Classroom Tools | Feature

The 10 Free Tech Tools Your Class Should Be Using


A student screencast showing how the Alice language teaches programming concepts using simple menus. Both Alice and StoryTelling Alice are freeware programs. (This video is captioned.)

Even the most tech savvy teachers face challenges when it comes to selecting and implementing the right tools to enhance instruction. One of the biggest: Engaging students in rigorous and relevant learning using tools they’re already accustomed to amidst the ocean of potential distractions provided by the web. Overcoming this obstacle requires developing fresh and exciting projects that utilize these tools.

Of course the biggest roadblock most of us face is funding. For many teachers, tight budgets don’t allow us access to everything on our classroom or computer lab wish list. Simple solutions exist, however, that allow educators to engage students in exciting experiences using technology without breaking the bank. Here we’ll explore ten free tech tools that promote student engagement and critical and creative thinking across several subject areas.

1. iTalc. A free lab management solution, iTalc allows instructors to monitor what students are viewing on their monitors and limit access to potential distractions. This software also provides the teacher with the ability to access student stations remotely or to share their screen with the class. There are several benefits to using iTalc in a computer lab classroom including the promotion of safe web surfing, directing student focus toward learning goals by eliminating distractions, and enhancing instruction by enabling students to view lessons and demos on their own screen.

2. Gimp. One of the most robust freeware graphics and photo editing programs, Gimp includes most of the standard features found in Adobe Photoshop including layers, brushes, filters, and more making it an excellent choice for projects ranging from graphic design and photo-manipulation to animation. This alternative to expensive graphics suites is equally as effective as a platform for teaching valuable technical and design related skills.

3. SketchUp. This 3-D modeling program has potential applications in a variety of disciplines and is available both in a full-featured “Pro” version as well as a free “Basic” version. While the SketchUp Pro includes advanced features, the basic version provides all the features needed for most classroom uses. The intuitive interface and simple tools enable basic users to construct complex structures in a matter of minutes. Students no longer need craft supplies and shoe boxes to create dioramas as they can easily reconstruct scenes from a book or historical events right in the program. Besides the built-in tools for creating models, the software also provides access to the 3-D Warehouse, a huge collection of free models ranging from famous landmarks to furniture. SketchUp could also be used to create models of molecules or cells for a science class or to help explain geometric concepts for a math class. What’s more? SketchUp offers teachers free licenses for the pro version of their product.

4. StoryTelling Alice. Create interactive 3-D animations using simple programming with this free storytelling tool. Students pick a scene and characters from a diverse library and develop an action-packed script along with dialog using speech bubbles. Students can also set characters to perform specific actions when clicked and move the camera’s point of view using the cursor keys. Applications of StoryTelling Alice range from creating comic strips to constructing complex interactive games. This program is an instant hit with students and is an excellent tool for teaching students about story elements as well as fundamentals of programming.

5. Scratch. This object-oriented programming language was created at MIT to allow students to develop programs such as games, stories, and interactive images by using different types of building blocks in a well-organized drag and drop interface. It’s simple enough for an elementary student to understand, yet it’s able to engage high school students in higher-level critical thinking. Students may either choose to create a program from “scratch” where they create the graphics including a stage, sprites, and costumes or they can “remix” someone else’s creation. Scratch also allows students to incorporate sound in their creations. As students program the objects, they learn fundamentals of programming as well as algebraic concepts.

6. Prezi. A slide-based program with free and premium licenses, Prezi uses the concept of a mind map as the basis for developing a presentation. The program uses scale as a method for prioritizing topics, subtopics, and supporting details. Prezi allows users to zoom in and out and create presentations where the camera zooms in to an element or out to give a “big picture” view. This application is flexible enough to create both simple mind maps and deep, graphic-rich presentations. Powerpoints can even be imported into the program. Prezi is available as desktop software, browser-based cloudware, and as an iPad app.

7. Bubbl.us. Try this easy-to-use cloudware program and have students create mind maps from anywhere. Students and teachers are able to save their maps to the web or export as an image. While basic use is free, accounts may be upgraded for premium features such as the ability for multiple users to collaborate on a diagram. 

8. Open EtherPad. A free browser-based collaborative word processor, this simple tool allows multiple users to contribute to one document. Whether note-taking, creating a collaborative list, or composing a group essay or story, Etherpad has limitless applications in the classroom. Users can easily keep track of their contribution based on color coding and an accompanying chat window allows collaborators to discuss their work in real time. Another excellent feature of this program is the ability to review progress and revisions on a “time slider.” While this software is designed with group work in mind, Open Etherpad is an excellent tool for solo users as well. Students can easily save documents to a custom url to access from any computer.

9. Windows Live Movie Maker. Already a staple for many computer labs and classrooms, Windows’ free video editing program is already a staple for many computer labs and classrooms. Even novice filmmakers can use it to create a blockbuster out of video clips and photos complete with special effects, titles, animations, and a soundtrack. Windows Live Movie Maker has numerous uses in the classroom ranging from student-created book reviews to short films. From storyboard to post-production, a video project is an instant hit with students as they engage in an activity that promotes technical skills and writing while providing an outlet to express themselves.

10. Ribbon Hero 2. An engaging free game created by Microsoft Office Labs, Ribbon Hero 2 teaches users how to use all of the diverse features of Microsoft Office and navigate the “Ribbon.” The program integrates with Microsoft Office and presents game players with missions ranging from basics like changing fonts and formatting in Word to creating 3-D exploded pie charts and using conditional formatting in Excel. Students become instantly hooked as they watch their points build up from completing missions and being promoted to the next level. Ribbon Hero 2 is a great tool for promoting technical skills or as a way to prepare students for Certification Exams. That’s right! Ribbon Hero 2 actually presents tasks similar to questions asked on Microsoft Certification Exams.

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