Engaging students by giving them a voice in the classroom using free web tools

Adam Bellow, founder of eduTecher.net, was recognized in 2011 as the Outstanding Young Educator of the Year by ISTE. Adam has been sharing his vision for education reform by harnessing the power of technology with thousands of educators from around the country for the past several years. Considered an expert in the area of Web Tools. Adam lives in New York with his wonderful wife and two terrific boys. For more information about Adam please visit www.eduTecher.net


Educational Technology has certainly changed over the past decade. With roots in software and hardware, the “software” has mainly evaporated into the cloud and students and teachers can leverage free web tools to enhance their classroom learning experience and engage students to provide feedback, create conversation, and allow learning opportunities for the many different types of learner you are likely to have in a class.

Socrative hails itself as a smart student response system that empowers teachers to engage their classrooms through a series of educational exercises and games via smartphones, laptops, and tablets. That is the real beauty of many web tools, Socrative included, the simple concept that the tool is hardware agnostic since it makes use of the web interface that can be accessed from any device with access. For many years companies have been quite successfully selling single-use devices to school districts at a high-cost that have limited uses. Specifically, these “Student Response Systems” are often 1000s of dollars and have one purpose – collecting data from multiple choice-style questions. While some newer (more expensive) units allow students to text answers and do more than simple choose A, B, or C, they are still not as powerful as most cell phones or a web-based app such as Socrative.

Socrative is easy for teacher to set up a free account and also is easy for students to access the activities and content prepared for them by entering the teacher’s “room number”. I have successfully used this during presentations with a room full of adults and it really works quite well. Participants can take the traditional multiple choice quiz, write in answers for an open-ended response, take a quiz, and even partake in a simple Exit Ticket exercise that asks the students what they learned and what they still need help understanding or wish to further explore. If teachers do use the assessment functionality of Socrative, the data can be exported to Google Forms or Excel. Tools like Socrative prove that schools no longer need to rely on expensive hardware to leverage these tools. They are easily accessible from pretty much any device with web access.

SynchTube is a wonderful platform that allows educators to leverage the power of YouTube videos and combine it with some educator guidance and collaboration. SynchTube lets teachers set up their own free channel (a dedicated private URL) that they can share with their students or colleagues. Users join the channel as observers and are able to watch a playlist of content prepared by the teacher. Students can also chat with the teacher and other viewers on the site and use webcams if they have access to them. The playlist can have content added by the teacher or suggested by the students. The content can come from YouTube, Vimeo, and many other popular streaming media formats. This is a great tool for having students interact during what can sometimes be seen as a passive media viewing experience. This tool is free and very easy to set up and use in the classroom. Note: You will need access to YouTube in your school to access those videos. If YouTube is blocked by your schools’ filter, you should definitely check out YouTube for Schools which allows schools to access a growing curated library of school-friendly content that can be accessed even if schools choose to block general YouTube access.

Today’s Meet is a powerful tool that teachers can use in and out of the classroom. This free web tool allows teachers to instantly set up a backchannel in their classroom. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a backchannel, this is a way to have a conversation in the background during a lecture, watching a film, at a conference, and more. Today’s Meet gives users a simple platform which takes literally seconds to get started with and allows for all students’ voices to be heard in the classroom, from the shy student who never speaks up, to the student who is scared they will be chastised for a question they have, this is an excellent way to engage all students in your class. Simply going to the website and entering the name of an event (which becomes the URL) and selecting how long you want the conversation to be available online for others to participate in (ranging from 1 hour to 1 year) the students simply go to the address, enter their name, and join the conversation. Some ways teachers can use the tool includes asking students a series of questions before screening a film and having them dialogue through the screening. This is always a great way to engage students to question and expand the conversations that may occur during any in-class lectures or discussions in which they might not all have the opportunity to speak. While some teachers may fear what students may say in a backchannel, this is a wonderful opportunity to model and show appropriate use of a social and collaborative tool. Today’s Meet extends the conversation beyond the class or conference and can really be a great springboard of ideas and other learning opportunities.

Giving students a voice in the classroom is easier and more important than ever before. As more and more institutions adopt a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy to meet with the ever-increasing financial limitations, these free offerings will prove to be even more powerful and important as part of a teachers’ toolkit. There is a world of web tools out there that aim to make your classroom a stronger place to learn in and from. To find out about more exciting web tools check out www.eduTecher.net.

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