Increase Communication Without Raising Your Hands

When it comes to classroom interactions, not all students are comfortable raising their hands. As a teacher, I often wish that I could read students’ minds and learn what questions and comments they have while I speak, while they present, or while a presenter interacts with them. I want all students to share their immediate thoughts with me quickly and easily. With this in mind, here are some free tech tools that you should try out.

With the tools below, you can create:

  • Pre-lesson questions to gather information about students’ prior knowledge
  • Mid-lesson questions to assess student understanding
  • Post-lesson questions to evaluate retention of information
  • Pre-evaluation/assessment review questions to help student prepare for assessments
  • Collaborative/discussion questions to gather student opinions
  • Student awareness of the thoughts and opinions of their peers
  • Student engagement, surprise, or confirmation about the thoughts and opinions of their peers
  • Ways to gather student questions, comments, and responses during class

SMART Response (and other personal response systems)

  • How it works: Each student or group of students gets a clicker. You project the questions for students to see and they enter their responses. You may then reveal the responses as graphs and/or export them to an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Suggested applications: Works well for group discussion questions where each group of 2-3 students shares one clicker so that they can discuss before responding. Also works well to check whole-class understanding or opinions with 1-3 quick questions a few times during the class. Does not work well for giving formal tests because the fastest students have to wait until everyone has entered their answers before you can move on to the next question.
  • Equipment: In order to use this tool, your school must own a set of SMART Response clickers. Even if you do not have a SMART Board in your classroom, you can use the clickers and software with an LCD projector.
  • Question creation: Simple and easy with a full range of question types (multiple choice, true/false, yes/no, short answer, numarical, textual, or multiple response).
  • Options: Recieve immediate responses as a bar graph or pie chart. Select whether to display responses to students or not, and whether to display them after each question or after the entire test. See which students have not yet entered an answer. Keep track of individual student responses and export them to an Excel file, or collect responses annonymously.
  • Cons: The latest version of SMART Response software is confusing when setting up student names and classlists. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out and I am still having difficulties.


  • How it works: Create and invite people to use an instant messaging system where students can interact in real-time using text.
  • Suggested applications: Respond to questions from students who are uncomfortable raising their hands during class. Gather questions and comments over the course of a class to analyze student understanding. Students can communicate and ask questions to each other during a class. Keep a record of online discussions that students have. Create separate ‘rooms’ for groups of students to use when they work on collaborative projects and keep track of their online conversations. Have all students share their insights and reveal them immediately to the entire class.
  • Equipment: Computers for students to enter text and projector if you want to share student responses. Does not require Flash. Can create Quick Chat rooms without sign-up.
  • Options: Create password-protected rooms. Invite people via email or send/post a link. Customize appearance of rooms. Use emoticons.
  • Cons: Completely textual. May require a moderator to keep comments appropriate. Side conversations can be more distracting than helpful for some students.

Google Forms (part of Google Docs)

  • How it works: Create surveys or gather responses to questions from students in the time frame that you control. Email students a link to the questions or post the link to your website or course management system. Reveal the textual responses immediately in an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Suggested applications: Gather and discuss student responses immediately. Works well for short and long answer responses and information gathering (such as prior knowledge, opinions, discussions, and other longer textual answers). Responses appear directly in an organized spreadsheet.
  • Equipment: Computers for students to enter responses, your computer, and an LCD projector.
  • Question creation: Simple and easy. Must have a Google Docs account.
  • Options: Control when students can enter responses and when to show them. Protect responses. Edit responses in the spreadsheet afterwards.
  • Cons: Responses do not show the name of the person who inputs them so you will have to ask students to include their names. You cannot show responses as a graph without extra steps. Completely textual.

Poll Everywhere

  • How it works: Create instant polls with simple questions (free for up to 30 responses). No sign-up required. Students can respond using the link you provide, mobile devices, and Twitter. Students can also text their answers (texting costs apply). Fluctuating answers are shown in real time in graph form.
  • Suggested applications: Instant polls involving questions with a maximum of 4 answer choices. Great for immediate opinion or review questions. Great to add visual appeal and interactivity to presentations.
  • Equipment: Computers or mobile devices for students to enter responses, your computer, and an LCD projector.
  • Question creation: Simple and easy. No sign-up required.
  • Options: Select from a few different layouts for the graph. Download a special PowerPoint slide that shows changes in real time. Embed voting widgets on websites. Export results to Excel. Save your poll results.
  • Cons: Limited to 30 responses on the free plan.

I can see instances where all of these tools would be very helpful. How might you use them? How have you been successful using them?

