There are a myriad of tools available to an educator to create a rich and vibrant on-line world that either does not require an LMS or enhances it. No one place is enough to create a deep learning experience so an on-line educator must be prepared to explore the possibilities.
I am a recent convert to Google+. I have started using it in the past year and thoroughly and completely love it. I am addicted to checking out my communities at least every day, if not more. I quite like Twitter, Diigo and others but not in the way I enjoy Google+. I do not have a Gmail address, I like to keep that separate, but I have used almost everything else Google has to offer. Thus, when presented with the challenge of building a non-LMS (Learning Management System, platforms like Moodle and D2L) that would support a community of learners, once part was quite clear; my central hub would be Google+, other tools would branch from there.
Google Communities: Most discussion, information, notices would be housed in a Google community. The advantage to using this as the dashboard is the ability to create subcategories to help learners finding the information that they need. There are a variety of different ways to search for posts (person, subcategory, hashtag…) that make information easy to find. This is where students would go first.
Google drive: Most content would be housed with Google drive. It has fantastic file sharing capabilities suitable for a group of people. An individual learner can download a copy of an assignment, notes, review package etc. and modify it as they need. They could also upload any assignments for grading. Peer evaluation is also straight forward as the author of the piece could share any work with another for feedback before ultimately handing it in.
Google Calendar: The calendar function the Google offers would work as learners can import an initial calendar of dates provided by the instructor. Further events can be added by the community (such as a synchronous meeting time or a peer meeting) and accepted by those who are involved. Google Calendar is able to be synched to a mobile making it easier for people to remember important dates. Birthdays are also put on the calendar (option for each user) supporting a sense of community as people can send birthday wishes.
What I like about Google+ is the way it incorporates a variety of tools in one location. I makes it easy for both students and educators as a starting place. Many people use Google in their daily life (hence the term ‘googling’) thus the learning curve isn’t too steep. Google alone, however, will not provide all the tools that are needed for a robust learning experience. For that one must move to other tools.
Collaborate: Moving away from the Google world, I would use Collaborate as way to meet synchronously. I like how customizable the site is as students can not only watch a presentation from the instructor, a guest, or students, but also be subdivided in to breakout rooms for smaller group activities. As each participant can upload a picture and chat in a text-box, a sense of community is built as students can put ‘faces to names’. Collaborate also offers large flexibility for instructor control of who, or how many, can speak, who can draw or show images etc.
Twitter: Twitter is a fantastic way for people to stay connected. Students can connect with other students, with the instructor, and with experts in the field. What is fantastic about twitter is it can be used both synchronously and asynchronously, for community building and content sharing. Students who wish to participate solely for content can check certain times to get the latest information. Others may wish to tweet for community building reasons or have a discussion about a topic. Calls for help can be quickly answered by the instructor or peers. Study sessions can be built at unexpected times. If a couple of students happen to be at the library, they can put the word out for more to join them.
Engrade: After a bit of searching, and some peer recommendations, the grade book I would likely use would be Engrade. It is free, seems to be quite customizable, and simple to use. There is an added benefit that multiple choice quizzes can be given from this site. Depending on the course, this may be a good way to provide some quick feedback to see if students are grasping the material.
For another assessment tool Socrative seems like a good choice. It lets an instructor create multiple choice, true-false and short answer quizzes. It also lets an instructor set up an ‘exit ticket’ to assess students understanding at the end of a class.
Padlet: Padlet is a great way for a class to work on a collaborative assignment. It is easy to learn and use. As a community wall can be built, it would work well at the start of the course for community building exercises. Later it could be used to house student information about a topic, or as a graffiti wall for a brain storming activity. It is useful both synchronously and asynchronously.