Want to Transform Learning? Then Choose Transformational Tools


Over recent years I have regularly encountered two questions from schools: “what learning apps should we choose?” and “what devices should we use?” I am writing this article with the assumption that schools have a suitable and robust digital infrastructure including network, WiFi, and access to high speed internet. New Zealand schools are currently going through a government funded rapid infrastructure upgrade process and are also provided with free and unlimited fibre connectivity. Our schools are given a good degree of freedom to make their own decisions around device choice and learning applications, however none of these are centrally funded. With such costly decisions for schools and their communities, there has been increasing debate about the value of moving to student devices, the choice of devices, and the best learning applications (apps). With so much at stake, private vendors have invariably attempted to influence decision-making to help advance their own products and services. Last year I worked for a new Ministry of Education advisory service (Connected Learning Advisory), established to provide independent advice and support to schools to help them address the wide range of digital technology issues that they face.

Accessibility is Paramount: Anytime, Anywhere, Any device. any-twd

[Image Source: movies-in-theatres.net]

New Zealand schools have taken a range of approaches to student devices. Some schools are wealthy enough, or even source community sponsors, to provide their students with devices. But, the majority are asking the students to bring their own. The device choices also vary widely such as: students can bring any device, or students must bring a particular device, or even the school provides class sets of one or two device types (eg a mixture of laptops and iPads). A large number of schools are still in a trial or transition phase ranging from a some sets of devices shared among the classes or trial year groups with devices.

There has been a lot of debate worldwide about the advantages of tablets over laptops. Some schools swear by the one or the other. Accessibility should be the driving factor when it comes to this choice. That is why I advocate for learning apps that are web-based, though they may have tablet versions to support them. If learning apps that only have a tablet version with no web version, then there is an underlying message that students must use tablets to access their learning. Once a school and it’s community have reliable connectivity to the internet, it has overcome the biggest hurdle to accessibility. With well thought out decisions, learning can now be achieved on any connected device (laptop, tablet, desktop, smartphone), from anywhere (school, home, public library, cafe etc), and at any time.

ChromebookMy personal student device preference is a Chromebook as they are secure for multiple different users and only take seconds to boot up. They also support a plethora of fantastic web-based learning apps. For a techno-constructivist education, the Chromebook laptops are well-suited to a more learner-centred, inquiry focused, content creating, and collaborative environment. My reasoning is expertly summed up in this recent article The Top 10 Reasons why Chromebooks are the ideal devices for students (by Greg Reynolds, Cyclone Computing). If a student is completing a design or programming course requiring installed programs, then they just need to upgrade to a windows, apple or other laptop of their preference.

Student Smartphones as Tablets

[Image Source: Time.com]

There are also widely differing opinions about the suitability of student mobile phones to support classroom learning. I have taught in environments where phones are permitted in class, and also where they are banned from the entire school. Advocates of tablets (iPads/Android/Windows) in learning situations often argue that students need to take video or photos to construct learning. I fully agree with them, however I find it difficult to advocate for older (Middle & High School) students to use a tablet when there are most often enough of them with their own smartphones at hand to fulfill any requirement.

SAMRTransforming Learning

So what does it mean to transform learning? Well it still comes down to how we, as teachers, design student learning tasks. I have previously written about the need for task redesign along with providing an example of how this can be achieved. I applied the SAMR model and explained that a transformation of learning occurs when us educators move towards a Modification or Redefinition of learning tasks. Of course, as stated by the title of this article, it is easier to achieve this with purposefully chosen transformational learning apps.


