After my post about my aspirations for using Twitter in the classroom this year, I was asked about other free software I would recommend for the foreign language classroom. And so, to respond I would like to list and describe all of the free web apps I would like to integrate into my own Spanish classes this term. I don’t want to overwhelm my students with technology, so I may not end up using every one of these ideas. But some of them may very well prove useful for future terms or to you for your present courses!
I’ve split this post into two parts to be more easily digested. Part 1 will cover what I call the Core Apps, or those that I expect to use on a daily or at least weekly basis. Part 2 will cover the Supplementary Apps, or those used only occasionally, such as for projects or for special circumstances. All of the apps listed here don’t require any specific hardware (a necessity for classroom integration in a system with no 1:1 program), though many offer free, specialized mobile apps.
Before I begin, I must give a big plug to eduTecher. eduTecher is a free service that shares online tools for teachers, and it was through their site that I found a large number of the web apps featured here (and most of the logo images used below; don’t worry, eT, I saved them to my own server to save your bandwidth!). On the site, you can search through links and save them to your “Backpack,” maintain a notebook of teaching ideas, and expand your PLN via their forums or creating a blog. They even offer free Android and iOS apps for their network. I constantly check their site for all of the latest developments in educational tech.
The Core Apps:
Twitter/TweetDeck: Twitter is discussed at length in this post, so I will just zip on to the next, related app. I strongly recommend that you (and your students) get a TweetDeck account when you start Tweeting with your class to be able to keep track of all the people you normally follow alongside columns for specific class hashtags (e.g., #SPAgrammar, #SPAvocab, #SPAculture) and for your students’ questions and posts simultaneously on one easy-to-read dashboard. I assure you that TweetDeck will save you a lot of time clicking through usernames and streams and searches.
TweetDeck has not yet released its web app, so its inclusion here may be a bit erroneous. Nevertheless, it offers free Android, BlackBerry, and iOS apps; a Chrome browser extension; and Linux, Mac, and Windows desktop clients to keep up with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more—which ARE web apps! :) I’ve also heard good things about HootSuite from other educators; my personal experience just happens to be with TweetDeck.
Google Apps for Education: I feel that I am extremely fortunate that my institution uses the free Google Apps suite. What this means for me personally as a Google addict is that I already know exactly how all of the e-mail. calendar, chat, collaborative document, and website functionalities will work in my new workplace and for my students and, what’s more, that all of these functionalities are already on my Android phone—a classroom in my pocket! What it means for my courses is that we all have a ready-made collaborative space online.
I could share an office hours schedule on Google Calendar with my students and know it is available 24/7 in their browsers and on their phones—Sorry, no more excuses! I could leave Google Chat on during my digital office hours—as a more private alternative to Twitter for questions pertaining to individual performance, etc., that other students wouldn’t benefit from studying after the fact—and know that none of my students would have to download other software or write down my screen name or anything. With Google Voice calls presently being free in GMail, it would be very easy to practice speaking the target language on the phone with students—a very tough skill to master, even for advanced students—without spending anyone’s cell phone minutes or tying up your office phone.
I am presently in the process of constructing a free course web site with Google Sites with a lesson schedule, “flipped” lecture videos, YouTube clips, songs, art, and more that has built-in connectivity with Google Docs. Google Sites require very little experience with HTML/CSS, so they are very quick to make!
With Google Docs, the possibilites are virtually endless—lecture and student presentations, worksheets and handouts, individual student grade spreadsheets—all without using a single sheet of paper, all instantaneously synced to each student’s account, and all with no technical setup! I hope to write a post in the future about all of the different ways I want to use Google Docs in my classes, but in general I expect to use it most for easy, paperless activity sheets. Please refer to this excellent collaborative resource started by Tom Barrett if you want more ideas!
If your institution doesn’t have the Google Apps for Education suite already implemented, you can still have your students sign up for Google accounts for free. It just requires a little more footwork on your part to instruct the students on how to make an account and to collect everyone’s e-mail addresses and so forth at the beginning of the year.
Dropbox/FileStork: Not to insult your tech prowess—or the delicate sensibilities of a certain auto insurance company’s Neanderthal spokesmen—but you must have been living in a cave for the past year or two if you haven’t at least heard grumblings about Dropbox, whether you have actually used it yourself or not. This file backup and sharing program offers 2 GB (and up to 16 GB based on your referrals) of free space for pretty much whatever kind of file you can throw at it. To use it, you first download a desktop (or mobile) app that automatically backs up the files you place in your Dropbox folder. From there, you can access your password-protected Dropbox files from anywhere via any web browser. During my undergrad years, this meant saying goodbye to my trusty thumb drive… and never being able to use the “The dog ate my homework…” line again. I could work on or print any homework assignment or essay from any lab computer with no discs or other hardware.
