Digital Content

Day 1: Choosing the right tool 


Image of different tools

There are a bewildering array of options you might use when choosing a technology for your teaching practice, either within the offerings available from your university’s learning management system or externally, using services, apps, or platforms available through the web. This course will help you critically evaluate the options available external to your university, so you can select the right tool for the job and take the privacy, sustainability, policy, and assessment issues into account. 

As always, pedagogy first

We’ve discussed in previous courses the importance of choosing a tool that will meet the desired learning outcomes for an activity. If there is a mismatch between the type of technology and the activity that the students will be doing, it can have a negative impact on student experience and can hamper, rather than support, their learning. If you’d like to review the advice and ideas on how to design activities using technology-enhanced learning (TEL), we recommend you check out these previous posts to help you decide what type of tools you might use to best meet your learning outcomes. 

One of the first things to consider is what is already available to you through your institutional learning management system (LMS). At ANU, this is Wattle, which includes MoodleEcho360 Active Learning PlatformMahara ePortfolioTurnitin, and Adobe Connect. To get us started, let’s consider some of the benefits, risks, and challenges of using either the LMS or an external tool. 

Take a look at the video, below, from UNSW’s Learning to Teach Online series. (Just a quick note: the video refers to the “open web” to mean tools on the web, external to the “closed” LMS, not open in terms of open educational resources.) 

Learning management system or the open web? 

question markDiscussion question:

When might you use the LMS for an activity, and when might you use something else? 

Open or closed? 

The LMS is a guaranteed and safe environment, that is closed to anyone not enrolled in the course, authenticated, and grading and assessment are easily tracked and connected to verified student identities. Another key benefit is that institutions usually provide support, advice, and training on how to use the LMS. At ANU, you can get support from ANU Online (that’s us!) or your College-based educational design teams.

However, the LMS is often not as flexible, social, or innovative as other tools available online, and can be slow to change if what you need is not already available. The focus of the LMS on reliability and stability can often come at the expensive of openness and flexibility. 

External or open tools are often designed to be collaborative and social. While the video indicates that students are generally already familiar with the open web systems, several studies have highlighted that this is not always the case. For example, Bennett et al (2012) found that most students had little prior experience with tools like blogging and wikis, and struggled to see the value of these tools for educational purposes. However, apps and platforms are usually designed to be extremely easy to use and mobile-friendly. Due to the range of tools out there, there is something available that will likely meet your specific needs as well, whereas the LMS is often more generic. 

Image of a spider with lots of eyes looking

Keeping a critical eye

Many educational apps are designed to support knowledge sharing, collaboration and socialising, which can benefit a constructivist or active learning approach (Ajjan and Hartshorne 2008), but it’s important to stay critical when using them. As we’ve discussed in other courses, it’s not the tool that matters so much as how you use it!

question markDiscussion question:

Take a look at some of these apps and services, many of which are currently in use around the ANU and higher educator sector more widely. What are they claiming to offer? 

As commercial offerings, these apps are selling the product of engagement, better outcomes, and better learning for students, and while often appearing “free” they can have hidden costs – financially or otherwise. In the next posts, we will explore how to safely and effectively integrate apps and platforms into your teaching practice, so that you can take advantage of the affordances and manage the risks and challenges.

question markDiscussion question:

Why are you interested in using external or open web tools? Have you used them before? What have your experiences been?

A quick note on terminology

There are a huge range of terms which can be used to refer to the different systems. Here are a few that we will be using throughout the course. 

  • Cloud – services that are accessed and stored wholly online, and not stored on a particular device. For example, Dropbox and Google Docs allow you to store files in the cloud so they can be accessed from any computer. 
  • Apps – short for applications, these are computer applications or software. They can be a mobile app (run on a mobile device) or a web app (run on a web browser). For example, Twitter is a social media platform that has a mobile app and a web app. 
  • External tools – in this context, these are tools that are not managed by the university or institution. For example, using Wattle would not be an external tool, but using YouTube would be. 
  • Third-party apps – these are apps that are not created by the manufacturer or the owner of the website. For example, Twitter can be accessed using the standard Twitter app, or you can use a third-party app like Tweetdeck to use it, which is not owned or managed by Twitter itself. 
  • Platform – a digital system that is an intermediary between two groups, providing a service often based on user contributions. For example, Uber is a platform for ride sharing, which connects passengers and drivers. 
  • Web 2.0 – the “participatory web”, signifying the range of tools for collaboration, social interaction, and sharing. Using Web 2.0 has the user contributing to the platform by adding their own content. This includes a range of technologies such as blogging, social media, wikis, and so on. 

