Category Archives: Online Classroom Tools

5 Tips For Better Digital Content

When I was in college, my Anatomy and Physiology professor, Dr. Mason, was both the course lecturer and the author of our textbook. As such, he lectured from the book. Verbatim. You either got it or you spent hours in the library (this was, after all, pre-Internet Dark Ages) trying to find a source that could explain things in a different way. Or you found a friend who could explain the sodium/potassium exchange in layman’s terms. Failing this, you hoped there wasn’t much about that on the test.

I have to wonder how much things have really changed. Over the years we’ve fallen into a blended learning model that sometimes looks like a digital file cabinet from our classroom. I’m not faulting teachers here- they have responded to a request for transparency and that’s what we have. Students can go online and access most of the materials they have from classrooms. These are available at any time from any place with internet access. It’s all good, right?

Sometimes. If students understand content from class and need a review, placing our course materials online makes sense. These students can easily retrieve them and pick up where they left off.

This leaves out the population that doesn’t really understand what’s been presented in class. They make THINK they do- but when they get home and try to do things on their own, the wheels fall off the bus. Giving them the same resources you used in class may increase their frustration to the point where they give up.

Materials designed for face to face teaching and those that are appropriate for online learning can be very different. Each is valuable, but they are not always interchangeable. Materials for online consumption need to follow different guidelines. Here are five tips to get started:

  1. Make sure your students know what they are supposed to do. This might sound like a blinding flash of the obvious but bear with me. In class, you might provide a list of all the steps to complete a project in one document. Online you would do well to provide this in small discrete steps. Readers online tend to skim and may skip steps when a long list is provided. Make each step (or group of small steps) into its own task.
  2. Chunk your online content. Then chunk it again.  Do they really need a whole Keynote slideshow with your notes? Or would they be better off with smaller, more targeted explanations of key concepts? Think “SparkNotes” for your content. Make sure your content is digestible and students know what they should know as a result of viewing it.
  3. Use tools that scaffold learning. If you are asking students to read online articles, use a tool like InsertLearning to provide reading guides. These help students with comprehension and provide you with formative assessment information about their progress. For videos, you can use tools like Edpuzzle to help students check their understanding of content.
  4. Provide ways for students to know if they are on the right track. Nothing is more demoralizing than thinking you are finished, only to find you need to start over. Build in small assessments via tools like Edulastic, Quizlet, or google forms to provide feedback along the way.
  5. Build in ways for students to let you know they are stuck. This might be time in class or digitally based. You know what works best for your population.


Finally, take a critical look at your assignments. Use your student data to see what is and isn’t working in your material. Is there an assignment or assessment that seems to be stopping a large number of students in their tracks?  Sometimes a lesson redesign is what is needed to help move students forward.



Simple Online Notetaking Tools for Students

Distracted by Tech? Address the Problem, Not the Symptom

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to block a site. Truthfully, I’d charge people that want me to block all games from the internet a little more.  It would  fund my retirement nicely. It’s a problem that occurs everywhere- the complaint that games and social media distract students and make it difficult if not impossible for them to do the learning they need to do.

Lately the complaints have ramped up from teachers frustrated by students who are running out of time to complete work before the end of the year. They ask me to look through the students’ laptops and find out what they are doing instead of work. It’s tedious but it is part of my job so I do it.

Students have never been at a loss for ways to avoid work. This year I am seeing some old tools like Stealthy paired with newer ones like PanicButton. These are extensions from the Chrome Webstore that allow students to get around our filters (Stealthy) and hide webpages that they don’t want you to see (PanicButton).


The extensions will show up (unless they are hidden) to the right of the address bar in Chrome as shown in the photo above. I suggest you start looking for them.

ImageThe Stealthy button is a red square with an arrow in it. When it’s red, it’s off and the school’s filter is in place. When it’s green, it’s on and the student is using a proxy server to get around the filter. This will allow them to go anywhere they want. There’s no free lunch here- there are risks. You can read about them here.

ImageThe Panic Button is a red circle with either a target in it or an exclamation point. Both do the same thing- they hide the pages the student doesn’t want you to see, and replaces them with a more school appropriate page. Students can set the page they want you to see.

We CANNOT control the use of these tools. We can’t block them. We can make the students remove them. They are easily re-added as soon as we turn our backs. It’s less of a discipline issue than it is a sign that the student has become disconnected from the learning.

I’ll challenge you to think of these tools not as the problem itself but as a symptom of a bigger issue. Not completing work is not a new problem. It is not caused by laptops, phones, or iPads. Technology has certainly made procrastination easier but it didn’t invent it. All these tools are a big fat arrow pointing at the real problem- the student is stuck.

So why did I bother to point these things out? Because they are a visual that leads you to conversations with your students. When you see that students have installed these kinds of tools it’s kind of like noticing they have a rash. It certainly provides an opening to begin a discussion. I had the opportunity to chat with two young men this week about their use of both of these tools. I asked what educational purpose they served, and as you could expect they had a hard time coming up with one.

