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Putting Together the Pieces of Free Online Resources

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Putting Together the Pieces of Free Online Resources

How these free and open resources can improve your district’s classrooms.
By Susan Menkel

Most districts are just starting to scratch the surface when harnessing the power of technology to transform teaching and learning. As more students have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones, free online resources are emerging as a critical tool to engage today’s learners. The web provides a wealth of digital content to schools looking to take learning beyond the traditional textbook. One of the main appeals of free online resources is that they level the playing field, providing every student with access to great educational resources.

When I first started using free online resources twelve years ago, I could find only a few math resources that were specifically geared toward education. Although I did find some sources that I still use today, it was difficult to locate materials that fit with the learning goals of my classroom and district.

When I did find materials I felt comfortable sharing with my students, it was challenging to bring them into my classroom because of district-wide technology constraints. My school had only two laptop carts, and once I discovered the benefits of free online resources during a unit on natural disasters, I had a hard time letting the laptops leave our classroom. With these resources, my students could read more information, see vivid pictures, and even do things like construct a virtual tornado. These materials brought learning to life in a way that I had never before experienced.

I’m lucky enough to work in a district that has moved to a 1:1 environment. So now, thanks to our plentiful technology, all of my colleagues use digital content in their classrooms. Even if your school isn’t 1:1, the benefits of free online resources are still immense, so don’t be discouraged when implementing them!

Benefits of Free Online Resources

Since there’s so much information available with free online resources, learning becomes limitless. Financially, these resources are cost-effective, so they’re an easy choice for districts.

These materials can improve academic performance, especially for students that have a difficult time accessing information in traditional, print-based learning. The resources can engage students by allowing them to explore learning with different senses. For example, students don’t need to imagine what a jungle looks like or sounds like because they can tour it virtually. Multimedia resources create a more hands-on experience for students, so they’re more interested and engaged, and in turn their academic performance improves.

Challenges of Free Online Resources

Even though access to these materials has grown tremendously in recent years, they can still present some challenges. The same wealth of choice that makes these resources such an asset can also become an obstacle. As a teacher, exploring, organizing, and then vetting the vast amount of information available is time-consuming. Unlike some other educational tools, free online resources don’t come with a manual. When my district transitioned to 1:1 instruction, teachers were given laptops months ahead of the students, but it still took many hours to comb the web for materials with value—and more hours still to discover how to incorporate them into our classrooms.

Tools to Help Navigate Free Online Resources

Districts can help teachers effectively use this information by implementing tools that reduce the time and effort it takes to find and organize appropriate materials. These tools allow teachers to focus their search and find only the materials that content experts have already vetted. Knovation’s icurio is one tool that my district uses. It also helps by categorizing resources based upon relevant tags. Teachers can refine their search based on grade level, standard, learning resource type, readability level, subject, and more. As a result, teachers can put their energy into planning lessons and incorporating these resources to enhance the learning for each student.

Implementing these materials is comparable to traditional lesson planning. When I was teaching with a projector, I still had to take time and effort to find the right resources to build a lesson plan. The path of lesson planning is inevitably paved with some failures, and the free online resource path is no exception. However, I encourage administrators and teachers to dive in, because the benefits of these resources far outweigh the challenges.

The Future of Free Online Resources

I am amazed by the transformation that my teaching and my own learning have undergone since first starting to use these materials. Having incredible teaching tools at my fingertips makes the process so much less stressful.

As the landscape of technology in education evolves, districts will continually need to adapt. I believe that if there is a will, teachers and administrators will always find a way.

Susan Menkel is a fifth-grade math teacher at Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina.

Image: Media Bakery

 

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