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Free Tech Tools for Tough Times

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Carolyn Foote, a “technolibrarian” at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. She is fascinated by the intersection between libraries, technology, and schools. Read her blog, Not So Distant Future, at

The article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by Naylor LLC for Texas Computer Education Association members. To join or for details on the association, visit

Budget constraints, shrinking technology staffing, and reduced technology funding are causingschools to re-address the use of free resources for student learning. The good news is there are many free tools available to schools, teachers, and students that can be used to create, present, or store information creatively.

Bring Your Own

One bastion of resistance for many school districts is allowing students to bring in their own technology. But budget concerns may be driving a paradigm shift. Students carry powerful devices with them daily (cell phones and iPod touches, for example) that a school could leverage for extra computing power and learning. Some school districts are starting to allow guest use of wireless services, allow student devices on campus, and even utilize those devices as part of classroom instruction.

Our district [Austin, Texas] piloted a new Bring your Own Technology policy at one group of schools before opening it up throughout the district. A separate BYOT policy can be written or the guidelines can be integrated with your preexisting acceptable use guidelines. After the policy changed, teachers had good success using the Poll Everywhere texting feature for quizzes and polls, utilizing phone calculators, giving assignments utilizing digital cameras, and more. Now that our campus is conducting an actual iPad pilot, it is quickly becoming clear that a paperless environment will save a tremendous amount of money in terms of paper supply costs, waste, and copier costs (counterbalancing the initial cost of the iPads). More information about how teachers are conducting paperless assignments can be found on my blog or on the Eanes ISD technology coordinator’s site.

Educator Liz Kolb also has excellent information on incorporating cell phones into instruction on her Web site and in her new book, Cell Phones in the Classroom (2011). Texting, note-taking tools, Web access, phone cameras, QR reader apps, and more make the phone a versatile and money-saving tool for schools that might not be able to provide access otherwise. Although most students do have cell phones, in order to avoid issues of digital equity, assignments can be conducted in pairs or small groups so that it’s both collaborative and not a disadvantage to those students who don’t have access.

Enable Free Web 2.0 Tools

Another way to leverage cost-savings in the current economic climate is to use free online Web 2.0 sites, rather than paying for services or maintaining a “walled-garden” approach to school tools. By freeing up the district filtering and allowing more Web 2.0 tools to be utilized in the classroom, you can ultimately save the district a great deal of technology dollars which then can be spent elsewhere.

One big area of cost savings would be converting from district email systems to Google’s apps for education, which includes email as well as all the Google tools that would integrate with that.

But on a smaller scale, opening the filter to allow use of many powerhouse tools can broaden the tools the district can offer, while saving costs and expanding instructional options. Often filtering policies are more restrictive than the law actually requires, so close evaluation of the policies in place might provide a great deal of savings for districts.

Use Web 2.0 Tools for Brainstorming

For brainstorming, there are a few free tools that work similarly to Inspiration software.,, and are some of the most popular online sites for creating mind maps. can even be used “on the fly,” since users aren’t required to create an account — and can download or print their even without an account.

Other sites that provide easy brainstorming options are and, which both create a wall where “sticky notes” can be posted. A wall can be set up within minutes, and then the link shared with students so they can post their ideas.

For the iPad or iPod touch, an excellent free app is Popplet.

Discussion and Writing

There are a number of easy chat tools that can double as brainstorming tools, discussion tools, or even writing tools. Not only are these tools free, but they often can be used more collaboratively. For example, is a quick and easy discussion tool that can be used to set up a chat room in seconds. You choose if you want to set up the room to be available for hours, a week, a month, etc. The room is accessible via a link on the Web. It takes two minutes to set up the room, and it's an easy discussion or brainstorming space for students. Try saving paper by using it as a “backchannel” when students are watching a film or guest speaker, or for brainstorming assignment topics, sharing math-problem solutions, etc. is another excellent brainstorming and collaborative writing tool for students. Like, it can also be set up almost instantaneously, and shared with students via a link. provides a collaborative writing space. A discussion space adjacent to that lets students chat about the piece of writing they are working on. The pad can be exported, or kids can import a file to edit or share. A timeslider even shows the progress of the piece as they write. And again, no student account has to be created, which is a big time-saver. is another type of instant chat tool for class discussions. It allows you to create a password-protected virtual chat room. The room is shared with a simple link. It can be set up within minutes, even from an iPad. is a very powerful liveblogging tool for classroom discussions that can be logged and stored on your Web site for later viewing. It’s great for live note-taking, class discussions during a presentation or film viewing, sharing notes from a conference “live,” etc. Again, it’s free, and it works on the iPad. Setup for the administrator takes longer because it does require an account, but it gives you the ability to moderate the chat and embed the actual chat into your Web site.

