I recently gave this keynote at the EdTechteam Cape Town Summit, titled “Imagine the Possibilities”. I’ve actually given this talk a number of times at Summits and other events all over the world, but this is likely the last time I’ll use it, so I’m posting it here just for posterity.
Chromebooks have become (and continue to be) an important computing platform in many schools across the world. With speed, simplicity, and reliability as their goal, many schools have adopted Chromebooks as the ideal computer for students. A low price is often touted as the reason for their success, but I think low price is simply a benefit, not a feature. While it’s nice that Chromebooks are relatively cheap, to see them as simply “cheap computers” is to entirely miss the point. Chromebooks are succeeding for many other reasons that go far beyond price.
One of the myths about Chromebooks is that they are not very good for working with rich media such as audio, video, and graphics. While GSuite gives us marvelous tools for the core functions of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations with Docs, Sheets, and Slides, there is clearly much more that we’d like students to be able to do with these machines.
Obviously, because of the way Chromebooks are designed to work, a stable Internet connection is pretty important for using any of these applications, and it’s fair to say that if a school has poor connectivity then that would need to be addressed first before any large scale Chromebook adoption can successfully happen. However, it’s probably also fair to say that even conventional Mac or Windows computers are far less useful without being connected to the internet, so regardless of which computing platform you choose, having a good solid internet connection is an important place to start!
Creating multimedia is important to students. Every student I’ve ever taught with has loved working with text, graphics, audio and video. Combining media in ways that help them tell their stories, explain ideas, demonstrate understanding and explore their world is an important literacy and creative outlet. We want students to be able to do more than just write, crunch numbers and present ideas (although these are all still very important skills to develop). But media literacy and being able to confidently share stories through digital media is just as important, so as more and more schools move to Chromebooks we need to ensure that we can still meet these needs.
It’s worth pointing out that if you (and your students) plan to work in the professional graphic design or media production fields one day, there’s no question that the “real world” uses high-end applications from Adobe, Apple, Avid and others. Right now, you’re out of luck there, because tools like the Adobe suite are not available on a Chromebook as you can’t install conventional software on a Chromebook. (However, you can bet that some very smart people over at Adobe are working on ways to address this, and we are already seeing some browser-based versions of these creative tools with things like Spark)
In the meantime, here are 10 amazing web-based tools that can provide you with a surprising amount of rich media functionality in “just the browser”.
Pixlr Editor – The closest thing to Adobe Photoshop on the web, Pixlr Editor supports layers, brushes, masking, cloning, adjustments such as curves, levels, saturation, and vibrancy, as well as a collection of filters and transforms. If you have used Photoshop, then Pixlr is pretty easy to understand.
Polarr – For advanced photo editing, the kind of thing you may have used Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture for, you should take a look at Polarr. This incredibly capable image editor really gives you detailed control over your images, again with full control of curves and levels, individual management of specific hue and saturation levels, cropping and vignetting, etc. It also has some useful filters if you just need quick results.
Gravit Designer – If vector graphics are more your thing, take a look at Gravit Designer, a full-featured vector design tool that is becoming a respectable alternative to Adobe Illustrator. With full support for layers, bezier curves, fills and borders, alignment and all the tools you’ve come to expect. It also now features a useful built-in graphics library.
Adobe Spark Post – Spark is part of Adobe’s move to a more web-friendly set of design tools. Spark Post allows you to quickly create fun graphics and text based on an almost limitless set of choices for colour, font, and style. It’s free and runs entirely in the browser, making it perfect for Chromebooks. Check out Spark Page and Spark Video while you’re there!
Canva – Somewhat similar to Spark, Canva is great for creating quick designs for graphics and other publications. It offers a range of templates to get you started, but set your imagination free and create from scratch.
Book Creator – Originally an iOS only app, Book Creator is now available for Chrome. It features all the same capabilities, including the ability to create digital books, add images and text, add audio, and then export as an ePub format eBook. Offers amazingly simply opportunities for student publishing and is a great platform for students to really show their learning.
Google Slides – Although Google Slides is usually seen as an easy presentation alternative to Microsoft Powerpoint, you can wrangle it to be a pretty decent page editing tool simply by creating a custom page size instead of a standard slide. Pages made in Google Slides can have text, shapes, images, and even video, added to them, so Slides becomes a surprisingly credible tool for making posters, flyers, brochures and much more.
