Slow internet? No devices? Here’s how to make the most of limited classroom tech for next to nothing
School districts in the United States spend billions of dollars each year to purchase technology for the classroom, yet the lack of technology and internet access in the nation’s public schools continues to be an issue. Often, a teacher who is faced with little technology in the classroom will feel overwhelmed and will resort to more traditional teaching methods.
This article outlines strategies for teachers to increase the impact of the technology to which they are limited. I have purposely left coordinated and intentional BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs out of this list. Even with the best-planned BYOD program, there will be students who do not have devices to bring.
These are strategies I have used in my experience in education, which began in a room with one computer and no projector, as well as strategies I have helped teachers to implement in my role as a professional development consultant and instructional coach. It’s important for teachers to focus not on what isn’t in their classroom but rather how they can use what they have.
(Next page: How to get free technology, free apps, and free money)
1. Making do with what we have (and possibly spending a couple bucks). When I found myself in that low-tech room, I had choices to make. Would I resort to drill and kill worksheets and lecture-style delivery of instruction? After all, I only had one computer, which was in the classroom for the sole use of the teacher. The school had a computer lab in the library, but scheduling time in the lab was difficult and the computers there didn’t allow students to save their work.
My solution? The librarian had a fleet of large televisions. She also had S-video cables. I connected my computer to a television and it sat in my room for the rest of the year, projecting presentations and websites during my beginning years of technology integration. I would allow one student at a time to sit at my desk to explore websites while the rest watched.
Today, regardless of the type of device you find in your classroom, there is an adapter that can connect it to a television or to a discarded computer monitor. More importantly, a cheap wireless mouse has a range as large as most classrooms. Handing the mouse around the room turns that television into an interactive screen.
2. One man’s trash is another teacher’s treasure. When technology is thrown away, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is unusable. Technology becomes outdated very quickly and some people believe it to be worthless. For a teacher who has no technology in the classroom, it can be a valuable gift. Even within a campus, one teacher may discard technology that would be welcomed in another teacher’s classroom.
Take regular walks around campus to see what other teachers have lying around. Visit the district technology office to sort through the boxes of equipment they plan to sell at auction. Even if the equipment doesn’t work, you’ll find cool gadgets for students to tear apart and repurpose in that maker space you always wanted.
Parents are a valuable resource, as well. That old smart phone, or even flip phone that has a camera? They can be charged and used as digital cameras for photographs and videos. If they were able to connect to the internet when the parents used them, they can still connect to the wireless at the school, even without a data plan. Ask parents to donate their old phones when they upgrade. It is tax-deductible, and your formerly technology deprived classroom could become 1:1 with mobile devices.
3. Use free resources. This may seem obvious, but I see teachers and administrators spending money on apps and subscriptions without hesitation. I have found that, most of the time, an app that costs money or a website that charges for a subscription often has a competitor that is free. While it is true that you get what you pay for, many of these free providers are getting paid, just not by you. Investors seek the opportunity for philanthropy and teachers and students benefit.
Today’s app market is changing. More and more applications require only an internet browser to operate. Free browser extensions abound for browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. Some of those extensions perform the same tasks as those 99 cent apps do, and 99 cents times multiple devices adds up.
4. Grants. As I mentioned, there are investors who are interested in donating money to schools. Teachers just have to know where to look. Large corporations, such as Walmart, Coca Cola, and Sprint have applications on their websites for individuals and teachers to request funding. These grants can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Look for corporations that have corporate foundations, such as those found on this list from the Foundation Center.
Many school districts have education foundations and parent organizations that offer grants to teachers. Some of them allow teachers to submit requests several times each school year. Even if a request is for just one device, that is one more than you had before, and multiple requests could eventually equip your classroom.
(Next page: Great ideas with just 1 device)
5. Centers-based learning. Elementary school teachers have used centers-based learning for years, but secondary teachers are often resistant. Centers can stretch the technology that exists in a classroom to allow every student opportunities to interact with it. Rotating groups of students through reading stations, writing stations, listening/viewing stations, and hands-on activity stations, with or without technology is a best practice. When combined with an interactive computer station, students can not only explore, but also create with just a few devices for an entire class of students.
6. Integrating technology with one device. I recently worked with teachers in an area that not only had very few computers, the technology they had was outdated and they only had dialup internet access. The reality of that inspired me to find ways that a single device could be used in the classroom. Even if you are in a situation where your students cannot put their hands on technology, they can still benefit from the engagement that alternative methods of direct instruction allows.
