Schools may be behind on the technology adoption curve. But that doesn’t mean tech-savvy educators like Matthew Green, a 14-year veteran teacher who teaches high school juniors and seniors at Riverpoint Academy in Washington state, are slacking off.
“Our school sees itself as a startup,” he says, “and we’re always asking, ‘What are the best tools available right now?’”
Teachers have always found ways to adopt and adapt technology tools. Teachers are epic users of Twitter and Google docs. Educators have also enthusiastically used consumer products such as Evernote to organize their classes, and Yammer to create informal, private professional learning networks.
Of course, all these tools offer significant functionality for free. Now a handful of pioneering teachers—Riverpoint’s Green among them—are turning to other freemium tools, including Trello and Slack, used in many companies and startups (including yours truly).
Often, teachers conjure up creative ways to repurpose these tools in ways that not even the tech companies themselves imagined. Here are two tools that many entrepreneurs use every day—and that teachers are beginning to explore.
Say ‘Hello’ to Trello
Cost: Free. Premium plans range from $3.75 to $5 per month, which allow for data exports, higher size limits for file attachment limits and Google Apps integration
For Green, Trello has become fundamental to running his project-based classroom. At first, he simply wanted to help students manage their projects. Now he says “my teacher partner and I also use Trello to plan lessons.”
Trello allows teams to create and organize to-do lists. The tool is much like a big digital board that anyone can create and pin post-it notes on. The features follow a fairly simple logic:
- Each board contains lists, which can be big questions, projects or groups of activities.
- Each list is made of cards, which are activities or steps related to the list
- Every card can include checklists, due dates, links, media files, and the person responsible for completing the card.
- Both lists and cards can be rearranged on the board by simple drag-and-drop.
In his class, “all work needs to be visible,” says Green. “Students have to be able to record and show progress along the way. We ask them to use Trello to be that container with its ability to add photos, files and post links to Google docs,” where writing tasks are done. The tool also encourages students to collaborate: “Every student will manage his or her to-do boards a little differently,” says Green. “But eventually they learn to work together.”
Paul Solarz, a fifth grade teacher at Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights, IL, relies on Trello to organize “Genius Hour,” an hourly, twice-a-week activity where students pursue and research big, open-ended questions. (The idea, he says, is inspired by Google’s “20 percent time” where employees worked on side projects.)
As Solarz has detailed, students work on a single “class board” and each create their own lists around a driving question (such as “How have Legos changed over time and how can they be used in the classroom?”) They then create cards that outline the activities and steps toward answering the question. As they conduct research and finish tasks, students will add, move and delete cards as needed. “The idea is that the board is constantly changeable and everyone can see it,” says Solarz.
“Few productivity tools,” he says, “are as visually friendly or easy to use as Trello is for kids.” Each year, he gives a 15-minute rundown on how Trello works, and leaves it to his students to help each other learn how to use the tool.
Brian Cervino, social media manager at Trello, says teachers find Trello’s visual display of information to be very helpful. “They can open a board and quickly see where every student is at, and it’s easy for students to collaborate with each other and provide feedback.” Cervino has documented here how educators use Trello to manage project-based learning activities that involve group work and peer review.
Don’t Slack Off—Slack On!
Cost: Free plan allows for users to search and browse 10,000 most recent messages and 5 API integrations. Premium plans range from $6.67 to $12.50 per user, per month.
Slack has been described as “a private Twitter on steroids.” At first glance, the tool looks like a chat room—but it’s got more going on inside.
Like Twitter, Slack features hashtags that denote specific “channels” dedicated to topics, but each channel operates like its own chat room. Users can send messages to a channel or directly to one another (one-to-one), and also create private groups for focused discussions (one-to-few).
“The idea behind us using Slack [last fall] was to kill internal email,” says Green. That’s a common refrain in pro-Slack headlines, with good reason. Users can drop links and files into any Slack conversation. The search bar lets users find old messages based on very specific queries. But perhaps the most powerful feature are the possible integrations with many third party apps such as Google Hangout (so users can start video chats directly from a conversation) and, yes, Trello.
Green has connected Trello to Slack so that he receives a notification whenever his students make edits on a Trello card. He turns to Slack to communicate directly with students and groups, often leaving feedback on assignments. “It hasn’t been effective as a way to broadcast information to the entire class,” Green admits. “But it’s become a very important tool for us to share resources for kids, and have 1-on-1 conversations with students.”
Other educators are exploring how to use Slack as a professional learning network. Tim Monreal, a former eighth-grade teacher and current chief learning officer at CrowdSchool, started a SlackEDU group in April 2015 as a “giant experiment,” he tells EdSurge. “We’re starting to see if it can become a real collaborative place, with different channels for specific discussions—whether its about using Slack in class, research, or bridging developers.”
SlackEDU is currently open to anyone and has about 130 participants. So far, Monreal has seen “a lot of developers, IT professionals from schools, and educators from different fields including higher-ed. We’re seeing quite a bit of diversity” in contrast to Twitter, he says, which is often dominated by classroom teachers.
One “Slacker” in the group is Dylan Ferniany, a program specialist for gifted education at Birmingham City Schools in Alabama. Since hearing about the tool on a podcast earlier this year, she’s used it to coordinate with the dozen gifted-education teachers who work across Birmingham’s 42 schools.
“We’re all very mobile. Any teacher may be at four different schools within a week,” she says. Using Slack to “keep conversations going no matter where they’re at is really exciting,” she adds. At any time she will coordinate schedules, send reminders and share videos and other resources for professional development purposes.
Can Slack crack the growing online community of educators who are looking to grow their personal and professional development networks? Monreal’s SlackEDU experiment will be one important signal. Unlike Twitter, which Ferniany says “is really big for connecting with people you don’t know,” Slack shines at helping existing teams collaborate—more so than helping people find teams. Still, Monreal is optimistic that “Slack can help people form stronger relationships and networks” than on other social media channels.
One thing’s for sure: Teachers will flock to the tools they find most appropriate and useful, whether or not these products are specifically designed for education. In the case of the two aforementioned tools—who knows? Even the developers behind Slack, who first created the tool as a side project while they were working on an online multiplayer game, did not foresee how immensely popular it would be.