LucidPress – If your desktop publishing on a Chromebook needs to get a little more serious, then Lucidpress is likely to be your answer. An astoundingly capable browser-based layout and design tool, LucidPress gives you a ton of great templates to start with, or you can just create from a blank page. It provides full control over every element of the page, and can even import Adobe InDesign (.indd) files. It is fully collaborative for students to work in teams, integrates with Google Classroom, and is both simple yet powerful. One additional feature of LucidPress is the way it can create not only for print but also for interactive online formats at the same time. No need to create two different versions for print and online – both can be generated from the same LucidPress original file. That’s a great feature!
Soundtrap – Soundtrap is an incredibly powerful and collaborative music composition tool that runs entirely in the browser. With full support for both loops-based and MIDI-based editing, Soundtrap enables the creation of complex multitracked audio recordings, complete with a huge array of effects like delay, wah, reverb, compression and more. It comes with an extensive collection of loop samples to choose from, as well as a huge number of MIDI voices. You can plug in a microphone, or guitar, bass or external keyboard, and start creating your own musical compositions. For those who don’t have a musical background, the loops are a great place to start, as you can build up layers of pre-recorded looped sounds easily to create a composition. For those who have a little more musical talent, open up a virtual keyboard and play your own melodies and chords. The software includes sophisticated features like quantization and autotune, so you can really dive into some amazingly fun audio creation. The best part is the ability to work collaboratively so that multiple students can all contribute to the same composition. If making music is not your thing, then what about using Soundtrap to create podcasts and other audio recordings? Once you’re done you can publish to a range of online destinations, or just download the finished product as an MP3 file. It really is an astoundingly good piece of software for use on a Chromebook and you will find yourself saying “I can’t believe this is happening in a browser!”
Wevideo – In the early days of Chromebooks most people assumed that rich media such as video was simply not possible, but Wevideo changed all that. Working in just a browser, Wevideo is a fully featured multitrack video editor that can work with high definition footage to produce an astoundingly sophisticated video output. It supports all the usual video editing features such as transitions, titles, and backgrounds, all customisable for duration, transparency, scale, etc. You can add additional video tracks for the creation of cutaways, closeups, picture in picture and it also supports the use of chromakey (often just called “green screen”). Wevideo can also record the screen of the computer for making screencast style videos, as well as the webcam too. Additional audio tracks can also be added so that recorded sound, narration, music and more can all be layered into the final soundtrack, allowing for a surprising level of sophistication. When it’s time to export the finished edit, Wevideo can simultaneously output in full HD to YouTube, Google Drive, Facebook, Dropbox, etc, or just download to local storage as an MP4 file. Wevideo is easily comparable to other popular classroom video editing tools like Apple iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements. And it works brilliantly on Chromebooks!
There are no doubt many other browser-based media production tools that work on Chromebooks, but these are just a few that I’ve found that works well for me. I’m continually amazed at what can be done in Chrome. Some people think that because Chromebooks are “just a browser” they are fairly limited when it comes to producing sophisticated creative multimedia, but those people are wrong. And as Chromebooks become increasingly more powerful, the future of rich multimedia production on Chromebooks is only going to get even better!
PS: I haven’t even touched on what’s possible with Android apps on a Chromebook, but for those newer Chromebooks that can access the Play Store, it opens up a whole other world of powerful touch-enabled, media production apps. More on that in a future post!
I’ve been asked to present a keynote and workshop at the National Education Summit in Melbourne in August. The organisers of the event wanted to do an interview and ask a few questions as a way of promoting the event, which I did via email. This has been published elsewhere, but I thought I’d crosspost it here for the record.
1. What are some of the important messages for teachers in your presentation ‘The Track of the Storm’ at the National Education Summit in Melbourne?
The title “Track of the Storm” was inspired by Part 3 of Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”. The book opens with the famous lines …
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other wayA Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
As soon as I read that opening paragraph it instantly resonated with how I see technology impacting us today. We continually see amazing new technologies being used to solve seemingly impossible problems, connecting people globally in ways we could barely even imagine a few years ago, and offering endless opportunities to democratise knowledge so that everyone has the opportunity to share and participate. At the same time, these tools we have created have also enabled a unprecedented polarisation of political and social worldviews, created oceans of fake news and online vitriol, and have provided a powerful platform for some of the worst aspects of humanity.
