There’s a Free Tool for (Almost) Any Learning Style!

Written by: Shannon Eastep, M.Ed., and John Huss, Ph.D.
Published On: June 15, 2013

Shannon Eastep, M.Ed., is a faculty member, an instructional designer and Distance Learning Co-ordinator at Northern Kentucky University. John Huss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Educational Foundations in the College.

Together, Huss and Eastep formed the idea of creating an Introduction to Education course that would not only deliver the instructional content but at the same time would model for these future teachers the educational use of a wide variety of tools that were free or easily accessible to all instructors. The goal was to teach the students the material but also to demonstrate for them how open source tools could support and deliver content. The variety of tools selected was also intended to demonstrate  the diversity of learning styles that could be addressed through the experienced use of these technologies.

“We believe it's not enough to teach to them,” says Eastep, “but also to model for them a way, as future teachers, to incorporate technology into everyday learning, including:

  • examples of how audio presentations, interactive timelines, self-reflective tests, study games, and podcasts can be used to use to create an engaging online learning environment
  • examples of how students used wiki, and VoiceThread to collaborate
  • suggestions on how to incorporate multiple learning styles into modules using free tools
  • suggestions for free software as well as free image and videos sites that can be used in their own courses.”

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In an online interview, Distance Education Report got Eastep to expand on the open source teaching tools they incorporated, and how they can be applied in teaching.

DER: What were the open source/free tools you used in building the Intro to Education course?

EASTEP:  We used a variety of tools as we built this course including:

DER: Does your program use the Wimba Collaboration Suite? Was there any difficulty in integrating the free tools with Wimba?

EASTEP:  We did integrate the Wimba Collaboration Suite (http://bit.ly/WimbaCollaboration) into our course. The great thing about these tools is that they seamlessly fit right into the Blackboard environment.  The two challenges we face with Wimba are ensuring that students have the latest Java version installed on their computer and that they answer correctly to the browser security pop-ups that they may encounter when launching these tools.  For folks who don’t have the Wimba Suite, there are several free alternatives for creating podcasts.

DER: How did you make use of podcasts in the course?

EASTEP:  We really wanted to utilize podcasting to build a stronger connection between the students and the instructor. We felt that podcasts were very quick and easy to create and that they would go a long way in bridging the gap that students sometime feel in an online environment. We also felt it would help to minimize some of the questions we anticipated students would have at the beginning of each module. As a result we put a short podcast at the beginning of each new learning module. This gave the student an overview of what would be covered that week and what resources they would find in that folder. By surveying the students at the end of the course, we found this did help them to better understanding module expectations.

DER: What is Audacity? How can designers/faculty access it? How did you make use of Audacity in the course?

EASTEP:  Audacity is a free, open course tool can that be used to create and edit voice recordings (http://bit.ly/MdUX90) . This tool can also help you to incorporate several “tracks” into one podcast. For example, you can record your voice and then add a music tracks or sound effects later. You can also easily delete or re-record components that need additional editing. A second tool I would recommend for podcasting would be the online site called “AudioBoo” (http://bit.ly/Ki8o4E) . You can’t edit your recordings but it does allow for “on-the-fly” recordings and can easily be embedded into any course management system, website or blog.

DER: What is VoiceThread? How did you make use of it in the course?

EASTEP:  VoiceThread (http://bit.ly/Ki87Ps). is a great online collaboration tool that allows participants to add comments to a discussion in a variety of ways. Instructors can easily add their own voice to a presentation and then invite comments or discussion from students. When the presentation is completed by the instructor, a URL link can be placed into the course module for students to access.

Once a free account is created, the student can comment on a PowerPoint slide, an image, a PDF file or a link to an outside source. Users can add comments via text, audio, webcam, phone call, or by uploading their own audio file.

One of the advantages of this tool is the ability for students to see pictures of their fellow classmates along with their comments. We believe this helps to build a stronger sense of community among students.  They can see and hear from each of them on a given topic. 

We also felt this tool helped to better connect the students to the content and to the instructor. Dr. Huss infuses his courses with a lot of humor and we didn’t want to see that disappear online. This tool allowed for the students to literally hear from him, pick up on tone of voice, and better learn his personality as well as learn the course content.

DER: What is an interactive timeline? How can designers and faculty access the tools to create one? 

EASTEP:  An interactive timeline allows for users to view historical data in a more engaging way than looking at a list of dates and facts. The timeline tool we used was Dipity (http://bit.ly/KG8G9J). In our case we covered the history of education and the students were able to not only see the content being displayed but could then click on different components of the timeline to gain more detail about each event. One of the things we really liked about this tool was the ability to view the content in multiple ways. You can view it as a traditional timeline, a “book”, or a list of events. We felt this allowed for multiple learning styles to access the same resource collectively. To get started you create your own free account and then start building. You will need a date for each event as well as any images and links to videos you want to include as supporting material. When completed a simple URL link is available to share within a course.

DER: Can you give examples of the self-study games? How did you make use of them in the course? 

EASTEP:  We are fortunate that our university has bought a license of StudyMate for us to use in our courses. This tool assists us in taking facts or questions that we feel the students should know and turning them into several learning games. From the same bank of questions this tool generates flashcards, quiz questions, a crossword puzzle, a “pick a letter” game and a glossary of terms. While all schools may not have access to this tool, we did find a similar free option called StudyStack.  It can be found here:  http://bit.ly/L397I2. This also allows you to create an account and add flashcards. From there additional games are created to help the students learn.

Our survey results have shown that the students enjoy this type of review activity and this also supports multiple learning styles. Students learn in different ways and these games allow for them to choose the game or activity that best suits their own personal learning style.

DER: What is a Jing tutorial? 

EASTEP:  Jing is another free tool that has two main functions; screen image captures and voice/screen videos (up to 5 minutes long). Jing is a tool by TechSmith and can be found at (http://bit.ly/LqYe3Q. It is a free download and after signing up for an account you are ready to create your first image or video.

Some use the screen image captures to build handouts to support student learning. We have primarily used it to record tutorials for students. When you are ready to capture your screen, select an image area and start recording. It will record all mouse movements as well as any voice narration added through a microphone. When completed the video can be shared to a cloud space and a URL is given to share with others.

One way we have utilized the power of Jing is to create a short overview of the Blackboard course. This allows us to show them around the course, including key areas within the course, how the course is organized, and where course content can be found. We also created a tutorial for the students whenever we introduced a new technology for them.  For example, the first time they were asked to participate in a VoiceThread, we provided a tutorial on how to get started. The same was true for Dipity and their class wiki.

Shannon Eastep is Dean of the College of Education and Human Services, Northern Kentucky University.

John Huss, Ph.D., is  Associate Professor of Educational Foundations in the College of Education and Human Services, Northern Kentucky University.


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This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 16.11 (2012): 5, 7, 8. Distance Education Report is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.