Integrating Technology: The Danger of a Single Tool

It's not often that I walk away from a faculty meeting inspired by the way it was conducted. Although my principal always tries to model classroom expectations in her meetings, this time she nailed it.

The content, questioning, discussion probes, and use of technology were all meeting and exceeding my expectations. In particular, I was delighted with the way she used a tool called Mentimeter. She used it for word cloud generation and open response during the debrief of a great TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story."

The Danger of a Single Tool

As I sat and participated in the discussion, it got me thinking about the ridiculous amount of digital tools available to us in 2016. There are so many tools to facilitate individual responses and visualize thinking. Mentimeter was a great choice for my principal, and she explained why she chose it over other tools. For teachers who don't know their options, however, choosing tools can be more troublesome than they've yet to realize.

It's hard to find one tool that does it all. More often than not, I find myself asking if I really need to use anything beyond Google Apps. On the occasion that a Google App doesn't facilitate a strategy, the search is on.

The main idea to focus on is the reason for the tool, not the tool itself. Designing lessons, in other words, is about considering tools that could add efficiency or support a particular strategy. After going through this process for several years, I've realized that my allegiances are to the tasks, learning process, and outcomes more so than particular tools.

I feel it's necessary to make this statement about my process because the echoes of the single stories about me and my interests in technology have frustrated me for years. Luckily, I've found enough people who do understand my intent, so here's a few of my uses and rationales for a handful of tools – always a work in progress.

Word Clouds

My first encounter with word clouds was in 2010 when a teacher gave me the idea to use Wordle to represent the academic integrity policy that my students made. To this day, you'll hear people refer to a word cloud as a Wordle. No big deal. Frisbee and Dumpster are brand names that we use generically all the same.

Word clouds arrange common words or submissions by making the most frequent words larger than the others. They are great for prioritizing vocabulary studies or, as in the way my principal used it, making the thoughts of a group visible to create a general reflection of the room.

At the meeting, we watched a TED talk and submitted the first three words that came to mind after reflecting silently for a moment. The tool my principal chose worked perfectly on all devices and with no account required. She liked it because there was no limit to how many responses each question could receive, and it was free.

My word cloud generator of choice is Poll Everywhere. I continue to choose this tool after using it for four years because it integrates with Google Slides, the app allows me to push questions to students while I walk around the room, and Poll Everywhere has a variety of types of question response options and presentation formats. I could go on and on, but this post is not about the tools.

Students can submit the words that are not sticking, and our discussion on terminology can be based entirely on student data. With the more troublesome words appearing larger than the others, we make the most of our learning time, and, most importantly, the priorities come from the students.

By design, the word cloud strategy is a lesson in itself because it teaches kids to prioritize and use technology to access and analyze information efficiently for the benefit of the group.

Open Response

Keeping with the theme of guiding lessons through student contributions, the open response is another power strategy with many tools ready to facilitate the process.

Open response, as a strategy, comes in many shapes and sizes. That's why I have a long list of tools to accommodate different types of open response activities.
  • Today's Meet is a chat room with a character limit – 140. We use it for silent Q&A during readings, sharing current events for homework, and simple back channel discussion. 
  • Google Forms is the tool I use most often, especially since it doesn't require you to access the response sheet anymore. Students can submit a longer response, and we can project the responses on the front screen for discussion. 
  • Poll Everywhere has some fancy tools. My new favorite is the up / down response tool. Students can submit a summary statement (or anything short) and they can vote up the better work and vote down the work that doesn't necessarily meet the standards. Think about all of the thought processes involved in a tool like this one. It's powerful, for sure. 
  • Verso App is my go to for argumentative discussion practice. It's claim to fame is the way it provides user identities to the teacher but makes them anonymous to the users. Students are more likely to take chances with both responses and comments. It also has like and flag tools, which allows students to identify the helpful work as well as the work that does not meet the standard or simply aims to disrupt. 
  • Google Classroom questions are great for when students need to submit work for marks and feedback. Sure, you might be thinking that Google Forms should suffice. The problem with forms is that it's too much work to separate the range for an individual student into a tab and send the tab to a sheet so students can see their feedback and score when it's entered. Did I lose you? In other words, Google Classroom lets me return the work to my students once the marks and feedback are ready. This can be done with forms, but it's a long process with tedious details that classroom teachers don't have time for. 
Quizzes and Surveys

Google Forms. Plickers. Mentimeter. Poll Everywhere. Zipgrade. Try all of these. They all do something different and could help you support a variety of strategies. But be patient. Updates from a variety of directions can bring new successes just as well as new challenges.

Google Forms, for example, recently added quiz and auto-grading options, so I don't have a huge need for some of the other tools like Plickers or Zipgrade. I particularly like how I can insert a primary source document as an image and ask a variety of question types. Take the matrix, for example. Teachers could assess for identification of fact or opinion statements by listing a series of statements in the rows and using the columns for fact and opinion options. Try the same for cause and effect.

You see? We're not integrating technology to teach kids how to use Google Forms. We're assessing their ability to identify fact from opinion, and we're [they're] getting the results right away. 

When I want to give a paper-based assessment, Zipgrade is the best. I can print the answer sheets and use my phone to grade. The results are itemized and graphed for quick analysis. Again, I'm not using fancy tools to write blog posts. I write blog posts because it would be a crime to not share the facility I experience through the strategic use of tools like Zipgrade to immediately inform how and what I will teach next.

As I mentioned earlier, Poll Everywhere integrates with Google Slides. Every few slides, I like to add a question to check for understanding. The kids like it, and it breaks up the lessons, especially during a sit and get activity.

The Benefits of Multiple Tools

I try to limit my technology choices so that my students are not distracted by the variety of tools. This got me thinking about whether it would be a good idea for a school to endorse one tool over another – if it would be beneficial for the students to not have to learn so many different tools.

My conclusion is simple. Kids need to learn a variety of tools and web applications so they can become more digitally literate. Over time, they will begin to view different sites and tools in terms of the functions of the different parts as opposed to the branding of a particular piece of technology.

They won't suffer the danger of a single tool.