Essentially, technology is amoral. It is neither good nor bad. It neither loves nor hates. It neither empowers nor destroys. It simply enables and amplifies that which we use it for.
2. In your view, what are the most significant emerging challenges for schools and teachers when considering the impact of digital technology use in classrooms and schools generally?
Many schools think about technology in term of tools and applications, hardware and software, in order to enable learning. And while that is certainly a conversation that needs to be had at some point, I think it’s far from the most important one. Too often, I see schools seeing technology as some sort of panacea that will fix all their problems – if only we can choose the right platform, the right devices, the right apps – then we can succeed with technology. But remember, technology is amoral. Unless you rethink a few things, it will just give you more of what you already have.
The biggest challenge facing most schools, in my opinion, is their general inability to question the status quo. To step back and ask some fundamental questions about learning, about teaching, about schools, about students, about teachers. To question the way they have always done things. To learn, unlearn and relearn. To redesign their processes and procedures, to rethink their rules and assumptions about “the way we do things around here”.
There is little point introducing technology into the experience of school without rethinking what that experience of school could look like. Because if we just do what we have always done, except with a computer, very little changes. You want digital technology to have an impact? Be prepared to change what you use it for.
3. Drawing from your experience, what are some of the strategies that can be used in schools to effectively use digital technologies to deepen learning and support educational outcomes?
Notwithstanding my previous answer, which I think underlies everything else, the best strategies that schools can use to effectively use digital technologies is to design learning experiences that provide choice and voice for their students. If we start from an assumption that all students are different, with unique talents, abilities, interests and expectations, and we design the learning experiences in ways that respect and acknowledge those differences, that offer flexible pathways for students to acquire knowledge, express knowledge and validate knowledge, then we are on the right track.
Reduce the rigidity, without reducing the rigour. Maintain high expectations for what students do, but be flexible about the the ways they can execute on that learning.
4. In your experience, what practical strategies can schools use to ensure digital technologies are used in an engaging and creative way?
Before cameras became digital, they used film. Good photographers made good photos by understanding the underlying principles of design that created good photos. They understood the essential principles of composition, the rule of thirds, contrast, balance, interest, light, colour, shape. But these essential principles were not just useful for photos taken only on film, they applied regardless of the kind of technology used to make the photos. So when the technology used in cameras moved from film to digital, these same visual design principles remained as true as ever. Digital photography changed many things about the way we take and share photos, but good photographers still apply these design principles regardless of whether they shoot on film or digital, because the principles are based on enduring truths about the way visual design works.
Teaching also has some enduring truths. These include things like building relationships of trust between teachers and students. Having authenticity in the way we interact with students. Caring for for their well-being. Engaging their interests. Bringing humour, laughter, care and respect to every class. These are some of the very human things about teaching that don’t change. And just as the shift from film to digital changed photography forever, the introduction of digital technologies into our classrooms has opened up fabulous new opportunities for the way we can do things, but it should not change these enduring truths about teaching.
You want digital technologies to be used in engaging and creative ways? Teach well. Care about your students. Build relationships. Be authentic.
Question everything else.
5. Are there any resources you would recommend for teachers wishing to implement or improve their use of digital technologies within the learning environment?
First, the best resources are other people. Engage with online communities, and surround yourself with other people who can be great resources for you (and you for them). There are so many communities online to tap into, and the very best teachers I know all take advantage of online communities. All of us are smarter than any of us, and there truly is wisdom in the crowd.
Secondly, choose flexible, powerful, collaborative tools for your students. Learn to use them. Maybe even consider certifying yourself in their effective use, to really prove you know how to use them. Being a confident and competent user of digital tools is incredibly empowering. But remember that whatever shiny new app you love using today, it probably won’t be around forever. Don’t fall in love with specific tools to the point where you can’t let them go. Tools are just things that perform actions, so love the verb, not the noun.
Finally, learn to use search to effectively to find the answers you need. Teach your students how to search too. Not just type in a keyword and hope for the best, but to genuinely use search to find answers. We live in a world where there is no excuse for being ignorant about anything. So be curious, ask questions and find answers. Being able to independently find the answer to a question, or the solution to a problem, may be the best skill you can ever possess.
This article was originally posted in School News. I’ve crossposted and lightly re-edited here.