Further reading and references


25 thoughts on “Day 1: Choosing the right tool 

  1. 1.
    I would use LMS for an activity which is in some way assessed, otherwise it would be too challenging for the university to keep track of students’ grades and the relevant assessment criteria. I would use external resources when looking for entertaining but useful class activities which aren’t assessed, but would help students practice the skills they need to do well in assessments.
    It looks like polling, forums, collaborative projects and quizzes are the primary offerings of these apps and services. These are all useful, although one would need to be highly selective because students are easily inundated, even by LMS.
    I have used Doodle for arranging student meeting times before exams, without needing to do it manually. It was a huge timesaver. For teaching art history, I think that visual apps are especially beneficial. There are lots of online tutorials teaching the fundamental aspects of art-historical analysis and discussing the key periods of Western art history. Given that students learn information best when they receive it in a variety of formats, it would benefit them to engage with these resources also.

    1. Luisa, good point on looking for entertaining class activities online. The tools the LMS provide can be a bit dull and repetitive. Activities can be undertaken outside the LMS, but then the LMS used for assessment. One simple way is to have the students use some external tool, then give them a quiz in the LMS. Of course, you need to make sure they can access the materials externally, and these are not, for example, blocked by a corporate or national firewall, or behind a paywall. Rather than use doodle, I have used a survey tool in the LMS, for arranging student meeting times.

    2. Hi Luisa, thanks for sharing your use of the LMS versus non-LMS spaces. I think this will be a common trend, with the LMS the preferred space for “official” and assessable communications, and apps providing more opportunities for interactive or engaging class activities. I wanted to highlight your point about students being inundated by tools and platforms – I think this is particularly important to keep in mind when designing TEL / online activities!

  2. I use the LMS for official administrative activities, such as announcements about the course, assessment tasks, and keeping track of marks. Also I use the LMS for providing course materials, and activities, to the extent this is possible. If I need a tool, or resource not in the LMS, such as for project management, or programming, I will point the students outside the LMS. But first I use the LMS to outline what I want the students to do outside, and what to bring back to show they did it. Also I think carefully about the risks I am exposing the students to, by having them use outside tools.

    The video from UNSW was very good in outlining the issues of LMS versus outside (also it was good to see Matthew Allen, who I came across at Curtin in 2001, still giving sober sensible advice). However, the video confused “free” with “open”. Richard Stallman famously refers to this confusion: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer”.

    Of the apps and services listed, I have been a participant in workshops which used Poll Everywhere and Padlet. The first allows for simple instant surveys in class, similar to the way “clickers” are used. Padlet provides a virtual workspace where short documents can be shared.

    My interest in using external or open web tools is to supplement the LMS. I have not been convinced of the value of Poll Everywhere or Padlet. They seem to me to be toy applications, useful for demonstrating the potential of such tools, but not suitable, or safe, for serious use at an educational institution. As part of the Techlauncher program, I help students use many, much more sophisticated tools from the project management and computing disciplines.

    What I find worrying is where teachers ask their students to discuss controversial topics in online forums which are public, or which are hosted outside the country. Government security agencies around the world, companies, and some non-government vigilante groups, now routinely search online forums checking what applicants for jobs, visas, and government office have written publicly. A comment made in a course, when taken out of context years later, may make the student unemployable, unelectable, unable to get a visa, or place their liberty, or life, at risk.

    1. Hi Tom! I also found the conflation of “free” and “open” in the video a bit frustrating – hopefully we will unpack this specifically in the Day 3 post for the course. We’re also going to look at openness in Day 3, and discuss more of the issues around teaching in the open. For my home discipline (media studies), students learning in the open was explicitly encouraged as authentic practice for being journalists or other media professionals. There was a lot of coaching and scaffolding around professional writing, and some reflection required around managing online profiles, etc. But this was an inherent requirement for this degree – I agree with you Tom that this sort of practice is not inherently transferable to other disciplines.