My Guidelines for choosing Transformational Web Apps

When it comes to choosing web learning apps that lead to transformational learning, I follow these guidelines:

1. Start by ONLY implementing proven “Transformational Apps” if you want to transform learning
Educational Technologists (E-Learning Leaders) regularly encounter situations where teachers question the value of digital technologies in learning. In most cases they have been introduced to low value learning applications that have failed to deliver any substantive gains. More often than not, teachers can point to a lot of wasted time and energy. It is difficult to win these teachers back. However, I have also witnessed the most skeptical of teachers completely change their minds when introduced to learning via a transformational application. They immediately see the tool’s potential to better engage learners. Another commonality of transformational apps is that they sell themselves, in other words their usage grows rapidly by word of mouth, and companies do not have to invest millions in sales pitches to try to convince educators of their value.

a lrning pyr2. Choose a good number of web apps that encourage students to create content
If you want to truly transform learning, it is difficult to achieve if learners are merely consuming or interacting with material. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that students learn better when they are active, particularly when creating their own meaning and explaining (teaching) it to others. So, the choice of learning web apps that encourage a collaborative and creator environment, along with well-designed learning tasks, the foundation is set for the transformation of learning.


sch-subs3. Implement a range of web-apps school-wide that can be used across multiple curriculum areas
Sure, different subjects or departments will have their own preferred apps, however if some well chosen apps are implemented school-wide, then students and teachers are able to more quickly focus on the learning rather than learning yet another application. We need to move beyond that “shot-gun” approach of teachers jumping onto the next “amazing” app. There needs to be a real focus on great learning opportunities when using an app.

[Image Source: http://reflectiveyariela.blogspot.co.nz]

4. skepticBe skeptical
There are now thousands of learning tools and applications for overburdened teachers to wade through. Educators should learn to be skeptical when presented with these, as a large number are no more than gimmicks and gadgets that contribute almost nothing to learning. Be very critical of any tool and ask yourself if it is worthy of an investment of time, and even money. Ask if there can be a meaningful enhancement or transformation of learning with this tool.

My Specific criteria for a Transformational Web App:

  • K.I-S.SIt is uncomplicated and easy for teachers and students to learn to use. I now have a rule that if I have to attend a course just to learn how to use a tool, then it is not worth using. Well designed Learning Apps should be easy to pick up and supported by a range of short explanation video clips to address further learning or questions
  • It is easy to login and access via any device, and it integrates well with other apps
  • It is collaborative, students can easily work together within the tool
  • Teacher-led applications must have the capability to dramatically increase interactivity and engagement of students in a lesson, otherwise why bother?
  • It should not require excessive teacher hours for lesson preparation. This is important because teachers work longer hours than most professions and the last thing they should be expected to do is work even longer. Although teacher workload can depend on how they use a learning app in the design of their lessons or units. My personal experience of learner-centred tasks, that require students to create knowledge, is that they actually decreased my workload (preparation and assessment). On all occasions they have increased student activity, engagement and enjoyment. Importantly their knowledge, skills and assessment results all improved.
  • Ongoing use of the app should naturally invigorate teachers into rethinking their pedagogy and transform how they do things. The app itself not only allows, but encourages teachers to try new approaches as they dive deeper into a transformational 21st century learning environment.

My Recommended Transformational Web Apps

I have included a range of web-based learning apps that I highly recommend to schools as they transition to  a 1:1 laptop (supported by smartphone) environment, or an environment where students make their own device choice. I have listed

(i) the purpose of the app (bold),
(ii) followed by the APP NAME (CAPITALS),
(iii) and
any associated costs (italics)

Student as Creator Tools:

1. Writing, Presenting and much more in a collaborative environment – GOOGLE APPS FOR EDUCATION (free)
My number one transformational tool is the GAFE package, which provides tools for communication, storage, collaboration and more. It also provides a school login account for a growing number of other web-based tools and websites (using “Sign in with Google”)
The Google Apps Learning Centre is an excellent place to begin.

GAFE Learning Centre

2.lucidchart Concept DiagramsLUCIDCHART  (free – although may be required to purchase additional school storage space if well used)
This is a gem of a tool allowing students to collaboratively create visual concept diagrams. I have written previous articles about great learning occurring using Lucidchart, including providing student tasks and exemplars.
Two of my previous posts describe Lucidchart used within both Middle School and High School subjects.

3. LucidpressDesktop Publishing (web & print) – LUCIDPRESS (free – although a school may be required to purchase additional storage space if well used)
We often ask students to publish posters, magazines and so on. I have found Microsoft Publisher to be too buggy and limiting, whereas Adobe (a costly choice for schools) can be overcomplicated and difficult to learn for the majority of required tasks. Neither of them are web-based or collaborative. Lucidpress is simple to learn and use, has a full revision history, and the collaboration is similar to Google Docs, making it an ideal publisher tool. My students have presented highly effectively with Lucidpress.

