Choosing the right tools for teaching online

In these unprecedented times of adapting face-to-face delivery to online, making the right decisions on the right tools and technologies to enhance your teaching can be challenging. 

As an experienced Learning Technologist, I have worked with academics to identify appropriate technologies to create the best learning for their students. 

One rule that I live by is that one solution does not fit all. When you work in a large learning institution there are often tools and technologies that are provided by centralised functions such as the VLE, lecture capture tools and video conferencing facilities. They all have their merits in their own right. However, sometimes they just don’t do the job you want them to do or if they do, there is usually quite a lot of time involved in developing workarounds to get them to work for you. Even then, they aren’t quite the full ticket that you had hoped for. 

Some of the best uses of technology enhanced learning I have seen in my experience is where teachers have gone rogue and decided “This isn’t for me, I’m going to find something better”. These are often words that create shudders internally as when this happens it becomes difficult for institutions to track what is in use, how it is being used and whether it appropriate. 

In a previous role as a Learning Technology Manager, my view was ‘Do what is best for your students!’ but with the caveat of keep me in the loop so we could offer support as a team and where good practice could be evidenced, we could then share with others across the institution. 

If you fancy yourself as a bit of rogue and want to try new tools and technologies in your teaching then I recommend you think about the following before you invest your time whole-hog:

Reliability – is the tool reliable? Do some prior research – what do other users say, what reviews does it have, how much downtime is experienced by users on average. Nothing worse than using technology and it fails at key points in a students learning journey

Intuitive – is it easy to use for you and your students? It becomes very appealing to invest time and sometimes budget in a tool that has more features than Doc’s time machine but in reality would you use all those features? Is it easy to navigate? Does it present barriers to use with your students e.g. five different steps required to access the tool, complex navigation menus. Also think about how the tool operates, does it share features/ergonomics with other tools that are more ubiquitous among your student body e.g. social media, whatsapp, facetime etc. 

Relevance – this for me is the most important criterion. Can you use the tool in a way that makes the learning experience relevant to the outcomes of your course? As much as it is fun to use new technology in your teaching, if students can’t understand how it relates to or helps them to achieve their learning outcomes, it may be perceived by them as slightly gratuitous i.e. my lecturer is trying to be cool but I don’t see the point in using this technology. 

All three points relate back to the first thing you should think about – what do I want to achieve through using this technology? Examples of appropriate justifications may include:

  • I need to provide my students with more practice to develop their core knowledge and give them feedback in a timely manner
  • I want to improve classroom engagement and offer more control of the learning to students. Move from passive didactic to more learner-centered. 
  • I want to stretch and challenge my students
  • I want to be able to track my students in a more effective way so I can provide personalised support

There are so many great tools out there to use, some of which are free and some come at a cost. The notion of a free tool is always appealing but comes with the caveat that in reality it’s not free as you still need to invest your time to get it to work for your students. 

Here are some of my suggestions for great tools out there:

Communication tools

Zoom – this goes without any explanation as it has been the go to webconferencing software for several organisations during this pandemic. The free model allows you up to 100 participants on a call at anyone time. Paid for models have more features. Moreover, students will be used to using this with friends and family and will be more familiar with its features which will make for a better learning experience

WhatsApp – It’s free for everyone to use and is how most people communicate. There is often resistance to using this in education as it can blur lines between personal and professional. If you decide to use this, then I recommend that you only use your work phone (if you have one) and set out netiquette expectations for your WhatsApp group e.g. this group will only be used for informal class discussion. Anyone seen to be demonstrating inappropriate usage or behaviour will be reported etc. For more formal communications with students email is appropriate.

Collaboration tools

Padlet – a simple and easy to use tool that allows multiple users to share ideas, content and comment on posts. It is a great way for students to construct ideas for group work/activities and doesn’t require them to sign up. You can also easily provide feedback on content created/curated. 

Trello – an easy to use project management tool that groups of students can use. They can organise tasks into cards, set milestones and add media. If they share these with you, you can also see their approach to project work and comment/provide feedback. 

Classroom engagement tools

If you are delivering sessions synchronously online or even face-to-face (when social distancing restrictions relax), you may find the following tools a great addition to your teaching armoury

Learning Catalytics – is a classroom response tool developed by Pearson. It is a paid for solution but offers in excess of 30 different question types including polling, graphing, diagram annotations, mathematical equations and has some great mathematical tools for STEM subjects.

As a lecturer, you can pose a variety of open-ended questions that help your students develop critical thinking skills, while monitoring responses with real-time analytics to find out where they’re struggling. With this information, you can adjust your instructional strategy in real time and try additional ways of engaging your students during class.

Learning Catalytics also lets you manage student interactions by automatically grouping students for discussion, team-based learning, and peer-to-peer learning.

Nearpod – a ‘Freemium’ service that allows you to upload your lecture slides and interject activities such as multiple choice questions, polls, media and open response questions. Really simple to use and the paid for version come with lots of great features. 

Polleverywhere/Polldaddy/Socrative – simple polling platforms that allow you to deliver questions live and get real-time results. 

Online assessment

Pearson MyLabs and Mastering – our MyLab and Mastering platforms provide a great way to create online tutorial, practice and assessment activities for students. Linked to our high authored content, you can easily create formative practice or summative tasks that draw on large banks of stringently authored questions. Naturally, being a Pearson employee, I am going to say how great they are as platforms. Putting my impartial Learning Technologist hat on, it affords so much more than you can achieve through creating your own assessments through a VLE or other platform:

  1. You don’t have to write your own questions – a big time saver. Yes you still have to review questions in the bank but they are well written and fully customisable if you need to change the terminology.
  2. The assessment settings are robust to prevent collusion
  3. The platform analytics are incredible. Having worked with VLE gradebooks, they can often be very clunky and not always give a simple view of how students are doing. With MyLab and Mastering analytics you can easily identify your high performers and those who are struggling in order to provide support where it is needed. 
  4. The in-question feedback and learning aids are really useful in helping students get to grips with key concepts.

To find out more about MyLabs and Mastering, visit our user groups to see examples of how other institutions have used these platforms to create really engaging learning experiences. 

I recommend taking a look at the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies website (founded by Jane Hart). It compiles a really useful directory of tools that you can use in your teaching

Also, if you are looking for really great advice and guidance on using innovative tools in your teaching, here are some of the people I follow in the sector:

Steve Wheeler – University of Plymouth

Dave Foord – Independent Consultant

James Clay – Head of higher education and student experience @ JISC

Stephen Heppell

Lydia Arnold – Academic Development @ Harper Adams

If you have any recommendations for people to follow, please comment below. 


Ben Hutchens – Community and Stakeholder Manager & Learning Technology Enthusiast – @benhutchenspearson

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