Cloud tools in online courses

With such a wide variety of cloud tools available, it is possible to find a tool to fit just about every teaching and learning situation. To instruct, engage and inspire my students I lean heavily on YouTube for videos. For example, for Biology I can find videos that are serious (e.g., Neutrophil Phagocytosis) or entertaining (e.g. Amoeba Sisters: Mitosis).

One of my favourite online tools for collaboration is Google docs. Students can access their document from anywhere and sharing files with students (or between students) is simple. Digital mindmap tools such as Coggle and are also great collaborative tools, allowing students to visualize connections using images and colours rather than simply text. Creation of a mindmap could be assigned to a class in preparation of a unit (show what you already know) or as a summary of what they have learned.

Symbaloo  is a wonderful organizational tool for students working in an online environment. It can be challenging to keep track of the various websites used for different courses, and symbaloo provides a visual way of organizing weblinks. Teachers can create a symbaloo (webmix) that includes classroom links tailored for a specific lesson or course that they can then share with their students. This tool is also a great way for students to curate their work, creating an e-portfolio.

Assessment of student progress can take many forms. One way for students to show what they have learned is through the creation of a website or blog. I have used Weebly and found it easy to use. Through Weebly, students can reflect on their learning and post artifacts that illustrate their understanding of a topic. If students need to hand in an assignment, and posting it on a Weebly site is not appropriate, Dropbox is an option. However, a disadvantage with Dropbox is that you cannot send feedback to the student through this same dropbox; another method of communicating needs to be used (e.g. email). Students can self-assess with Quizlet, an easy to use flashcard interactive website. Instructors can create flashcards for the students to use, but I have found it effective to have the students create a set of flashcards as an assignment to share with their classmates.

For inquiry based learning, I would like to further explore TedEd. I am intrigued by the multimedia approach provided with this cloud tool. ‘Dig Deeper’ questions encourage students to seek out additional information to supplement the main lesson. Students can also self-assess with the quiz feature and participate in discussions with their classmates. Discussion questions can be designed to further encourage higher-level thinking. These mini-lessons can be built by a teacher to match specific course curricula and could be used as an introduction to a topic, as the main lesson on a topic or as a review.

One drawback to consider when using cloud tools is the digital divide. Not all students have access to the same technology or services and will not necessarily be able to fully participate in all online activities when not at school. Some tools may require high-speed internet connection or use large files that take a long time to download. This can make it challenging for students that live in areas of poor connectivity, are unable to afford a high speed connection, or are using older hardware that is not capable of working with larger files. Choosing tools that allow the user to work offline would help alleviate this problem. As the level of technological skills in a class is varied, an instructor may consider using tools that are simple in design and intuitive in their use. Tools should not be used simply for the sake of using the ‘newest, shiny toy’. It is important to carefully consider how the tool will help the student meet the learning objectives. It may also be necessary to limit the number of tools introduced to a class; too many may be overwhelming to students.

Despite these drawbacks, cloud tools can be used to improve or enhance the online learning experience for students. By incorporating a variety of media, different learning styles can be addressed and a topic can be approached from many angles. Students also have access to a range of ways to show what they know, and can choose a tool that best supports them in illustrating their learning. Cloud tools may also increase student engagement and interest in a topic or course by encouraging interactivity and collaboration. By becoming part of a learning community, students may be more likely to engage in active learning.

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