I’ve never thought of myself as a techy person. Sure, I grew up tinkering with computers from around 8 or 9 years old, when my dad brought home an old PC from the now-defunct AT&T Universal Card, which they sold while upgrading. I learned the basics of DOS, and how to install extra RAM, and I know my way around most versions of Windows.
But when it came to teaching, I was strictly old-school my first few years. Smartphones were just becoming widely available around the time I started teaching. Although I’d been using the internet for years, I had first learned to research with a card catalog and some early electronic databases. I wasn’t used to relying on the internet for most things like I am now.
That changed when I became an adjunct at three different colleges spread across town from one another. Even though two of the schools were pushing their Learning Management Systems, requiring me to post lecture notes and have students submit work electronically through the LMS, none of them provided me with a computer I could use while on campus. Only one of them offered campus-wide wifi, which was unreliable at best. As a result, I dragged my laptop with me everywhere and juggled a number of thumb drives in case I needed to move something from my laptop to a campus computer. It was my need for a highly-portable internet device that led me to purchase my first smartphone.
Since introducing a smartphone to my teaching, I’ve increasingly incorporated more technology into my classroom. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying every gadget is useful or right for every teacher. Nothing should ever be used for the sake of bells and whistles, which only distract you and your students. However, the following are some simple tech innovations that have helped me become more efficient and mobile.
I’m an absent-minded person. I always have been. I’m forever making lists and checking things off, and double-checking things off, to keep from forgetting something. It’s bad enough to reach your basement classroom and realize you’ve forgotten the PowerPoint you prepared in your office on the third floor, but it’s much worse to realize you’ve left it on the other side of town. And I don’t know how many times I’ve started working on a document at home over the weekend, only to arrive at school Monday without it.
Enter cloud storage, the savior of all distracted instructors.
If you haven’t heard of cloud storage, or you have but you’re still unsure what it is, it’s pretty simple. You create a free account online and upload your files there. Then you can access those files from any device connected to the internet, including your phone, tablet, or a friend’s computer. It’s similar to the way you can login to Spotify or YouTube and still access your account because your account details are saved online, not on your personal computer.
I’ve used a few cloud storage systems over the years, and while initially they had pretty distinct features, I honestly think most are about the same now. I started with DropBox because a coworker introduced me to it, but I quickly abandoned it for Google Drive because I liked that I could use the G Suite–Google’s answer to Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.–and have it automatically save my work in the cloud. I have also used Microsoft OneDrive, which was connected to my work email at a few schools where I’ve taught. All three now offer the ability to create and edit documents, autosave your work, create folders to organize documents, and share files directly from your account rather than having to download them and share through email.
Besides being accessible on your office computer, classroom computers, and portable devices, cloud storage provides a backup in case a computer fails, Windows updates take your PC hostage, or you leave one job for another. It can also be a great way to organize your research; in fact, many electronic databases now allow you to save articles directly to your cloud storage account.
Free PDF Editors
One advantage of sharing a PDF with students is you know it will retain its formatting better than other types of files. That’s because PDFs are a little more difficult to alter than other files like Word documents. However, sometimes I need to alter a PDF, such as when I want to share a PDF of a short story, but I want to remove the discussion questions at the end, or I want to share a small portion of an article rather than the whole 30 pages. This is easy enough if you have the full version of Adobe, but most schools I’ve worked at have provided only the most basic version, which is just a PDF reader, or no version of Adobe at all.
Thankfully, there are many free PDF editors available now. I’ve used Foxit extensively, although my favorite is probably Xodo. If you don’t have permissions to install software on your school’s computer, there’s also Smallpdf, a powerful Chrome extension that lets you combine or break up PDFs, convert PDFs to other file types, and edit PDFs.
Why would anyone want to alter a PDF, you might ask? There are two main reasons I alter these files: as an instruction tool for my students, and as a research tool for myself.
Altering a PDF allows me to share notes or provide support for my weaker students. At some of the open-enrollment schools where I’ve worked, some students might be operating on a middle school reading level. When I assign a tough reading, I’ll often provide it to students as an annotated PDF. I’ll create large margins and on the left, I’ll provide a sparse outline, define words, or include call-backs to other class content. On the right, I’ll include discussion questions or reading comprehension questions. Typically, I try to position these questions close to the area of the text they relate to. I can even color-code the information I include to help students see how themes emerge from the text or how a writer structures their ideas. Over the course of the term, I require students to do more and more of the annotation themselves, slowly shifting the burden to them.
Some of you might think this is too basic, and it totally is. It is not college-level stuff–but neither are many of my students. What the altered PDFs allow me to do is model active reading for my students. Since I can’t provide one-on-one support to every weak reader who enters my class, this helps me communicate ideas to them quickly without dedicating tons of time to the basic reading strategies they should already have. It’s an imperfect but handy solution to a pervasive problem.
Another benefit of PDF editors is they help me annotate my own research without having to print a ton of articles. Xodo has especially great tools that allow me to highlight, underline, or write free-hand on a document. I can change the colors of my notes. I can even leave a small “Post-it” on a section with longer notes that can be expanded or shrunk as needed. If I’m really serious about what I’m reading, it helps me tremendously to keep my hands active all over the text. Now I can do that without felling the entire rain forest.
Chrome Grammar Plugins
I teach grammar. Most English instructors I know teach grammar. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stick for every student. If you’ve ever wanted to bang your head against your desk because you literally cannot understand (or interpret) the careless typos and unreadable syntax of your students, the technology gods have heard your cries and been merciful. The result is powerful, free grammar checkers that work in your internet browser.
Yes, Microsoft Word has SpellCheck, but it isn’t perfect, nor does every student have access to Microsoft products while off campus. Increasingly, students are turning to free options like Google Docs as a cost-saving measure, but also because tools like that are more readily available on their phones and the user experience is closer to the online tools they use outside of school, so these tools feel more familiar.
A plugin is a tool you can easily install into a browser. Simply search for the name of the tool and “chrome plugin” to pull up a page where you install it with one click. (I told you these technologies are simple.)
I installed Grammarly on my personal laptop and office browsers a few summers ago to test it for my students. To my surprise, I was impressed. It’s pretty accurate and, best of all, it explains mistakes so more diligent students can actually learn as they use it. The plugin is free and catches the most common mistakes, although for a subscription fee students can upload papers to the Grammarly.com website and have a more comprehensive grammar check.
By the by, it’s not just my students benefitting from this service. I’m a stickler for clean copy; nothing irritates me more than finding a typo in a blog post I spent ages on. Grammarly is my second set of eyes when I’m in a rush. It does NOT replace careful proofreading and revision, which I still practice religiously, but it helps when I don’t have time to run something past a friend or I’ve worked so long I’ve become blind to my mistakes.
Technology Can Be Your Friend
I know sometimes teachers get tired of having the latest trend foist upon them. I’ve been there. We all know a gimmick when we see it–and we get pitched a lot of gimmicks. However, there is some worthwhile stuff out there, and you don’t have to be a programmer to find and use it.
Have you decided to try one of the tools I recommended? Let me know how it’s working out in the comments below!