Online teaching software: the basic tools you should know about

Written on 
June 15, 2020

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With no COVID-19 vaccine in sight, hundreds of colleges, universities, schools, training centers and tutors are moving their instruction to virtual settings – many, for the first time. Adapting teaching and ensuring a fluid learning experience will entirely depend on the technology chosen for the job, but a quick Google reveals EdTech to be an incredibly crowded space. So what online teaching software should you use to make a success of virtual learning?

What to look for in virtual teaching software

Your virtual teaching toolkit will largely depend on the size of your student base and organization, your particular role and subject, and any additional learning needs. Budget will also factor in, with larger institutions being able to pay for more heavy-duty learning management systems (although there are some good free versions out there).

You should also consider software performance, user-friendliness and equity to try and reduce the anxiety surrounding learning a new technology. The last point – equity – is particularly important to remember: not all your students will have access to the same bandwidth, devices or privacy while at home. As such, you should look for ways to collaborate and learn outside of real-time video calls.

Finally, it’s important to remember that your virtual teaching toolkit shouldn’t just help you craft a great online lesson; it should support you in everything that happens outside of it. You’re entering unknown territory from an unstructured home environment, potentially with childcare responsibilities thrown in — with all the stress and additional workload that entails. Remember to choose tools that bring structure to your day and make it easy to stay connected, visible and in control.

Essential online teaching software

There are virtual teaching tools out there for every different teaching approach imaginable, catered to a range of different ages, needs and abilities. We’ve grouped together some of the basics – with options for individuals as well as institutions. They cover everything from colleague communication and video classrooms, to managing your schedule and sticking to your work hours.

Synchronous virtual classrooms

1. Zoom – for synchronous video lessons

The global COVID-19 lockdown has made Zoom a household name. But in addition to using Zoom to video call your family, it’s a useful tool for no-frills virtual classrooms and department meetings. Its free version far outstrips Google Hangouts and Skype in terms of participant size – allowing you to host up to 100 participants at once. It also lets you create several breakout rooms, share screens and use group chat for smaller discussions during a lesson. You can easily record calls too – useful for self-critique as you iterate your online teaching methods, and for sharing meetings with colleagues who couldn’t attend.

Price: free for 40-minute calls. Upgrade for $15/month for longer call durations.

2. Google Classroom – for a fully-baked free LMS

Learning management system (LMS) software provides a single space for all your organization’s admin, documentation, reporting and training needs, in addition to the tools to plan teaching, host virtual lessons and create assignments. As a tech giant dominating the virtual collaboration space, it’s unsurprising that Google can offer a nice free platform for all the above. Google Classroom brings together all its standard G Suite tools – like Docs, Sheets and Hangouts – to help you seamlessly manage and deliver virtual teaching.

Price: free with a G Suite for Education account. Upgrade to a paid G Suite Enterprise for Education account for premium tools.

3. Microsoft Teams – for a comprehensive digital learning hub

While stopping short of calling itself an LMS, Microsoft Teams offers a similar suit of virtual teaching tools as Google Classroom and is also happily free. It allows conversations, content and collaboration to happen in one unified digital space. Great for creating secure virtual classrooms, sharing assignments and feedback, and streamlining staff communication.

Price: free for students and teachers with a valid school email address.

4. Blackboard – for top-of-the-range higher education LMS

Time to get serious – if you’re looking for a purpose-built higher education LMS with a modern and intuitive feel, check out Blackboard. It facilitates fluid, user-friendly digital learning environments with a ton of specialist solutions thrown in. These range from Blackboard Analytics for Learn, which helps you identify barriers to student success, to Blackboard Predict and Blackboard Intelligence which help keep students on track and let you optimize institutional performance. A great platform for delivering sophisticated, engaging online teaching experiences – and ensuring everyone gets the right support.

Price: aimed at institutions rather than individuals, Blackboard comes with a hefty license fee.

Asynchronous support and communication

5. Slack – for peer and organization communication

Transparent asynchronous is the bedrock of all remote collaboration – it democratizes communication, allowing everyone to access department-wide conversations and talk when it actually suits their schedule. Many remote teams have already realized that email just isn’t the optimal space for that, and are instead using instant messaging platforms like Slack for the bulk of their day-to-day communication. Slack effectively breaks all team communication into thematic groups – called threads – allowing staff to dip in and out of conversations that concern them. It’s a great tool for building an online peer community – creating spaces for colleagues to share best practices, exchange ideas, share global updates and just check-in on each other.

Price: $7/month per person for their smallest plan.

6. Floop – for work questions and support

For students, Floop is the virtual equivalent of raising your hand in class. It was built by teachers to solve the challenge of providing tailored support and feedback to individual students learning remotely. Students can quickly send pictures of their work with anchored comments, so they can highlight exactly where they are stuck and raise questions. Teachers just need to reply to the comment to provide targeted feedback. A handy tool if you’re working with analogue or read-only digital materials – although you might want to prioritize using collaborative document platforms like Dropbox Paper longer-term.

Price: free for now, but pricing will be announced for the 2020-21 school year.

7. SmartSurvey– for feedback on remote teaching

Feedback is crucial for making distanced learning work – especially in the early days as you adapt your approach to an online setting. If you go in for one of the heavy-duty learning management systems detailed above, you’ll likely have a few options for posing questions and reviewing engagement data. But if you don’t, simple online survey platforms like SmartSurvey are a good alternative. Use it with students to see how well you explained certain concepts, as well as with teaching staff to surface admin blind spots and gauge wellbeing.

Price: free for sending a maximum of 15 questions to 100 people.