  3. I agree that using Wattle wherever possible is not only the most efficient way to deliver TEL, but the most inclusive one. Apps can be fantastic but they assume that all students have a smartphone. I’ve also seen social media used as a great education tool, but it requires all students to have an account (and many don’t for social or ethical reasons). I use the Wattle quiz, forum, video file and link functions every week, and they create a range of spaces for students to interactive with content, me and each other. However I’d be interested to know if others use the chat, lesson or wiki functions, as I’ve never used those.

    1. Hi Gemma, great to have you! I like that comment about Wattle being the inclusive option for teaching and learning as well, as all students automatically have access to it and it (should be) a straightforward one to use, and is used consistently across all their courses. I’d love to hear more about your use of those Wattle tools (quiz, forum, videos, etc) because that sounds fantastic! Has anyone else used the chat, lesson, or wiki? I recall the Lesson is being used a lot in both Japanese language classes and also in Population Health?

      1. Thanks, Katie! Because I teach French language and culture I include a lot of videos to prompt cultural analysis, as well as for listening comprehension. I link to content all over the internet (articles, news footage, wikis, etc.) and combine it with a worksheet or other prompt to get them working actively on the content at home. Quizzes are mostly for grammar (so we don’t have to cover too many repetitive tasks in class) and I have both an official forum, where I send them unidirectional instructions and updates, and a class forum, where they can initiate posts and connect with one another. The Lesson function is still a mystery to me, though!

        1. Hi Gemma,

          I used the Lesson format for the first time this year (2nd-year undergrad elective, 150 students). I only set it up in a very basic, linear, and formative format, but it was well received by students. Now that I am more familiar with it, and I have tested the waters on this year’s cohort, I intend to completely re-jig it for next year so that it is much more interactive and responsive to individual students’ needs. Main advice to do that is that you need to have the entire course mapped out before you start setting it up.

          Feel free to reach out if you would like to share experiences 🙂

          1. Thank you, Bhavani, that’s great to hear! This may be ideal for my course next year 🙂

  4. While I agree that it might often seem as if some external tools are not official enough to be used for assessment tasks; however, according to the terminology, Youtube is an external resource. For external students, it is quite common for them to use this resource to upload their speeches, presentations, or short fieldwork videos and then provide the link within the Moodle discussion forums for their peers to review and provide feedback on. Therefore, I think that it is important to realize that we can use (and actually might already be using) external resources in combination with the LMS platform for graded assessment tasks.

    I quite enjoy apps like Poll Everywhere for in lecture engagement. The first is a polling app which you can use to ask questions of the students and get an idea of the opinions of the group. Additionally, I have often seen something like this used in my science classes at the beginning of the course so that the lecturer can have a clearer idea of our understanding of the various topics, and then they use that information to adjust some of their material for future lectures. I think it’s great as you can get more honest answers from people when it’s an anonymous poll rather than them having to publicly declare that they are not familiar with the topic.

    As I mentioned previously, I’ve had a few experiences with external tools so far and want to learn more about how to use them effectively in a classroom environment. I hadn’t really previously thought about things like “open”, “free” etc. and am really curious how this can affect the use of open web tools and how to avoid making mistakes with these resources that could negatively affect the students in the long run. My experiences thus far with external resources have been generally positive, but I’ve mostly been using the more well-known tools like Youtube (for videos), Facebook (to organize group assignments), etc. I’m curious to see what other resources are out there that can help the student learning experience.

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks for this fantastic reply. We’ll look specifically at the issues relating to “free” and “open” in the next day or so. I’m really glad to hear that you’ve had positive experiences in the past. I’d love to hear more about how you use Facebook in particular – I know it’s use in teaching is an area of concern for some. I think we are going to have a particular course about using social media later in the year but its use overlaps a lot with what we will discuss in this course.

      1. Hi Katie, that’s all really great to hear! I’d really like a course on using social media as I’ve often used it in academia and would like more information on dos and donts.

        I actually got Facebook specifically because of a music group project in my first year so my group could organize meetings/share content/discuss with each other. Since then I have used Facebook in a similar way multiple times throughout my degree, however towards the end I did notice a shift towards other programs like slack or just using the wattle discussion forums. I think there are some good points to using FB – e.g. most people check their account at least once per day (or they used to a few yrs ago) whereas with some other resources like the wattle discussion forums if your team is not checking wattle then it can get pretty frustrating.

