eCoaching Tip 93 Mostly Free Tools and Resources for Learning 

October 22 2011

eCoaching Tip 93 Mostly Free Tools and Resources for Learning

Tools for Learners to Create and to Collaborate

Are you looking for ways to spice up the learning experiences in your course? This tip describes a few free and mostly free web 2.0 applications that are very accessible, and can be energizing to you and your learners. One of these might be just the tool that you have been looking for to spark creative and collaborative learning.

Background Story

I had the good fortune this summer to be able to attend two higher education conferences: Campus Technologyin Boston, MA and the Conference on Distance Teaching & Learningin Madison, WI. One of my goals was to discover any interesting new tools that could support great creative learning experiences. I came away enthused and with my ears ringing with the names of new tools and old, such as VoiceThread, FakeWall, WolframAlpha, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, WizIQ, iCloud, and Google Circles.

This tip will highlight only some of these tools that I think are particularly useful in supporting creating and collaborating in both teaching and learning. Two of the tool descriptions — VoiceThread and FakeWall — have a link that I have designed especially as part of this tip. You can leave a comment on the VoiceThead example as a no-risk way of trying this tool. Be sure to try this!


What is VoiceThread? VoiceThread is an asynchronous tool for incorporating mixed media, such as video, graphics, pictures, voice and text into student projects and discussions. VoiceThread was launched in 2007 and is a mostly free or freemium tool that makes it easy to have an asynchronous group conversation around images, documents and video. In past tips, I encouraged you to try this link that demonstrates how an art history faculty member, Michelle Pacansky-Brock is using VoiceThread to do a short tutorial analysisof an impressionist painting. In another earlier tip, Tip 84, Spring 2010 I mentioned a blog postingby Michael Arnzen, a professor of English at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey that describes how he uses VoiceThread to “bookend” his online MFA literature course in Writing Popular Fiction. Another use of VoiceThread, documenting a caving fieldtrip, is described by Dyment, O’Connell, & Boyle (In press.)  While on a caving trip, faculty and students captured photos, video and audio and then created a narrated VoiceThread on their return.

What is unique about VoiceThread is that it makes it possible to learners to comment with their choice of media, such as audio, video, or text. If you want to see an example of how easy it is to use, here is a short private demothat I created for us to experiment with. Go to the site, and if you feel like trying something new, add a comment with your voice or write a short note. This posting does not come up in searches, however, as I have kept it private.  While you are at the site, you can see how easy it is to set up a free account and upload photos, videos or drawings and then do a voiceover. Putting up a post is fully accessible to students as well.

What about Rich Media Conversations within Bb 9.1?

It is worth noting that many of the tools within Bb 9.1 support very similar types of interactions and collaborations.

For example, learners can post pictures, audio and video within the forum area using the file attachment toolbar. These icons provide a great way for you and your learners to share pictures, audio, and video. The icons on that row are Attach File, Attach Image, Add MPEG/AVI Content, Add Quicktime content, Add Audio Content, Add Flash/Shockwave Content, and Add Mashup.

You may also want to explore the use of the Bb Voice Tools that include Voice Email, Voice (Discussion) board, Voice Presentation, and Voice Podcaster.  Remember the process for getting certified with blogs and wikis? Educational Technology offers training in the Wimba Voice Tools, which is very helpful, and then once the training is completed, these tools are enabled for you. The schedule for workshops for Teaching and Learning with Wimba Voice Tools is in the Faculty Resource Center at

So you may want to just be inspired by the VoiceThread examples and then use the tools that within Bb.

Mashups — Using YouTube Video or Photos from Flickr or Picasa

Have you noticed the feature within Blackboard 9.1 for creating content that is called a “Mashup.”? A mashup describes content that is a combination of two or more data sources. When you add a mashup to your course site, the resource can be played directly within Blackboard, without learners going out to a new window or external website. The mashup choices suggested within Blackboard include YouTube, Flickr and Slideshare presentations. You are probably familiar with these, but here is a quick refresher and convenient links.

  • Flickris an online photo management and sharing resource. I like to start at this creative commons url on the Flickr site where the images are licensed under Creative Commons licenses, which means that most images can probably be used with appropriate attribution.
  • Slideshareis a site for sharing presentations, documents and PDF documents. Presentations from all types of conferences and webinars can be found here. I experimented here as well and posted my short presentationfrom the Madison conference here on the Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online.
  • YouTubeis the best-known site for hosting and sharing online videos. Many of the videos can be used to enhance discussions and to provide alternate points of view on course content. It is also quite easy for you and your learners to create short videos that explain core concepts or learning insights or do short demonstrations. One biology faculty had her students video themselves doing experiments.

Just a quick cautionary note about YouTube and web resources is wise at this point.  Be sure to view any of the YouTube resources in their entirety before adding them to your course site. Some videos can start out strong and then become less desirable. This is a good cautionary note for you to share with your students as well.