4. wevideo_0Video EditorWEVIDEO (about $4 per student annually if the whole school signs up)
Adobe and Apple video editors are complicated for first time users and are not web-based or collaborative, whereas YouTube Editor is fairly basic. WeVideo really hits the mark, where students can collaborate on creating and editing video documentaries without getting bogged down in the technology. I have written about student documentary making with the WeVideo tool in these two posts: Year 9 Social Studies Australian Aboriginal Issues and Year 10 Social Studies Global Issues.

5. Image and Photo EditorPIXLR EDITOR and PIXLR EXPRESS (free)
As learning becomes more visual a quick and easy image editing tool becomes a requirement. Pixlr tools are very popular for their ease of use and their Google Drive integration where images can be opened from and saved to Drive with the Pixlr tools.
Students doing more design oriented subjects can easily upgrade to Adobe’s Photoshop with a more memory capable laptop.

6. Audio Editor BEAUTIFUL AUDIO EDITOR (free)
Audacity has been a popular recording and editing tool, but unfortunately it requires installation on a device. I recently searched for a suitable web-based replacement and discovered Beautiful Audio Editor which has a similar interface to Audacity.
beautiful audio editor

7. Interactive Video Creation TOUCHCAST (free)
I discovered this recently and am keen to give a class of students the opportunity to try it while creating and delivering a presentation. It has video as the key element, but allows students to add a range of interactive elements to the presentation. Touchcast’s Education Best Practice Guide is a useful starting point.

Student Research Tools:

8.easybib Bibliography Citation and Digital LiteracyEASYBIB (cost approx $500 annually for a large school)
There are plenty of free bibliography citation tools on the web, however I recommend schools adopt EasyBib as it provides each user with an account where they can save references to different projects. There are additional features that can be taken up school-wide to help promote digital literacy.

9. Plagiarism CheckerTURNITIN (an annual cost quoted for each school)
I have produced this article on plagiarism along with this article addressing the teaching of research and writing skills. An effective approach to plagiarism requires a substantive tool like Turnitin to deliver results. One of the major benefits of Turnitin is that you can allow students to check their own plagiarism levels so they can self-manage their research and writing improvement. Furthermore, Turnitin is the most widely used plagiarism checker adopted by universities worldwide, giving students prior experience of the tool should they go on to higher learning.

Teacher Tools for Class Engagement:

There are occasions for teachers to present ideas and information to a whole class of students. Therefore, I have included a handful of tools that, when well used, can help to transform the learning in these lessons.

10kahoot. Student Feedback and EngagementKAHOOT (free)
Kahoot is a fun tool that enables teachers to create short quizzes at any stage of a lesson. In many cases teachers use it to test for prior knowledge at the beginning of a lesson, or for comprehension and understanding at the conclusion. However, the survey and discussion features make the tool useful to engage students more deeply in the lesson.

11. Interactive Presentations, Student Feedback and EngagementMENTIMETER (free)
This tool is similar to Kahoot (above) but is intended to engage the class or audience during a presentation with real-time results on the projector screen. Participants can participate with smartphones.

socrative12. Student questions, polling and quizzes. SOCRATIVE (free)
This tool is similar to the above two, but also allows students to ask questions as they come up, either with their name or anonymously.


13. zaptionMake videos interactiveZAPTION (a site cost for institution)
This is an outstanding tool made specifically for educators to turn passive video watching into active learning. You can use any public videos from the likes of YouTube, Vimeo etc, or just upload your own. Real time feedback can be displayed alongside the video in a whole class environment, or students can interact with video on their own. Zaption interactive videos are easily embedded, similar to YouTube, into any website.


In this article I have endeavoured to provide schools and teachers with the reasons for implementing transformational learning applications to not just enhance, but to transform learning experiences for their students. I have also provided descriptions of a number of excellent tools that meet a variety of educational purposes. May your teaching experience be enriched.

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