Both students are athletes. I asked them if they would ever consider working hard in practice when the coach was watching, and slacking off and doing something else when the coach had their back turned. They thought this was ridiculous! Why would they do that? How would they ever get better? Neither wanted to sit the bench, and they acknowledged that that kind of behavior would be counterproductive.

This made things too easy. I asked how they thought using the PanicButton was going to help them if it only made them look like they were learning. Neither could come up with an answer.

Here’s where the door opens for you as a teacher. Distraction, procrastination, defiance- they are all symptoms of the same problem. Disengagement. It might be disengagement from a particular assignment or it might be disengagement from school as a whole.  It’s our job as teachers to figure out WHY. It’s not about “who’s fault” it is. It’s about finding solutions. Forward motion is the goal.

I’m not a social worker so I can’t fix the big problems- but here are some suggestions you might try for the smaller ones. Keep in mind that this does not have to be done for an entire class- apply these as you identify students who could use them.

Reading issues:

  • Print articles students need to read. When reading gets tough and Facebook is on another tab, the temptation is to turn to the easier task.
  • Use summarizing tools like Skimzee, SummarizeThis and TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read). Some work better than others but most work better than not reading at all.
  • Remove ads from pages by using Clearly in Chrome or Reader in Safari.

Distraction Issues:

  • Not all work is best done on the laptop. Decide if closing the lid will be beneficial for students.
  • Sometimes GoogleDocs provides too many notifications about new email, chat requests, etc. Have students write in Pages. Pages files can be uploaded for storage, or they can paste their work into a GoogleDoc when they are done. They can also use WriteSpace, a tool that provides a black screen with a cursor for distraction free writing.
  • Have students turn their airports off if they don’t need the internet.
  • Seating. If you know a child has a hard time focusing, do not let them sit in the hallway or with their back against the wall. Give them a seat where their screen is visible and keep an eye on what they are doing.
  • Ask students to use tools like IAMSTUDYING or Website Blocker. These allow the students to customize a filter that will block the sites they need to stay off of as well as the times they’d like them blocked. Helping students learn to self monitor can be crucial.


  • Exit tickets are a great way to hold students accountable for what they have done in class. Some teachers start with a daily goal and ask students to evaluate how they have done. They don’t leave class without handing in the ticket.
  • Ask them to email a copy of their daily work to you. It will only take a minute for you to evaluate what they have done and know how well they are using their time. This is especially effective when you are doing a whole class video. gives you an easy way to do this.

If you’ve been in the classroom any time at all, you already have a hefty toolbox of strategies to help students. When you look at the behavior with technology as a symptom it makes it easier to put together a set of strategies to get your students moving ahead.



TEDEd-The Simplest Flipped Classroom Yet

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I’m always so appreciative to work in a district with such smart colleagues. Dan Tompkins, Tech Integrator in Richmond, sent this along to me and it’s a goldmine.

I’ve always been a fan of TedTalks. They are often relevant to what we teach but finding them and then figuring out the best way to use them can be time consuming. Not anymore! offers the ability to “build a lesson around any TED-Ed Original, TED Talk or YouTube Video” – or use one that someone else has shared.

Each lesson has questions, resources for deeper learning, and discussion questions that can be answered online in a forum environment. By logging in and creating a class you can create a classroom of your own using some of the “too many to count” TedEd resources, or you can make your own with your flipped videos that are posted on YouTube.

Some intriguing titles I found:

This tour site is well worth the time to visit.


Improve Student Workflow with Home Screen Shortcuts

Workflow has been the buzzword of the month. My task list today included adding a customized Symbaloo webmix to all of the classroom laptops. The goal is to help our elementary students get where they need to go easily without worrying about their sometimes weak typing skills. We also have iPads in the classrooms and as I was plugging away I was thinking about how to get Symbaloo on the iPads too.

Then I realized it-  I don’t really need Symbaloo for the iPads. Many of the most used sites have apps that are already on the iPads. The one stickler was the link to the library card catalog. The librarian wants to be able to use Opals on the iPads but the website is long and difficult for students to type accurately. The bookmarking system on the iPads is not  convenient for students with fine motor issues.  We needed a better solution.


Turns out it is SO EASY to put a shortcut to a website on an iPad home screen. Safari does almost all the work for you- and all you have to do is organize the resulting app-like tile onto your screen so it makes sense. I found a YouTube video that shows how to do it in 45 seconds.

This is what our library login site looks like. I wanted an icon to it that students could easily access on the iPad.




ImageA few clicks of the mouse and voila! It looks like another app (ok, it’s on my phone but it works the same on your iPad). It’s now moveable to wherever I think it works best in the lineup.

How can this work for you?