        However, I do understand there are also of downsides to using social media in the assessment. For example, wattle forums are supervised by the tutors, whereas in an FB group, unless the tutor is also added to monitor the conversation, it could open the door to in-group bullying. I haven’t personally experienced this and most of my interactions using social media in assessment tasks have been positive, however, it is a reality that some do and it’s something that should be minimized at all costs.

        1. Yes one of the biggest things I’d like to see from Wattle is push notifications about updates to forum discussions! It’s slightly better now than in the past (now there is a bell icon showing forum updates at the top) but it doesn’t have explicit notifications to your mobile device which isn’t as nice as the social media experience. We’re going to look specifically at ‘teaching in the open’ in day 3 of this course and in much more detail in our future social media course as well. When I taught using Twitter in the past we did have some issues with students experiencing negative comments, trolling, and so on when posting online which was a major challenge.

          But it’s a fascinating area – I find that the key question for my own practice is: Do you go to where the students are (social media?) and engage them there, knowing it’s not a formal teaching space, or try to ensure students are coming in to the formal teaching spaces (Wattle)? There are many benefits and challenges to each!

        2. Hi Sarah and Katie,

          To respond to Katie’s question about “where” to teach, I believe students should be encouraged to learn in a formal teaching space. There are several benefits to formal environments, including fewer distractions, more authenticity (for certain disciplines and industries), and greater equity. More importantly, it develops basic life/soft skills such as responsibility, time management, and prioritisation. Students contractually agree to check their ANU emails and Wattle sites on a regular basis. The daily digests already provide a form of push notifications. If they are not checking in regularly, they are being irresponsible, and will not last long if they carry that attitude over to the real-world environment.

          Having said that, I think universities could do more to make the formal learning environments more reflective of informal practices that students are already familiar with, and potentially thrive on. Although Adobe Connect attempts to do this, it is very clunky and not user-friendly. Informal practices and formal environments do not have to be mutually exclusive.

  5. I try to utilise LMS’ offerings before going to external sources. My main reasons are that 1) my pedagogy does not have high/complex TEL needs – what little I need, LMS provides, and 2) as ANU’s official platform, students are already familiar with it and have access to it, and I have guaranteed tech and design support.

    Picking up on a point Tom made, while LMS can be dull and repetitive, I believe there are features that many academics do not utilise, or do not utilise well. Yes, LMS has its limitations (all platforms do), but I am slowly learning that it offers so much more than the stock standard format every single one of my lecturers used when I was a student. While ANU does provide training, I have noticed that the guides and training are not well developed for the less commonly used features. This is an added disincentive for exploring those features. I often end up having to learn how to use them by combing through external sources.

  6. 1) When might you use the LMS for an activity, and when might you use something else?
    I’ve been trying to established the LMS as the one-stop shop for the course infrastructure. Assessment, content, readings, weekly task lists etc, and when I can’t get a functionality in Wattle, I’ll go outside and try to find something to do the job
    Problem is, I’m usually a good few years ahead of my students in terms of what nu-tech I want to use – twitter was my case in point, as my so-called born-digital students didn’t have it, most of them didn’t have instagram, and certainly the grumbling that came forth about being expected (one semester, emarketing) to set up a blog was both hysterically funny and very telling. Commerce students did not like the emarketing ecosystem at all.

    Still, I wish we had a proper media server within Wattle rather than having to outsource streaming to YouTube.

    Why are you interested in using external or open web tools? Have you used them before? What have your experiences been?
    I’ve used Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, WordPress, Blogger, Pinterest and Soundcloud, and the vast bulk of the time, I’ve been the one to introduce my students to the platform. I don’t use Facebook for teaching because I regard FB for teaching as the same as holding a tutorial in a pub – don’t mix work and pleasure, so there’s still a fun space that’s not about work.

