3 of the best educational technology tools for 2017

Back to the future

It is January 2017, and the world of educational tools and technology is changing. Not that this is a new thing mind you, but it has become something that decision makers are needing to respond to because learner’s expectations are starting to shift so rapidly! The classroom is no longer just the four walls, the furniture, the students and the teacher. The classroom is now enabled outside of the educational institutions through mobile devices such as phones, tablets (my personal favourite of the Android variety is the Google Pixel C – we use them at work – great screen, serious power under the hood and they look cool) and laptops. Students take their learning with them, and Educational Institutions, developers and manufacturers are coming up with new and exciting ways to facilitate their on-the-go style.

So what are the educational technology tools of the trade that educators will need to be on top of to manage learner expectations as they follow these new trends? There are so many out there and there is no one size fits all, but here are three of my top picks for a more technology savvy (and time saving) 2017: 

Camtasia Studio 9 

One of the largest changes in student expectation is that educational material be delivered in rich media formats. This means that it’s not really enough to capture learner’s ever-shortening attention span with the tried and true journal articles and textbooks (though these are still important, obviously). To cater for this insatiable student need for diversity of content, educators are producing more and more video and audio material. This can come in the form of highly produced videos or podcasts, as webcam recordings, or as screen-casts, where the teacher takes a clip of their screen while demonstrating a concept. There are so many different programs available that facilitate the production of this type of content, but a cost effective and comprehensive option is this beautiful little program named Camtasia Studio 9.

What makes it so great (I hear you ask)? 

For starters, its interface is super intuitive and easy to use and navigate. The program begins with an option to let you “Record the screen” which allows educators to jump straight into screen-casting. For those wanting to edit an existing bit of media, that is straight-forward too. The video can be imported from your computer or cloud space, and then cut, copied and modified from the timeline. Transitions can be dropped in, and modified, turning your videos into professional works of art (or closer to, at any rate). Camtasia comes pre-packaged with a series of shapes and some simple animations to highlight examples (such as arrows, text boxes and so on) and a library of music and sound effects. Your own images, video and sound can be imported too. The software allows for voice recording via a microphone, as well as functionality for volume changes and an option to remove background noise at the click of a button. All very convenient for those who want to produce some good audio visual material, but don’t want to spend weeks trying to learn how to use professional grade recording and/or editing software.

Interested?

Buy it from Amazon here for $199 USD, or check out Techsmith’s site for Education pricing if you’re likely to want multiple copies. Techsmith publishes informative self-help guides that can be used to help you get started. Mac users should purchase the mac version, the slightly confusingly named – Camtasia for mac 2.

A mobile device

This one might seem obvious, as it is 2017, and virtually everyone reading these words is likely to own some type of mobile device – whether it be a phone, or a tablet, or a laptop computer, or even a bit of wearable technology (like smart watches). Do you know who else owns mobiles devices and accesses course materials using them? Students! For educators working in institutions that are encouraging or mandating the “Bring Your Own Device” movement, its likely front and centre already that these devices provide students with varied learning experiences due to the differences in operating systems, screen size, and availability of applications, and it’s also likely that you’ve been asked some curly questions about how to install a bit of software that you’re using to demonstrate something, how to login to a system, or “How do I access that on a mac?”. Unless you have a dedicated IT department or person, a great way of answering these questions, or pre-empting them and designing your course with these questions in mind, is to practice using the device yourself. You might get stuck installing something or realise that the screen-cast you just recorded was in the wrong format and doesn’t play on an iPad. This practice will put you in a better place to answer the questions your students might have when they attempt to do the same things. Some bonus positives of using a mobile device are: 1) You’ll look and seem cooler to your younger students (maybe), and 2) you’ll be able to test your recordings, podcasts and materials out on more than one device prior to release them to students. There are a whole lot of variables at play when selecting a mobile device that might be appropriate, but here are two of my favourites (in no particular order):