Wolframalpha, a Computational Knowledge Engine Resource

Wolfram Alphawas just released in 2009 and aims to be an “answer” or  “computational knowledge” resource, going much beyond the search engine. What does this mean? When we google a topic, the result is a set of web sites that probably hold the answer to our question, but that we have to check many of the sites to discern and extract the answer. Alternatively, with Wolfram Alpha, we can use free-from natural language to ask questions such as composition of oxygen or what are the per capita costs for health care in the US vs. Canada. The answer is then dynamically computed and returned in a graphical or table format. (In 2007 data, the per capita health care cost n the US is $7291 and $3,999 in Canada.)

So this tool is a sophisticated calculator robot that can understand language and “knows” over 10+ trillion pieces of data using primary sources that are continually being updated, has over 50,000 types of algorithms and equations to work with and has over 5,000 types of visual and tabular output choices. Here is a place to start with literally thousands of topicsand examples ranging from statistics and data analysis, socioeconomic data, and money and finance.

This resource can be used by learners to analyze, discuss and research thought-provoking questions in science, probability/statistics, economics, finance, etc.  For more ideas, check out the web site for educators. For more on how the tool works and the vision for its use, there is a video presentation from April 28 2009 by Stephen Wolfram at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard ( Wolfram is the creator of Wolfram|Alpha and Mathematica and a professor at the Harvard Law School.

Fake Wall – A Tool for Creating Personality Profile

FakeWallis another web 2.0 tool that may surprise us in its possibilities for creativity, collaboration and learning. FakeWall makes it possible to create fake profiles. We know that learners get very involved with content when they are encouraged to immerse themselves directly into an environment or a scenario.

With FakeWall, learners can create and then assume an identity of a real or imagined person and then immerse themselves into the likely beliefs, actions, and likely consequences. I think this tool has possibilities for creating profiles of key individuals in any discipline, or in creating and using simulated customer, patient or leader profiles. Check out the profiles of Benjamin Franklin and others at

I was intrigued enough by this tool that I started creating a profile for Lev Vygotsky, the Russian educational theorist so well known for his concept of the zone of proximal development. Here is a link to the very simple beginning of the Vygotskyprofile that I was creating. This is another tool that might be worth exploring for the concept and then implementing it within a Blackboard wiki, blog or forum. See what you think.

Meeting Spaces and Sharing at a Distance

One of the reasons learners resist collaborating and teaming is that it can be difficult to coordinate schedules and to find an easy, reliable, no-nonsense way of talking synchronously. Here are three free tools that can make sharing across distances as easy as placing a simple phone call.

1. WizIQ

While there are paid options, there are free academic options available.

2.  Any Meeting

This is another free conferencing and meeting service.

3.  Join Me

JoinMeis a free conferencing and screen sharing tool that learners might find useful for collaborating on wikis, blogs or presentations.  It is ideal for an on demand or ad-hoc gathering. An FAQgives all the details on using it, with no need to even create an account.

Wrap Up and a Resource for 100 Best Tools for 2010

The October 13thSLPA Faculty webinar that focused on great features of Bb 9.1 is available in archive. Lyna Matesi, a new SLPA faculty member who teaches Information Communication, shared how she uses a free tool — Jing— to provide narrated audio feedback on the first set of discussion posts with very positive response from her learners.  Don’t miss the other great hints in this webinar and watch for the next fall webinar coming soon.

If you want to take a quick look at more of the currently available tools, you may want to explore the Center for Learning and Performance Technologies in the UK. Jane Hart has sorted the 100 best tools for 2010into 12 different categories, such as meeting tools, photo sharing sites, collaborating tools, survey tools, etc. If you are looking for a specific tool for one of your needs, that is a good place to start for finding the top free or almost free learning tools.

For now, I hope you are intrigued enough to take a look at one or two of these tools that can help you and your learners add new dimensions of thought and creativity to your courses.


Boettcher, J. (2010).  eCoaching tip 84.  Have you thought of trying this? And course beginnings.  Spring 2010. This is in the SLPA Faculty webinar site.

Burden, K. & Atkinson, S. (2008). Evaluating pedagogical ‘affordances’ of media sharing Web 2.0 technologies: A case study. In Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? Proceedings ascilite Melbourne 2008.  Retrieved September 30, 2011 from

Dyment, J. E., O’Connell, T. S., & Boyle, I. (In press). The intersection of Web 2.0 technologies and reflective journals:  An investigation of possibilities, potential and pitfalls.  Retrieved October 1, 2011 from

Frydenberg, Mark. (2011). Welcome to class!  Please take out your cell phones! Campus Technology, Boston, MA, 2011. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from

Hey, T., Tansley, S., & Tolle, K. (Eds.). (2009). The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery.  Microsoft Research. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from

Johnson, L., Smith, R., Willis, H., Levine, A., and Haywood, K., (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report.  Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from

McLoughlin, C. & Lee, M. (2007). Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era. In ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher