Web 2.0 | Viewpoint

Gail Lovely's 5 Favorite Free Web Apps for Education

Early childhood education expert and FETC speaker Gail Lovely shares her favorite free web tools for students, which require nothing more than a computer with internet access.

Gail Lovely

The rapid growth of touchscreen tablets in education--and with it the explosion of apps as the "software" of today--may have distracted many of us from the many excellent web-based tools for teachers and students. While the internet remains an eclectic collection of the good, the bad, and the ugly, there are a few really great websites for students and teachers that may have been lost or forgotten amid the excitement of apps.

1) Creativity and creative tools are important and useful at almost every level of education. One of my favorites is PicMonkey. A relative newcomer to my online toolbox, it has rapidly become one of my most used online tools. PicMonkey is a free online image editor, which is simple enough for young learners to use and yet strangely powerful enough for many of the graphic manipulations you might use purchased software packages, like Photoshop, for.

Standard tools like crop, resize, and color controls are there as expected. The surprises include tools to minimize the shine on faces, to enhance the eyelashes of the people in an image, and to add text. It is safe for students to use, as it requires no log in, membership, or other identifying information.

2) Another online tool I continually return to is Stixy, a free tool that creates online boards for sharing images, files, and "sticky notes." I am still discovering ways to use this very open-ended tool. I can place an image on the board and a simple direction such as "Add adjectives for this picture to this board," and students can build an online "word wall" to create a writing experience. A Stixy board can be created to gather student-known "facts" on a board at the beginning of a unit, which can be saved and later edited as an ongoing "K-W-L" chart or class-made encyclopedia (sort of an in-house wiki).

A teacher might create a Stixy board that students can go to and download a file, then come back to the board and share their response to the reading or ask questions. Each board can be password-protected if you choose, although this open-ended tool does leave itself open to students editing or erasing the items on the board, so take this as an opportunity to teach ethics and online etiquette. To see an example board, click here.

3) While word clouds are "so last year," I believe the utility of these tools is still tremendous and many people have just scratched the surface. While Wordle.net is probably the best-known word cloud creator in education, Tagxedo offers some features that make it an interesting alternative.

First, and most obvious, is that the word clouds you make with Tagxedo can be made to conform to almost any shape. Imagine a word cloud shaped like a star filled with names of constellations, or a word cloud shaped like the face of Abraham Lincoln with the words to the Gettysburg Address--there are endless possibilities here. Another particularly useful feature is the interactive capabilities of the word clouds you create. As you move your cursor over the word cloud, the words pop up and into appropriate orientation, so if your cloud is a list of vocabulary words it's easier to call attention to specific words and discuss them. One of the weaknesses of Wordle is the lack of a built-in print tool. Tagxedo provides a simple interface for printing, saving, and linking to your creations as well as embedding them online in your wiki, blog or website. Check out an example cloud here.

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4) Collaboration and collaboration tools are quite popular, but keeping it simple and quick while also allowing for multiple collaborators in real time without any log ins or accounts is a bit of a challenge. TitanPad is a free tool for online collaborative writing. It requires no log in, and can even be used "on the fly" without any prior set-up.

A free account adds some nice features including a "custom domain" and the ability to password-protect your pads. So for all this simpleness, what do you get? You can simply go to the site and open a pad and share the link for that pad with your collaborators. Users can add their names (or pen names) and choose a color for their additions to the board. There is an automatic saving feature and even a time slider that allows the user to revert to an earlier version or to watch the collaboration take place over time. You can import text from a text file, HTML, Word, or RTF and also export your pad's content as HTML, plain text, Microsoft Word, PDF or an OpenDocument. It also has a built-in chat feature so collaborators can chat about the work or the document as they complete the written collaboration. This is a lot of functionality without cost. I know there are other document tools out there, but the ability to collaborate without log-ins or accounts makes TitanPad a standout for me.  To see an example, click here (browser cookies must be enabled).

5) PearlTrees is a social sharing and content curation site that allows you to organize web links in a highly visual way. Each link is known as a pearl, and pearls can be organized into trees--think bookmark folders and subfolders. For example, you could make a pearl for something you are currently interested in, like web 2.0 tools, and then create a "tree" of pearls with links to all the tools you love or are interested in learning more about. These pearls provide screenshots as you mouse over them and all your trees and pearls can be expanded and minimized on your screen.

The social sharing part comes in when you put your cursor over a pearl and a window pops up with not only the screenshot, but with how many others have "picked" this pearl (link), which shows you both how many others are interested in the same sites and provides you with access to their PearlTrees as well. In that regard it is a little like Pinterest in that it is highly visual in nature and can be structured to meet your style and organizational structure. PearlTrees has a website, bookmarklets, browser add-ons, and an iPad app too. Users can also leave comments to discuss links, right on the pearls.

Click here to see an example tree, which links to all the tools mentioned in this article.