When combined with FileStork, though, Dropbox becomes a great, totally paperless alternative to e-mail for my students to turn in weekly compositions, book reports, culture projects, class play videos, or anything else they might need to turn in for grading not on Google Docs without having a Dropbox account themselves. With FileStork, you can make each course, each student, or even each assignment a folder and allow for either limitless or single uploads. The whole process is password-protected and you can even choose what types of files are permissible for sharing, so the process is as secure as opening and downloading an e-mail attachment—without the extra steps of actually doing so. FileStork will also notify you as soon as a file is uploaded by one of your students so that you can set specific deadlines if you so choose. (Thanks to Dave for this useful idea!) If FileStork isn’t exactly the Dropbox solution you need, you could try one of the four alternatives to FileStork found at MakeUseOf.
Socrative: A fairly new addition to the educational web app world, Socrative has already made a pretty big splash among my PLN. Socrative is a free alternative to the au courant “clickers,” allowing students with any sort of device with an Internet connection to participate in quick exercises, quizzes, and games. On their home page, Socrative claims that their “apps take a teacher 3 minutes to setup and takes your class 20 seconds to load.” This is not an exaggeration if you are using any of their pre-made activities, as only the teacher needs an account. The students need only enter your “room number” on the student Socrative site, and away you go! You can, however, write your own activities, which will obviously take a bit longer than 3 minutes.
For all but the very beginning language courses, I would suggest teachers write their own activities, so that students have questions and answers in the target language. Really, though, no time is “lost” from a macroscopic perspective, as you would have had to write the quiz or activity you were planning anyway. Socrative saves you additional time on evaluation, though, by e-mailing you grade reports as either a Google Doc or an Excel spreadsheet for each student. It will also generate visualizations for showing the whole class which overall percentages of correct and incorrect responses, just like the fancy clicker software.
I expect to use Socrative primarily for quizzes over previous class material that I don’t want to spend too much in-class time drilling—conjugations and grammar rules, primarily—and for “exit ticket” comprehension checks for tweaking future lesson plans. Socrative will generate multiple choice, true/false, short answer, or mixed activities, so any language concept can be tested in this way. The sample quiz in their hands-on demo shows how including at least one short answer item allows you to ask students to input their names, changing the software from a general class-wide gauge to an individualized automatic grading system.
Socrative is still in private beta, but it would seem that they are being fairly generous with their invites as I got mine minutes after pressing “send.” Socrative is a great example of a web app thatjust works.
WordReference: Moving from new to classic, WordReference (hereafter WR) was a staple in all of my own undergrad Spanish coursework and is a valuable resource for any foreign language teacher. WR has English, German, and the Romance languages covered, along with some East Asian languages and Arabic. It is basically a totally free, interactive, two-way dictionary/language support forums combo. Just type in a word or phrase in either language, and WR will direct you to the relevant entry. Various dialects are covered in each language, along with the appropriate colloquial forms of idioms, greetings, and the like. WR actually searches multiple online dictionaries to give you the most complete view on the word or phrase as possible. Some vocabulary or usages that aren’t covered in the actual WR dictionaries will stills how up in your search results in WR’s comprehensive user forums. WR also offers lists of verb conjugations for each listed verb; this is a great reference for reviewing but also something you may want to inform your students of after they finish their conjugation worksheets…
WR is an excellent alternative to having to purchase an entire set of student dictionaries or, for higher ed. readers, to having students purchase their own dictionary. (Obviously advanced students and college majors/minors should own their own dictionary, but this is a great paperless alternative for the rest of your student population.) I’ve found that teaching proper WR usage also helps keep students away from
plagiarizing with using computer translation software, as they more easily learn the vocabulary and recognize the importance of proper usage through exchanges with native speakers in the WR forums and with me in class. One just can’t learn natural usage of a language through the computer translators we have access to today.
WR offers free Android and iOS apps; these are unfortunately just custom mobile-optimized browsers for the site that don’t function without an Internet connection, but they are the best bet for using WR on the go. At the bottom of the WR homepage, you can find quick tutorials on how to better integrate WR into any web browser through adding it as a search engine or as a bookmarklet. So, for example, in Chrome all I have to do now to search for a definition is type “WR,” hit the “space” key, and then enter my query right into the URL bar—much faster than consulting a regular dictionary!
I hope this post has been stimulating and helpful to you.
Do check back over the next few days for “Part Two: The Supplementary Apps,” and please re-Tweet and share on Facebook using the buttons below!
EDIT 08/30/11: "Part Two: The Supplementary Apps" has now been published.