The Best Free Technology

A dozen years ago, a school administrator observed one of my Latin classes. The visit was a customarily unannounced observation. Although I was an experienced Spanish teacher, I had never taught Latin, and assuming, erroneously, that this was a one-year endeavor, and I had not scoured the universe for the paltry amount of “extras” I could use to supplement the lesson. The class went well and the observation remarks were complimentary, but I was concerned with one comment: “needs to use technology.” Really? Had he been sleeping during class? Not only had I used everything available at the time to supplement the text, I had developed material on my own. At the suggestion of my instructional leader, I did not sign the evaluation but paid the administrator a visit. The visit was truly cordial, he rewrote the offending portion of the evaluation, and we joked about it for years later.

The administrator had not seen what he had expected to see: some element of technology announcing its entrance with glitzy neon lights. What he missed was technology seamlessly incorporated into the lesson. The focus of the lesson is not technology; the technology serves to enhance the instruction. Its role is like that of a good baseball umpire: move the action along without attracting attention to itself (or, in the baseball analogy, himself).

If we want to make good use of technology, the first thing we need to do is “fill our toolbox,” i.e., learn to use as many different tools as we can. I remember spending most of a winter break teaching myself how to use a student personal response system. It was fun for the students to use, but it took a long time to develop activities and distribution of the “clickers” was less than efficient. (I can have the students do the same thing today with an iPhone app called Socrative.) On the bright side, there was little competition to use the equipment so I could use it any time I wanted.

How do we go about filling a toolbox? As an unabashed promotion for MFLA, may I recommend attending state conferences and other workshops at regional and national levels? The formal sessions not only provide a host of background information, they also boast hands-on opportunities. In addition, they offer a fertile ground for building human networks. Finding a few minutes to do a little research online pays dividends as well. Through articles on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), I learned about some great applications like Padlet. A Facebook friend posted a link—so I created an account and recorded a chalk talk of my own to share with my students. Even colleagues in other disciplines use equipment, techniques and programs that are valuable cross-curricular tools, e.g., what aspects of a flipped physics classroom can we use to supplement language lessons when school closures impact our tightly-constructed syllabi?

One good rule of thumb is to try everything that is free. Some advanced options may be available for a fee, but why should one spend the money if is not worth it? Sometimes the free version is sufficient; sometimes more is not better (or even good enough). It is a good idea to take inventory of personal hosting capabilities: computer, tablet, smartphone, course management system, website, microphone, etc. Then, one needs to consider how the user (student) would access activities—and where. Some are appropriate for use in the classroom or in a computer lab; some are more appropriate for home use.

My own toolbox is full of free programs and apps, a few of which I’ll highlight. I have already mentioned Padlet, Socrative and ShowMe (iPad required for generating activities). My iPhone or iPod plugs into a smart workstation so I can legally share downloaded music. I have used great YouTube videos in class, but some schools may not support streaming video. (However streaming video can often be saved to a CD.) At the most recent MFLA conference (another shameless plug!) I learned how to incorporate speech into an old PowerPoint with MyBrainShark. Years ago, at another conference, a colleague introduced me to Delicious: a portable bookmarking program that allows for sharing and logging by keyword. I plug all my links in there so I can easily find them when I’m preparing for or conducting a class.

At the beginning of the semester, I have my students load the best, most authoritative Spanish language dictionary onto their smartphones as an app: DRAE (the dictionary of the Real Academia Española). Other excellent single-language dictionaries are available through apps in other languages. For an audio enhanced translation tool, iTranslate is a reasonable choice. I loaded the free version of Evernote on my computer before one of my students showed it to me and can use it to take written notes and share them among all my other devices. The program also allows for at least limited voice recording capability, though not on all devices.

The best tool, however, is the one that facilitates learning of a particular concept at a specific moment. That tool must take into consideration time (set-up, actual time of use), ease of use (for students and instructor), and resources available (number of devices, power supplies, connectivity). As tempting as it is to just use something for a “wow” factor, it is important to remember that the focus needs to be on the concept, not the tool itself. Regardless of how clever a television commercial is, if the audience doesn’t remember the product, it doesn’t serve its purpose. The same can be said for using technology just for its own sake.

One word of advice: always have a second-best tool handy because at some point, in this grand, interconnected, digital world, something is not going to work!

Ann Rader
Notre Dame of Maryland University
MFLA Board Member