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Hiding in the Cloud: Great Classroom Tools

Even as many institutions grapple with their cloud strategies, faculty are taking advantage of cloud-based services to rev up their classes and engage students.

In the broader debate about the opportunities--and challenges--presented by cloud computing in higher education, its potential within the classroom has largely been overlooked. Cloud-based LMS solutions have created some ripples, but even then the focus has largely been on the enterprise side. Hiding in the cloud, however, are some terrific classroom tools that faculty can use to engage students and improve learning.

John Kuglin, a retired senior education consultant at the University of Montana, is on a mission to publicize the advantages of a cloud-based approach to teaching. At the recent CT Forum 2011 in Long Beach, CA, he highlighted a slew of tools that can make an immediate impact in a classroom setting. Among his favorites:

  • SlideRocket allows educators and students to build and deliver presentations online, offline, and via mobile devices.
  • SideVibe lets teachers build interactive lectures directly on top of existing web pages. Students can engage in online discussion, while teachers can collect and assess student work instantaneously.
  • Screencast-O-Matic allows users to record video directly from their browser and embed it into a lecture or presentation. They simply draw a box around what they want to capture and click "start recording." Because it's cloud-based, there is no software installation necessary.
  • With JetJaw, educators can perform real-time formative assessments: Students text a code from their mobile phones and can immediately participate in a survey or quiz. The results are instantaneously recorded and can even be displayed on-screen as they come in.
  • iCyte is used to capture web pages and pdfs and save them directly to the cloud. The tool archives pages just as they looked when they were saved, even if the site itself is updated or removed.
  • ShowMe is a free iPad app that facilitates whiteboard-style demonstrations. The topic can be shared in class or watched at home, and can also be published to the ShowMe Community site.

"The two most effective ways to engage students are web quests and online discussions," said Kuglin. Not only do these tools work for face-to-face lectures, but they can also make distance learning more engaging, since remote students can participate in online discussions and reap the benefits of instantaneous feedback. "Teachers need to stop saying, 'Hand it in!' and start saying, 'Publish it!'" explained Kuglin.

As appealing as these tools are, the same cloud concerns that keep university CIOs up at night--security, reliability, and cost--play on the minds of faculty, too. Probably the most prevalent concern involves security. Kuglin recommends using the cloud to store, record, and deliver lectures and data, but to keep sensitive information on a local server or in a private cloud.

Another educator nightmare is to prepare a lecture that incorporates online components only to have the technology fail. Not surprisingly, educators are wary of any application that won't work if internet connectivity is lost. Fortunately, most cloud-based programs do offer users the ability to download material directly to a local computer, allowing for offline delivery. Many programs also work with LMSs and can be integrated into existing course materials.

As for cost, a number of the software programs Kuglin demonstrated at CT Forum 2011 have free "lite" versions, or free or deeply discounted versions for educators. Screencast-O-Matic, for example, has a free version with a 15-minute recording limit; a pro version with unlimited recording time, offline use, and editing tools costs $12 a year. A subscription to iCyte--normally $7.99 a month--is free to educators.

About the Author

Jennifer Skelly is a freelance journalist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles, CA.

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