1. Many teachers have sites they use for practice that contain games or challenges for students to use. Create a folder and fill it with these “apps.” Or create folders by content area and organize your links that way.

2. Is your iPad too old to manage the newest OS updates? Often times new apps won’t run on an old OS. IXL is one such app. If there is a website available, and often times there is, you can still provide easy access to the tool.

NoRedInk is worth a second look

Last year I wrote about NoRedInk, a tool that is very useful for helping students learn grammar. At that writing, NoRedInk had 3 categories to work with: apostrophes, subject/verb agreement, and commas, sentence fragments, and run-ons. Nine months later that have expanded their tool to include LOTS more.

ImageNoRedInk fits nicely with my workflow model (see previous post). It’s easy to use for the teacher- you create a class and decide what sorts of practice quizzes you want your students to use. You check the categories, the number of questions you want, the number of points the quiz is worth, and whether you want to make the quiz available right away or schedule it for later on.  You can assign the quiz to a whole class or individual students, making it perfect for student centered learning environments. NoRedInk creates the quizzes from a question bank and customizes them based on choices the student makes about characters from popular music, sports, movies, or names that the student puts in.

What’s of equal value is what you get back. You get an answer key for each quiz. You get a report that says who took it, how well they did, and what questions they missed.

student view of NoRedInk feedbackStudents get lots of feedback too. They get a message when they answer a question incorrectly as well as the opportunity to try it again. If they miss the second question, they are given a screen explaining WHY the answer was incorrect- and a button that takes them to a similar question to try again.  Students have the option of getting practice quizzes as well and can choose the topic they want to work on. There’s also a progress chart for students to use to see how well they are mastering each of the areas.

Give NoRedInk a look and see if it will work for you and your students.

Integrator Tip: Put Workflow FIRST

It’s a fact. We are barraged by tools. If you created a google alert for just about any sort of online tool your inbox would be full within hours. The next thing since sliced bread is always right at hand. And it’s often what trips us up.

As integrators we naturally see possibilities. Because of our problem solving skills and our propensity for tech savvy, we sometimes overlook the moat while leaping across to the castle. It’s a fatal mistake that often finds us swimming quickly away from angry crocodiles.

Teachers exist on a different plane from us. They have an unrelenting schedule, parents and principals at bay (sometimes with swords drawn), and students who are in varying states of armor. They need tools that just WORK. These tools need to seamlessly integrate into their world and require no time for password retrieval or versions that are not compatible.

In one of my earliest posts I suggested 10 Tips for New Integrators. I danced around the subject but here’s the truth- in order for a tool to be worthwhile, it has to have a large “valued added” component. This means that it can’t be an impediment to progress. It has to provide traction for learning. If it just does the same thing as what you’ve been doing but in a different way, let it float past.

How do you vet a tool through this lens? Simple. Start with these two elements:

1. The login. At our school, students have a multitude of logins. They have to remember their Educate (our CMS system), Discovery Ed, GoogleDocs, Edmodo, Apple ID, and logins for any number of other tools that they use. These kids are KIDS! Sometimes they forget to brush their teeth- and we want them to remember another login? There are a plethora of tools that allow you to use a student’s google login to access a tool. Students that use GoogleDocs as a part of their daily learning rarely forget their login- which means that the tools that are connected to GoogleDocs also will be easy to access. Look for tools that allow a student to combine accounts – but use the opportunity as a teachable moment for password safety and digital footprint issues. Single login systems have their drawbacks security-wise. You should also be sure you know what information the tool takes from their google account. This is a perfect example of the “no free lunch” theory.

2. Password safety– I can’t tell you how many hours each week I spend either retrieving or changing passwords for students. It’s not the best use of my time or talents. To that end, I’ve found a solution. I have to credit my colleague Dan Tompkins with this idea. Like most of us, he vets many tools each month. He’s come up with a good password convention that’s worth passing on to students. When he creates an account for a tool, he uses a common  username- often with a “junk” email address in case the relationship doesn’t work out. The password always begins with the name of the tool- for example, “Evernote” followed by an underscore and the password. It might look like this:  Evernote_1234, Edmodo_1234, Socrative_1234. Again, it’s important to talk about strong passwords at this point. Once someone knows your strategy, your security could be compromised.

3. Find the tools where they congregate.  One good place to look  is the Chrome Web Store. If you aren’t familiar with it, get acquainted. It’s a treasure trove of tools. The link gives you an easy to follow tutorial to get you started.

Your google docs account also has a way to link you to many other tools. From your google drive, click CREATE. You’ll see “more apps” at the bottom of the menu. This will lead you to tools that integrate with GoogleDocs and will, once installed, create an easy way to access them.

There. Ready? Get to it- vet the tools your students need. Or better yet, ask THEM to do it. Evaluate the workflow and determine their usability through the eyes of your students and colleages. Share what you learn- and move forward.