Free Software to Support Innovative Learning

One of the main innovative methods we have highlighted is “flipping the classroom”, where what was covered in lectures is put online and during class time students are engaged in interactive exercises. In the September post I emphasized that this is not just about putting what you already do in your lectures online, it is also about rethinking everything you do and making it more interactive. In the October post on reusable content I emphasized that it makes sense to make use of the large variety of free online content for out-of-class learning. In this month’s post I highlight some free software tools that can be used to enhance the interactive experience in a class that replaces a traditional lecture.

The idea of interacting in class traditionally revolves around discussing content. For example, students are asked to read a paper before class and then discuss it in small groups in class. While this is a valid approach, it requires a good group facilitator to ensure everyone participates. Asking students to create something that can be demonstrated and critiqued, such as a visual representation that illustrates part of what is covered in the text of a paper, involves an even more intensive level of interaction. The process of creating, reviewing and editing visual representations of understanding requires more engagement than just hearing an explanation in a lecture or discussion. Lucidchart is a good example of a free general diagraming tool that can help students collaboratively create visual representations of their understanding.

Mind mapping is a well established educational technique that can help students build and review their understanding of a topic area. Students create concept maps to illustrate the main concepts and their relationships in a text or area of study. Lucid Chart enables mind mapping and there are a number of other tools available here. The following is a concept map that illustrates concept mapping:

Illustration of a concept map

A variation on this is to have students create interactive presentations of their understanding on the web that can be used offline or stored online. An excellent free tool that moves a little beyond the linear approach of PowerPoint is Prezi. Here is an example of a Prezi:

Google has a number of free, easy-to-use web tools through its Apps For Education program that can assist students in interactive work. Some of the tools are:
Sites – used by many colleges so students can create free online portfolios and resumes;
Groups – enables students to collaborate on group projects;
Docs – enables the creation and sharing of documents;
Pictures – enables the creation and sharing of photo libraries.

In addition to diagraming tools there are free image editing tools that can be used to label or highlight things in a photograph. One of the best available is GIMP. If this has piqued your interest you might wish to explore College Times’s “50 Free Collaboration Tools For Education”.

I re-emphasize that improving education is not just about the technology; it is about changing the mindset and the methods. A good interactive task will help a student learn even if you use paper instead of technology. A poorly designed task will not be enhanced even with the best technology. While technology has its place, I have seen classes being very interactive using just walls and Post-it Notes.