A final money-saving tool for brainstorming and writing that shouldn’t be forgotten is Google Docs. One of the major money savers for a school can be reducing paper costs. By having students do their outlines, rough drafts, note-taking, or final papers in Google Docs, and then “inviting” the teacher in with Google’s “share” feature, it’s easy to eliminate a great deal of paper shuffling and paper use. Teachers can even highlight areas of the paper students need to work on, make notations, edit their papers, etc. from within Google. Teachers can access their Google Docs account from anywhere, and then papers don’t have to be carried back and forth. Plus Google Docs could be used easily in any subject area — in math, Google spreadsheets are useful — or students could keep homework answers in Google Docs.

For students or teachers with iPads or iPhones, another paper-saving app is the free Neu.annotate. If the teachers post handouts online as .pdf files, students can use Neu.annotate to open them, write on them, and “turn them in” electronically via email. The teacher can use Neu.annotate to open the document, make notes and share it back via email. There are a number of annotation apps that have these features.


Even storage (which saves funds spent on the network) can be outsourced to save funding. Dropbox and Evernote are two excellent services that allow you to save files, clip items of interest, and store information for free, freeing up local server space. If your school is using iPads or iPod touches, WebDavNav is a partially free app that can be connected to your server for immediate saving of documents to your server.

Online Books

Library collections and “classic novels” purchased for literature classes are a large budget item for many school districts. A number of free book sites, however, provide e-books students can use again and again. A prime example is Project Gutenberg’s collection — where they have been digitizing both print and audio versions of no-longer-copyrighted books since 1971. The site includes text versions of e-books in a huge variety of formats, as well as audio recordings. Project Gutenberg now displays a QR code as well, so students with a mobile device can scan the screen and the books available appear on their device. Or books can be downloaded in many different formats to a laptop or desktop computer for later reading. There’s no need to buy 30 copies of Wuthering Heights that will wear out when students could read it online (or download it to a phone, Kindle, iPad, etc.). While many other e-book sites are costly, some sell the books for less than print versions, and the books have an “unlimited” life because they aren’t suffering the physical wear and tear of a print book.

For cost savings, look for e-book offerings--such as Follett’s or Mackin’s or Gale's reference collection--that don’t charge annual maintenance fees or that integrate into your library system’s software. Also, watch for sales on titles — Gale's reference collection does offer “deals” from time to time. Even if you don’t pay for e-books for your library, just using a site like Project Gutenberg for the “classics” can save money.

Free Photo and Video Editing Tools

Similarly, why spend money on Adobe Photoshop or other photo software for general class use when you can use many basic editing tools for free? A free site like provides many tools similar to Photoshop, including layering, editing tools, etc. For simpler edits, sites like and allowing for cropping, color adjustments, etc. If your campus allows BYOD, there are a plethora of free apps for the iPod touch or iPad for working with photos and editing them, from simple ones like “Crop” to Classic Photobooth, to red-eye fixers, and more. And when working with digital video, beyond free tools like Windows MovieMaker and iMovie, there are a plethora of other video editing tools, such as Jing and many iPad and iPod touch apps like Cartoonize, etc.

Similarly, free screen casting tools like Screencast-o-matic allow you to make screen casts and tutorials for teachers for free. And allows you to narrate your instructions alongside screenshots for an easy-to-view tutorial. Instructional technology specialist Randy Rodgers has compiled on Diigo, a free bookmarking service, a very comprehensive list of free tools for many purposes.

Part of stretching the budget dollar also may mean re-thinking policies — policies that either restrict the use of free tools or policies that limit tools students can bring into the classroom. It may mean spending some funds at the front end to purchase technology that can actually eliminate paper waste and save money in the long run. But the upside of using tools like these is not ultimately the cost savings — it’s the collaborative aspect that allows students and teachers to work together in new ways, transforming the learning environment in the classroom.


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