  • Google Pixel C 10.2 inch – The Pixel C, the first tablet made directly by Google, is the gold standard in Android tablets right now (Jan 2017). The screen is second to none in the android range, it is powerful, it is lightweight, and it should age well, meaning that the money you spend on it now will allow you to hold onto it for a number of years, as you use it to test out those new podcasts you’ve just recorded and uploaded onto SoundCloud, or that screen-cast you just put together using Camtasia 9. Because the tablet is made by Google, it doesn’t have the additional baggage that many of the android tablets have, where manufacturers pre-install their super-helpful apps that don’t do much of anything in particular, and the software that is installed and updated (including the operating system), should continue to provide you with an easy and less frustrating experience overall. Examples of this are integration with Google email, drive, their “Office” suite of products (the G Suite) and YouTube. A 10 inch screen will provide you with a point of differentiation when checking to see if your lesson that was designed on a 24 inch monitor will translate and be readable by students using a similar device. The Pixel C can be purchased with a keyboard (via the google store), and some other potentially useful additions such as a chromecast, which you could use to mirror your tablet display to a projected image in a classroom setting.
  • Apple iPad Pro 12.9 inch – The latest generation iPads are a little larger (and heavier) than their predecessors, with their screens enlarged by a couple of inches. This puts them on par with larger sized netbooks, but smaller than most full sized laptops. This model has a retina display (ie/ the clarity is amazing) and as is usual with the iPad range, the responsiveness is fantastic, the sound is commendable and you pay a premium for the privilege of owning a conversation starting bit of technology made by Apple. Whether you want to splash out on an iPad for your teaching and learning needs really depends on a few things. 1) Are you comfortable with mac products? If you are, you might want one because you’re going to be very productive using it. If you’re not, maybe you should invest in one so you can get yourself trained up enough so that your students won’t stump you when they ask mac related questions (or start talking about their awesome new iphone), and 2) Can you use the money more effectively with a cheaper iPad/android tablet? This will depend on the size of your laptop or desktop computer (it’s best to get a device that has a different sized screen to help you test different scenarios), your student cohort (are they using Apple products or PCs or android?), and what type of software you are using when you plan and deliver your lessons (microsoft products on a PC), or explain everything for an iPad  . In short, there are a number of variables that you should consider before making your decision.

(note: I’ve gone for touch screen devices as I’m assuming you have a desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse combo to use as your primary teaching and learning tool. If you are planning on using a mobile device as your primary tool for course development, I would recommend a reasonably powerful laptop. I will write another post on this topic, but for now two solid choices would be a MacBook Air 11.6 inch laptop or the 13.3 inch version for a larger screen. I’m not really a Mac person, but these are nice little sleek and sexy laptops that have a great screen, are capable of running most (if not all) programs you would need to run as an educator, and have enough hard-drive space to store pretty much everything you could want to store. (With the advent of cloud storage, I think a large hard-drive is much less important than it used to be, so this is a good way to save some money). In the PC range, I’m going to cheat a little and recommend the ASUS 13.3 inch ZenBook UX360CA. These are great value (significantly cheaper than the MacBook, which is… not surprising), they look great, and they have plenty of power under the hood. Why is recommending this cheating? Because this model actually has a touch-screen. If you wanted to save a little bit of money, you can purchase the standard screen type. I personally don’t find touch screens on laptops to be particularly useful, but you might.)

Samson Meteor USB Studio Microphone

One of the most key, yet overlooked parts of delivering engaging and well received audio-visual material is the audio. I don’t know anyone who enjoys listening to frappy sound, least of all students! To eliminate (or at least reduce) the chances that students will tune you out, invest in a good microphone for your screen-casts, your videos, and your podcasts. One that I heavily recommend is the Samson Meteor USB Studio Microphone. This little rocket-ship microphone is great value and produces very high quality recordings for its price. The unit connects to a computer via a USB connector, which along with its size (and the fact its legs fold up), makes it perfect for travelling along with your laptop computer or tablet. I have purchased a number of these microphones that we loan out to staff to facilitate their own lecture recordings and screen-casts. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

In summary, the ability to produce quality audio visual content to encourage student engagement and to facilitate learning should be a key focal area for educators in 2017. To facilitate the creation of this rich audio-visual content, easy to use and affordable software such as Camtasia is highly recommended, along with a great microphone such as the Samson Meteor USB Microphone to provide learners with clear and high-quality sound. Mobile learning is already part of the landscape, so its important that educators familiarise themselves with the tools that students use to access materials. Examples of this include the slick and powerful Google Pixel C and the Apple iPad. It should be an exciting year!

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