I’m not talking about sitting the students in front of a screen and showing them videos for an entire class session or supplementing your lecture with a digital presentation. Suggestions such as using an image to start a conversation about author’s purpose, movement, or a period of history or making predictions can be a powerful way to integrate technology into direct instruction.
Using a short video clip with the audio removed can be a meaningful summative assessment when a student is tasked with recording, or even writing on a piece of paper, the narration for the video. Creating an interactive presentation with images and hyperlinks can increase engagement when students are asked which image the teacher should click on next. None of these strategies require internet access, either, so even the most technology-poor classroom can incorporate these solutions.
I have also seen classrooms that used the concept of technology in their classroom with nothing more than a piece of notebook paper and a pencil. The concept of explaining a character by drawing a fake Pinterest board is the same as when a student uses technology to create a digital version.
7. Get apps for free. If you must use an app for a mobile device or browser that costs money, wait for it to have a temporary price reduction or giveaway. Many app developers will temporarily lower their prices or even give away apps in an effort to build their market. In response, some app developers have created apps that help you keep track of these opportunities. AppsGoneFree is a resource for iOS operating systems that provides daily information about apps being offered at a free or reduced price. The website even allows users to submit suggestions for apps they would like to see go free. Another handy, free tool is AppShopper. AppShopper is a web-based app finder that allows users to create lists of apps they want, but are not willing to pay for. AppShopper will notify users when that particular app has a price drop, and also provides daily updates on reduced-price apps. AppShopper also has a new social app that integrates user ratings and suggestions into the iOS platform.
8. Turn mobile devices into a free classroom response system. Many campuses choose to invest a significant amount of money into classroom response systems, or “clickers.” These response systems provide an opportunity for students to interact with prompts provided by their teacher and for the teacher to accumulate data to use for formative assessment. Rather than investing money in those systems, a workaround that does not limit the use in any way and in fact, enhances it, is to use mobile devices with a free web-based system. These systems work on any device that can connect to the internet. Remember those old phones you asked parents to donate? They can be used as “clickers,” as can laptops, Chromebooks, and even handheld gaming systems that have internet capability.
There are several I have tried. Two have become my favorites, with one an honorable mention. The one I have used the most is Socrative. Socrative can be used for multiple choice, short answer, voting, quizzing, and competitions. It can integrate images, provide downloadable reports for the teacher, and is extremely easy to use. Students simply point their browser to m.socrative.com and enter the teacher’s room. The teacher controls the prompts that are sent to the device. Its ease-of-use and compatibility across platforms is what makes this one my favorite. Teachers can decide “on-the-fly” to use Socrative – it is that easy.
Another favorite, for another purpose, is Kahoot, which makes it easy for teachers to gamify the learning experience by creating a quiz show format for review questions, instruction, and information gathering. On the student side, Kahoot is simple–they visit kahoot.it and enter a pin number provided by their teacher. On the teacher side, this one takes a little planning–the questions and answers have to be entered ahead of time. Still, this free resource provides a great opportunity for engagement in the classroom, regardless of age. I have seen teachers get just as excited about participating in a Kahoot at a professional development workshop as I have seen students get in the classroom.
The honorable mention is InfuseLearning. I haven’t used it a lot because it doesn’t work across all platforms and the performance is sometimes spotty. The reason I think it is one to keep on the radar is that, although it is very similar to Socrative, it has additional answer formats, such as Likert scales and sorting, as well as interactive tools that allow students to draw their responses.
The bottom line. Think about what you want to have, take inventory of what you actually have, and work toward the dreams you have of a technology-rich classroom. Building that bridge, one piece of technology, one free app, or one piece of donated equipment at a time is always a better strategy than staying where you are. As you think of creative ways to stretch your technology, you will find it getting easier and easier and in the stretching, you just may come up with a better experience than you would have had if you had unlimited funds to devote to technology purchases.
Elaine Plybon is a Facilitator of Transformative Learning at Keller ISD in Texas, and was named one of the National School Board Association’s 20 to Watch Education Technology Leaders in 2014.
She is an active member of Discovery Education’s Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a global community of educators that are passionate about transforming the learning experience with digital media. This is part of a series of articles from DEN members, which previously featured how to revolutionize PD for the digital age.
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