8. Edmondo – for centralized teacher-student communication

Primarily targeted at school teachers, Edmondo helps you centralize all tutor-student and tutor-parent communications. It’s effectively a social platform – with familiar post and direct messaging functionality – for classroom discussion and organization. You can use it to share assignments and materials, help students learn new virtual tools, post classroom updates or chat directly with individuals. A useful asynchronous teaching tool for students who may not always have access to a home computer or a strong Wi-Fi connection.

Price: completely free, with a paid “Schools” plan for larger organizations.

Organization, structure and time management

9. Timely – for managing time and staying visible

Shifting all teaching and infrastructure to cyberspace comes with a significantly increased workload. When you factor in childcare, remote teaching from home becomes a blur of competing demands – a sure recipe for burnout. Timely helps you stay in control by creating a flawless digital timeline of everything you work on each day, which is especially useful if you also bill for your teaching. Its intuitive calendar interface helps you time block your day and the Reports feature lets you check every project is getting its just attention. The “People” feature also breaks down exactly how many hours you and your team work each day, so everyone can stay visible, stick to their hours and get proactive support. Ideal for managing faculty staff remotely, as well as structuring your own schedule.

Price: trial all features free for 30 days. Upgrade if it’s love – $5/month for individuals, $39/month for organizations.

10. Dewo – for outsourcing meeting scheduling

As workloads increase, you’ll want to cut down on all the pointless small admin and organizational tasks that clog up your day – and meeting scheduling is a prime candidate. Thankfully, Dewo can take the whole slog off your hands, managing all coordination back-and-forth for you. With a combination of calendar data, timing preferences and AI, it suggests optional meeting times which maximize the availability of focused time for all meeting participants.

Price: gloriously free.

11. Todoist – For organizing your tasks

If you’re looking for a digital to-do list that’s a cut above Notes, check out Todoist. Aside from mapping out all your work in one organized space, it helps you prioritize tasks and keep your most important upcoming tasks in focus. With integrations for a ton of staple digital collaboration tools – including Dropbox and Google Calendar – it acts as an organizational hub for getting things done.

Price: free for 5 people working on up to 80 projects. Upgrade for $3/month for their Premium plan.

12. Pocket - for curating useful web resources

Ditch your bloated bookmarks bar for this handy app, which lets you save web content to one clean repository. It’s provides an easy way to save all the interesting articles you encounter for later, and also lets you create shared resource lists for colleagues and students.

Price: free, with the option to upgrade for $5/month for Premium.

Virtual collaboration and teaching aids

12. Loom – for making quick video explainers and demos

Billed as “video messaging for work”, Loom is a great tool for creating quick screencast videos – either with or without audio. It’s ideal for providing tutorials and demos, like showing a group of people how to set up or use a new piece of software. Just start recording your screen and get a shareable link to your video once you’ve stopped.

Price: the basic version is completely free. Upgrade for $5/month for advanced recording and editing features.

13. Prezi – for professional digital presentations

Prezi lends instant design credibility to department and classroom presentations. It offers motion, zoom and spatial relationships for those with the budget looking for something more engaging than PowerPoint, Keynote or Slides. A range of professionally-designed templates do the artistic legwork for you, so you only have to focus on adding your content.

Price: subscriptions start at $9/month. Upgrade for $24/month for offline access, PDF export and premium images.

14. Dropbox Paper – for document collaboration

If you need a remote-friendly word processor tool, look no further. Dropbox Paper provides one clean space for creating, sharing and editing work with others in real-time. It’s a particularly good choice for student assessment, allowing you to add comments throughout a document. You don’t need a Dropbox subscription to use it either – for now, at least, it’s completely free. Its Slack integration is a nice bonus if you’re looking to keep your communications neatly tied together.

Price: completely free.

15. WeTransfer – for sharing large files

Need to send someone a file that’s too big for an email attachment? Provided it’s smaller than 2 GB, you can send it via this free browser tool. If you’d rather build a common file repository for staff or students, check out Dropbox (or Google Drive File Stream for a less user-friendly, but free solution). Shared folders let everyone quickly share and access important documents, templates, frameworks and assets.

Price: free for sending files up to 2 GB. Upgrade for $12/month to send up to 20 GB and enjoy 1 TB of storage.

16. Touchcast – for removing home backgrounds on video

Teaching remotely from home effectively invites everyone on your call to oggle and analyze your surrounding, instead of focusing on what you’re saying. Aside from inviting distraction, it also breaks down important barriers between your “private” and “professional” personas – if you share your space with other home workers or children, this can become quite stressful. Thankfully plug-ins like Touchcast intelligently swap out your home environment for a stock background – whether you want to appear erudite in front of a bookcase, paste yourself onto a presentation, or give lessons a pop with a block of color.

Price: trial it free for 30 days. Upgrade to $24 if you can’t do without it – and want to make it your default presentation tool.

17. Idroo – for virtual whiteboards and live annotation

Virtual whiteboards are a no-brainer if you teach using equations or diagrams, but they also help to make all types of virtual collaboration easier and more dynamic. In addition to plain boards, Idroo lets you paste powerpoint presentations, PDFs and Word documents for live annotation. You just need to set up a web account to get started.

Price: get 5 plain boards and 50MB of storage for free. Upgrade for $10/month if you need document annotation.

18. Markup Hero – for quick image annotation

While mainly aimed at creative industries, Markup Hero is a useful for taking screenshots and annotating images. You can easily to share links to your images and save annotations for future editing. Being completely free, it’s an ideal choice for providing feedback on assignments, presentations or offline documents.

Price: completely free
Take screenshots and annotate images with Markup Hero

➡️ Struggling to adjust to virtual teaching from home? Read this.

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