Technologies of the New (Virtual) Classroom

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Student Leah Kelson Parks, who is a junior English Education major, attends her Teaching Reading class online at her home in Provo. (BYU Photo)

2020 has been a unique year in just about every way, and this includes the nuts and bolts of how classes are taught. 

The traditional tools of education might be described as a chair, a desk, and a chalkboard; this is what one generally thinks of when one calls to mind a classroom. Now, e-learning is more prevalent, especially in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

What are the tools involved in e-learning? They are more high-tech, for a start. While the specific platforms vary from campus to campus, here is a look at some of the tools in the modern education toolbox.

Communication Tools

Whether it be through email, online bulletin boards, instant messaging, SMS notifications, or some other technology, there needs to be a pathway across which teachers may communicate with students, and students may communicate with teachers.

Email is so mainstream that we have come to take it for granted, but it really is a phenomenal tool. As a platform, it is instantaneous and flexible. Almost everyone has an email account; one wouldn’t get very far in registering for an online course without one. The fact the professors can send items to an entire class at once is also beneficial. Finally, email may be the strongest tool that exists today because it is the most convenient. Users don’t have to log in to a bulletin board or instant messaging client; and, while it’s true that an email client needs to be opened, there’s a chance that most people look at their email at least once a day anyway. And an SMS message sent at two in the morning might wake up its recipient, while an email sent at the same hour is unlikely to. 

However, each communication tool has its advantages. An online bulletin board might be more secure than any other form of communication. An SMS notification that an online lecture is about to start could increase class attendance. And an instant messaging tool could allow a real-time discussion to feel fresh and spontaneous.

Video Conference Tools

With personal contact limited, video conferencing tools help teachers communicate with students and staff to communicate with each other. Expect programs like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack, GoToMeeting, and others to become an increasingly common part of the e-learning toolbox. Not only are these tools used in an education environment, but students and faculty can also use them to stay in touch with their families and friends during times of social distancing.

Office Suites

Modern teachers and students often use software for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation slides; the software platforms they use are known as office suites. Which office suite is chosen largely depends on the user’s office system and preference, and today, most modern office suites are compatible with each other.

Google Drive is an office suite in which one’s files exist entirely in the cloud. This can appeal to users who don’t wish to be tied down to a specific computer, or users who own a computer with little hard drive space. 

Mac users might gravitate towards iWork, which is Apple’s office suite. PC users might prefer Microsoft Office. And there are open source office suites, such as LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice, for users who don’t want to use one of the name brands, or for users who like to work in the Linux operating kernel. 

File Management Tools

Sometimes teachers and students need to share files that are too large to send by email. When this is the case, a file management platform comes in handy. Box is one such technology; not only does it allow users to share files, but it also helps with collaboration and workflow tasks. 

A file management tool like Box can be used to distribute lecture video files while controlling access, which can be especially useful in an education environment. Students and faculty members can use a tool like this to collaborate on projects because, essentially, file management tools replace the traditional server model.

Additional Open Source Tools
The future of e-learning is exciting, and one need only look as far as CurrikiStudio, found at Curriki.org, to see why. Curriki’s name comes from the combination of the words “curriculum” and “wiki,” and the platform provides a space for educators to compile and share educational resources. It can serve as a database for students to access the types of materials the professors set aside. CurrikiStudio represents a part of the larger recent trend of education moving to the internet. In a largely paperless world, the constant printing of documents and scouring of physical books is no longer necessary. With this open-source project, students can access the resources they need on their phones, laptops, or tablets.

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