    The problem with the 3rd party sites is they’re really hard to bring into Wattle in a meaningful way (and yet, Moodle plugins), so if you try using Instagram for your class, there’s integration issues. Case in point: I used Instagram videos to do post-class summaries, and I’d take photos in class of the whiteboard notes, and post them. Students complained that they had to go to Instagram to get the class summaries, and it wasn’t fair, and instead of it being “Hey, since you weren’t here, here’s what you missed to make sure you’re not left out” it became “Not fair I had to use a thing because I wasn’t in class”. Hardly the motivating voice of “Please do again next season”. But that’s the problem with the highly conservative late adopter cohort we call commerce students.

  7. External apps like Socrative and Kahoot are great for in-classroom use. They bring an element of gamification to learning, and that’s a great way to engage students.
    But for activities that are assessed, I agree with Luisa, Stephen, etc.: I would also use the default LMS when possible. It would just get too tricky to keep track of everything if I were to use a multitude of platforms – for me and the students!
    I did use Dropbox to share documents with my students because the school where I worke had a bit of an unwieldy document-sharing platform (I’m not sure what Wattle is like; I don’t have much experience with it), and Dropbox worked great. And much like Luisa, I am a fan of Doodle for arranging student meeting times. I have used it to plan oral exams, feedback sessions, etc.

    1. Hi Melde, I love your connection between the use of external tools and the concept of gamification. This is something particularly interesting to think about when using apps in teaching because of an (implied?) connection between using fun, colourful apps and increased engagement for students. Gamification elements can certainly motivate and encourage participation in courses – this line of discussion is reminding me of a few other areas we’ve looked at in the past on other coffee courses, particularly:
      What why and how of gamification –
      How to foster engagement in a course –
      Lots of intersections to think about! 🙂

      1. Thanks, Katie! A very interesting topic indeed. I have been meaning to check out the Gamification Coffee Course. But there are a few others that caught my eye as well . Hope to get to it soon… So many Coffee Courses, so little time 😉

        1. Thanks, I’m new to ANU and loving the Coffee Courses! I might not get a repy as this course has long gone but I’m looking for best examples of student presentation tool for remote use. I wondered if echo360 ALP can be used by teaching staff to set up student sites and if they can use the desktop personal capture. Or is it easier to simply recommend a few personal capture tools and hope the students have the technology and network to upload something to a forum?

          1. Hi Claire, it’s an older course but we still read all the comments! That’s a good question – my understanding from your comment is that the students are going to be doing their own video presentations? I suspect it would be easiest to do the latter, where you recommend a few platforms and get the students to make their own. There are a few strategies you can use to support the students to support the students to use the new tools. I often provide links to user guides for the tools, offer students a consultation hour to get help with the technical aspects, and sometimes offer a bit of extra credit to students who volunteer to mentor others in making videos. That has been a really lovely strategy because it encourages the students to help each other out.

            Another approach is to make it a group project, so that they have a built-in peer group where they can solve problems together. It sounds like an interesting task to have the students do! Feel free to share a bit more about it if you’d like to chat more about it.

  8. Hi,

    I have used Wattle as my LMS, Piazza for forums, Google Drive for document sharing and my own student experience of learning teaching evaluations (e.g., Slides, Forms, and folders of PDF documents), YouTube for carefully chosen videos (both my own videos and other people’s videos), Poll Everywhere for real time quizzes and evaluations, and TinyURL for shorter links, among others.

  9. Hi everyone, bit late to the party, but interesting to read over this post and everyone’s thoughts after a semester where we all had to embrace technology! The above discussion mirrors the experience I had this semester – using LMS for assessments and external resources for classroom activities. We found that using external tools such as Padlet, Menti, Kahoot and Socrative were really useful to keep students engaged. I think a lot of tutors and course convenors would have felt their students increasing in their ‘Zoom fatigue’ – so we found a 5 minute poll, collaborative word cloud or shared padlet would break up the lecture/workshop and keep attention levels high.

    I was very lucky to be working with Bhavani, who has commented above, as I fear that without Bee’s prior investigation into good, safe and effective TEL across internal and external platforms we would not have delivered such an interesting course online.

  10. I have used some apps and other web tools before in the context of online delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, I have used Poll Everywhere, padlet and Menimeter in online tutorials. I particularly liked the word cloud feature in Mentimeter as a way to start conversation. These tolls were generally well received, however I do think there was a learning curve at first (for students as well as me). Generally, I found it best to only introduce one new tool per lesson or students could become a bit overwhelmed or confused by the unfamiliar technology.

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