instant feedback to learners. Additional practice like this is helpful as it allows learners to confirm whether they have understood a topic. Teachers can also check if all learners in the class have a basic understanding before moving forward with the next topic. This assessment data can also be captured by the system and outputted as a class mark, stored for reference or used for reporting purposes.
  • Images: while static images are an essential component of a print textbook, digital images can present information in new ways. For example, a group of images can be turned into a slideshow, allowing learners to scroll through them, and digital images can also be magnified, allowing learners to see details they would not usually notice.
  • Text: digital text allows for more manipulation by teachers and learners. Text can be copied and pasted into a Microsoft Word document (correctly referenced) for use in an assignment. In an e-book or app, text can be highlighted and notes or bookmarks attached to it. When teachers make a book or document digital, learners can easily search for words or terms.

Digital programs

A digital program is an app that can be used to perform a function. In digital education, these programs could include:

  • an app such as Kahoot!, which is used to develop learning games
  • a multilingual dictionary such as the Cambridge Bilingual Maths Dictionary, which allows learners to switch between languages
  • a document sharing program such as Google Docs, which allows teachers to share documents with learners and learners to work on a document collaboratively
  • Microsoft’s OneNote program, which has grading and assessment support and the ability to review learners’ work.

All these programs can be used to enhance the management and functioning of the classroom. By introducing some of these programs in the school, and showing their immediate benefit, the digital literacy of teachers and learners can be improved.

Digital platforms

For this discussion, we include digital media that require the use of a device, such as a tablet, desktop or laptop computer, and that can be used offline or online.

One of the key advantages of digital tools is that they enable the integration of a variety of media types, formats and platforms to enhance the teaching and learning experience, such as:

  • text-based tools, for example, digitised books
  • audio tools, for example, podcasts
  • video clips, for example, video demonstrations
  • Computing-based tools, i.e. offline or online computer-based learning, require interaction with a computer program and/or other users.

Case study: Digital tools assist teachers with administration load

‘Technology today has moved at such a quick pace that every industry is employing ICTs in some way or the other, so why should the schools not be at the forefront?’ This is the viewpoint of Adil Mungalee, a deputy headteacher at Dr Yusuf Dadoo Primary School in South Africa, who would like to channel more of the school’s funding into it. ‘I want internet access for all my teachers and learners, as this will make communication so much better. I believe that every child has a right to access technology-enhanced learning, so it will be vital for them to have some sort of device which will enable them to access electronic resources, be it a tablet, PC, a laptop or a smartphone. They need it.’ He admits, however, that the reality is that you cannot always afford what you want, so for now, the priority is making the most of the technologies that the department/ministry of education has given the school and those which the school has purchased with their funds. Currently, each teacher at Dr Yusaf Dadoo Primary School has access to a laptop, and the school has an ICT room, but devices for learners to use in the classroom are still on the wish list.

Adil uses digital applications quite extensively. For example, he uses Microsoft OneNote as an e-filing system for his digital content. Adil adapted the template given by the education department/ministry and used it to make files. He then copied the documents, lesson plans and memos into the files in Microsoft OneNote. Once he had created his files, Adil shared this idea with the staff, and his template has now been shared with many colleagues from surrounding schools.

Adil uses these digital files to check his lesson preparation and access other resources that he needs per lesson. This makes it easy to get stored information for the curriculum/syllabus for the entire year. Being able to digitally file documents with ease also saves the school money that would have been spent on printing. At Dr Yusuf Dadoo Primary School, all the teachers are experimenting with storing documents electronically. The headteacher emails all crucial documents directly to the teachers to keep them in Microsoft OneNote. Teachers are slowly starting to use e-files in all of their subjects.

Adil has conducted workshops with his colleagues at both school and district levels. He says that the workshops he ran showcasing his filing system ‘were met with great awe and positivity. At the close of the workshops, teachers from other schools rushed towards him with their USB disks, hoping to get the template. As he looks to the future of education in South Africa, Adil says, ‘Every classroom needs to be revamped to accommodate the new technologies available.’

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