5 Online Learning Tools That Should Be On Your Radar

on 2009/10/19

There’s no doubt that the Internet and the connectivity that it offers has impacted innumerable aspects of society. From the way we do business to the way we interact with our peers, the Internet is omnipotent. Education is no exception. The nature of the Web is such that regardless of geographic location, education is accessible. Obviously there are exceptions to this accessibility (and these require urgent address) but in theory, the days of stuffy classrooms, chalkboards and hand written assignments, are coming to an end.  

This shift in education highlighted an opportunity for the tech savvy – the need for tools and platforms that can be used online to facilitate learning. It also had another interesting impact – the increased use of a hotchpotch of existing (and not education related) tools and applications for online learning. This evolution was highlighted for me when I came upon the Centre for Learning and Performance Technology. One of the things that most interested me was the fact that a network of education professionals list and rank their favourite 100 online learning tools. The list reads mostly like a list of social networking tools to me – if that doesn’t say something interesting about the future of education, I don’t know what does.
I had a quick look through the top 5, as ranked by 200 education professionals internationally. Here they are in descending order: 

5. WordPress  

Blogging? A learning tool? I was surprised too. Educators and learners who listed the free blogging platform as one of their top 10 sites for 2009 asserted that it was ideal for posting educational content. Another remarked that she uses it to manage discussions and answer her students’ questions remotely. Theoretically, (and I’m sure there’s someone out there already doing this) a WordPress blog could provide information to students, could be ideal for posting assignments and getting peer feedback and would allow for the distribution of video lectures to a class. Once you’re in this mindset, the possibilities are endless. All it takes is a bit of lateral thinking.

4. YouTube 

This one makes sense to me. This free platform allows for videos to be uploaded, commented on and shared. The obvious connection is video lectures – lecturers can upload their presentations and students suddenly have 24 hour access to content. Regardless of whether your learning is distance or contact based, this is an invaluable advantage. This can facilitate conversation between students and encourage interaction and debate. Of course, in the event that you are not in a formal learning environment and are merely looking to learn a new skill or figure out a problem, there’s a good chance that YouTube can help you. While many of the approximately 999,987,865 (and counting) videos probably depict talking dogs and dancing monkeys, there are infinite numbers that have been put there for the purpose of educating you about one thing or another.

3. Google Reader 

RSS is invaluable to education and particularly research for obvious reasons. The root of its utility is that it can help you keep track of what’s happening in your industry or academic field by collating journal articles, updates, posts and more to one easily accessible place. With a vast wealth of resources out there, it is like your own personal library except it lacks the geographical constraint and musty smell of the real one on campus. It gives you 24 hour access to all of the information you need from your personal computer, cell phone or the Internet café in Maputo where the wife has dragged you to see the Whale Sharks. For educators needing to stay one step ahead of their students and for students and lifelong learners, this tool can’t be beaten. 

2. Delicious 

This social bookmarking tool makes sharing interesting or relevant content quick and easy. It’s little wonder that it got nearly 85 votes and made it to number 2. More interesting is that in 2008, it was sitting pretty at number 1 in this poll. This vote of confidence must be attributable to more than its ability to store content for later use. Of course, there’s the fact that within Delicious there are a wealth of existing resources that are invaluable to learning professionals and professional students alike. There’s also that element of crowdsourced learning and the feeling of interaction that it yields – something that all people value in education because it validates your understanding. Like the Google Reader, it has that ‘personal library’ feel about it and it enables students to share their research with their educators and vice versa. A novel use for an old favourite.  

1. Twitter 

Yup, you read that right. To date, Twitter tops the list in this poll for 2009. With only 140 characters for self expression, I would say that this little microblogging platform has outdone itself. Why all the attention? If you had asked me, I would never have rated Twitter as a tool for online learning. But with a little consideration, it makes sense. Not only is it an excellent tool for communication (getting the word to loads of people instantly), but it’s also a great space for sharing resources and learnings. Those of us who use Twitter do it all the time and yet my (blonde in this case) brain hadn’t made the connection. It’s a pretty obvious one when you look at it. 

There are many more online learning tools – this list is not even a drop in the ocean. My hope is that it will encourage you to look at the tools you use everyday and realise that you are actually underestimating their value. I know I have been.