(Image: Polling Station Belsize Park, by Matt From London. 2005. Available under a Creative Commons License.)

Time to Timeline: A Review of 5 Free Tools

Thanks to the amazing Ed Tech Leader Gina Stefanini’s presentation at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference in January 2011, I learned about five tools that can help students and teachers create visual, interactive timelines. I finally had the chance to sit down and experiment with them! There are infinite ways in which you can use interactive timeline tools in your classroom, including the following:

  • Chart whole-class understandings of an overarching theme over a period of time
  • Learn about the order of actions or happennings
  • Put items in order according to a story
  • Plan actions before or as you carry them out
  • Map the history of a person, place, or event
  • Record individual student growth and learning over time
  • Conduct research and record your findings
  • Have others comment and give feedback on your work
  • Showcase on-going work using many mediums including music, video, images, text, voice recording, and more

For a brief introduction to using timelines in the classroom, check out this article in Edutopia, titled, Timelines 2.0: A Fun, Easy, and Free Classroom Tool by Chris O’Neal.

The following are notes that I hope will help you decide which timeline tool is best for your needs.


  • Requires sign-up
  • Excellent example: A Brief History of Apple
  • Sharing: embed in websites (though I was unsuccessful at embedding A Brief History of Apple into this post), link, share on social networks, email, RSS
  • Interface: slickest and coolest looking of the tools on this list, easy to use, drag-and-drop to re-order, auto-saves as you work
  • Customization: neat backgrounds, fonts, colours
  • Privacy: full range of options from completely private to allowing others to edit your work
  • Content: photos, videos, audio, text uploaded from your computer
  • Community: add and message friends, bookmark favourites
  • Other views: none so it would not print well
  • Cons: can’t add captions to photos unless you add a caption as the name of the photo before you upload it


  • Requires sign-up
  • Excellent example: The Life of Galileo
  • Sharing: embed in websites, link, share on social networks, RSS
  • Interface: very simple and clean, easy to use
  • Customization: none
  • Privacy: full range of options
  • Content: photos uploaded from your computer and text that you type
  • Community: none
  • Other views: text view available (good for printing)
  • Cons: must upload photos one at a time, no customization options


  • Requires sign-up
  • Excellent example: it was very hard to find one due to a lack of organization and navigation options on the site
  • Sharing: embed in websites
  • Interface: cluttered and confusing
  • Customization: saw some that were different colours but couldn’t figure out how to do it for my test timeline
  • Privacy: full range of options
  • Content: photos that you can search for via Yahoo images, images uploaded from your computer, and text that you type
  • Community: meant for people to create timelines of their lives and share with their families and communities, can also join groups
  • Other views: none
  • Cons: incredibly confusing and hard to use!


  • Requires sign-up
  • Excellent example: The History of Legos
  • Sharing: embed in websites, link, share on social networks
  • Interface: not quite as slick looking as Capzles, but still pretty neat, easy to use, first part of the creation process is mostly text-based
  • Customization: a few backgrounds to choose from
  • Privacy: full range of options
  • Content: photos, videos, audio, text uploaded from your computer, 20 most relevant images from online searches, a pre-set number of your most recent uploads to Flickr, YouTube, and other networks, blog posts and tweets
  • Community: add friends, follow favourites
  • Other views: default timeline, list, flip book, and map
  • Cons: sometimes frustrating when clicking on individual timeline items because it moves whenever you move your mouse and movement is not quite smooth


  • Requires sign-up
  • Excellent example: History of Mobile Phones
  • Sharing: embed in websites, link, share on social networks, but there is an extra step to sign up for this
  • Interface: 90% text-based, not very intuitive
  • Customization: none
  • Privacy: full range of options
  • Content: photos uploaded from your computer
  • Community: add favourites
  • Other views: none
  • Cons: text-based, boring looking, not very intuitive

The Verdict

  • Best tool overall: Capzles
  • Accommodates the widest range of media: Dipity
  • Most ways to share: Capzles
  • Easiest to use: Capzles and TimeToast
  • Most customization: Capzles
  • Coolest looking: Capzles
  • Best for sharing blog or tweet updates: Dipity – if you create one with your tweets/blog, it will keep it updated with your latest posts
  • Best for printing in b/w: TimeToast

Have you used interactive timelines for teaching and learning? How have you used them? Can you share some tips for making the most of them? Which interactive timeline tools do you use and why?

(Image: Nu Food Timeline #2, by Bennet for Senate. 2009. Available under a Creative Commons License.)