There are countless bright and shiny sites on the Web to choose from, and the "cool" factor of many can be very seductive to both teachers and students alike. How can we began to separate the wheat from the chaff among these sites or, as data-whiz Nate Silver has put it, identify the signal from the noise?
I first begin by asking myself a series of simple questions when I learn of a new web tool. If the answer is not "yes" to each of them, I generally put it out of mind (though I do keep a list of some of the best thet don't make the cut because sometimes they are helpful for just providing students a change-of-pace). The questions are:
1) Is it free?
Money is limited in most schools. I have yet to find a site that provided such exceptional resources that it was worth the (probably unsuccessful) effort to try to get my school to pay for it. And, truthfully, if my school gets any funds they can use for technology, I'd much rather have them use it towards new hardware and bandwidth to improve our antiquated equipment and connectivity system.
2) Can I figure out how to use it in less than one minute?
My time is limited, and I'm somewhat familiar with educational tech. If a site is too difficult for me to learn in a minute, then it's highly likely that it will take far longer for colleagues or my students to figure it out. There are far too many good tools out there to take much time to learn how just one works.
3) Can I teach my students how to use the site's basics in less than two minutes?
I'm teaching English, not computer science. My focus is helping students learn an insane language that requires all of their attention. In my situation, I have students who are entering a U.S. high school with few English skills and only a few years (at most) where they have to learn English and academic skills in Science, Math, and Social Studies. As far as they, and I, am concerned, technology needs to be a tool for making learning English easier and more effective, and not be another hurdle to overcome.
4) Can using it provide students an added learning benefit that can't be obtained by using "old-fashioned" tools like pen, paper, or whiteboard in the classroom?
Many Web tools are just fancier ways to do what good teachers have always done in the classroom. Others, however, can genuinely make English-language-learning more effective, easier, and/or more fun.
- Sites like English Central provide immediate individual feedback on pronunciation, and opportunities for reading, listening and vocabulary development in an engaging environment. It's a less-intimidating place to make errors since the only "one" listening is the computer.
- Resources like Starfall and KizClub promote the concept of students reading books of their choice by offering many options of "read aloud" stories providing audio and visual support to the text.
- Web 2.0 tools like PixiClip and Fotobabble let students practice their speaking and reading ability verbally with an audio recording. Students can use it regularly, compare their previous work, and build their confidence by seeing and hearing for themselves how much they improve each week or month.
There are many more sites that fit my criteria for being an effective language-learning ed tech tool, and you can see the complete list here, along with many samples of student projects using them.
What sites do you use that meet those guidelines? Or, even better, what are the guidelines that you use?
Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.
He has written six books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog.
He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.