10 Things to Consider When Choosing Digital Tools for Students Ahead of the Curve

ByCatelyn Cantrell
Engaging study materials—whether print or digital—seem to be geared mostly toward students who are struggling. This is without a doubt a positive and necessary trend, but there is no reason to support one group and not the other. In fact, some tools work for a variety of student populations.  What I want to talk about is how to recognize and select tools for the students who are working beyond their grade level. Digital tools enable strong students to direct their learning to places outside the restrictions of the conventional classroom setting.
1. Purpose of the Tool. Before considering anything else, each digital tool selection should be made with a clear purpose in mind. Is the tool meant to prepare the student for standardized tests or is it meant to help students explore their more creative side? Although some tools may end up being used for multiple tasks, a specific goal is key to maximizing the tool’s value. It all begins with a single, simple question—What can the student do with the digital tool?
2. Context: Classroom, Home or Something New? Consider where the tool will be used. The context in which the tool is used will shape how the student uses  the tool.
3. Is the tool required or just something extra? Once you know the purpose and type of tool you’re looking for, determine how the tool will figure into the student’s existing inventory of tools. Is this tool going to be required for a class or other academic program? Is it just an extra way for the student to explore topic not covered during class? Figuring out these questions also help inform cost and time considerations.
4. Individual or Collaborative? Is this tool meant to give students a sense of community or is it meant for individual work? Some digital tools might provide those students at the top of the class a chance to connect with similar students. Educational technology affords them the chance to build not only academic abilities, but also the social skills at the heart of the learning process.
5. Costs and Savings. The cost of the tool is (of course) another factor to consider. Free and cheaper software is easier to access and may have a larger user community. Also, a digital tool may actually end up saving money for schools, teachers and students. So the question may actually be about how much money the tool will save you, rather than cost you. If money is really tight, frame it as a learning experience and bring students into the conversation. Advanced students are often inclined to help solve problems!
6. Saving Time for Busy Students. Digital tools often save students and teachers more than just cash. Another thing to consider when comparing tools is whether or not they can make studying more efficient. Technology can help students learn smarter, not harder. Try to find tools that follow this idea. Advanced students often already have intense schedules, so why not find ways to make use of usually wasted time?
7. Familiarity with Technology. There should be a consideration about how comfortable the student is with digital tools. Think about tools they have used previously and how they compare to the potential selection. Even if the student lacks experience with digital tools, a new tool could be a valuable learning experience.
8. Personal and Academic Interests. It is important to think about the student’s strengths and interests. A tool can either allow a student to push their already strong skills to the next level or let the student work on an interesting, but unfamiliar subject. Technology is all about removing limitations and building connections. A quality digital tool should connect the advance student with new, useful content and experiences.
9. Chances to Explore and Create. Many digital tools also equip students with the freedom to explore their own ideas. As project-based learning becomes increasingly popular, these tools will be useful to advanced students as they embark on projects for class and those emerging from their own unique interests.
10. Feedback and Practice Opportunities. Digital tools can provide students with the chance to take risks with the material they are learning. Some can also provide educators and parents with insight about the real capabilities of their students.
Some digital tools also provide a more comfortable environment for practicing material. Often, more advanced students are reticent to practice material if they are unsure about it. A tool which provides useful feedback without any potential for low grades may be an appropriate choice for students to practice while also not worrying about test scores or embarrassment. Some digital tools also help students grow familiar with environments in addition to content. This works well for those bright students who are entering test preparation time later this spring.
Education technology crosses over barriers between learners and content. With this in mind, digital tools and advanced students seem meant for each other. A well-chosen digital tool will connect the advanced student with materials once outside the limits of their existing classwork. Always keep in mind that these students will often come up with their own ways to incorporate technology in their education. In fact, it’s second nature to most of them. So, be sure to include students in the conversation.  Make choosing the tool a learning experience in addition to the technology itself!
Catelyn Cantrell is a soon-to-be graduate from the University of Florida and an intern with Omninox Publishing in Gainesville, Florida, a developer of interactive guides for Advanced Placement® Courses. After graduation, she will begin a master’s degree in English Education and continue taking steps toward a teaching career. Follow Catelyn on Twitter at @cantrell_cj.

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Dave Guymon

Catelyn, I love the systematic approach to evaluating education tools you have laid out here. Often, the glitz and glam of whatever is popular serves as the impetus to adopt a tool in our own classroom practices. However, as you alluded to, if we start with "what" instead of "why", then we are not considering the long term effects of a given tool. You have obviously given this topic much consideration. Your knowledge and understanding shine through your writing. I gained a lot from reading this post. And I will certainly put future instructional tools through the gauntlet of the 10 characteristics that you delineated here. Thanks for sharing, and keep doing it.

Catelyn Cantrell

Thanks for the comment, Dave! I got a lot out of writing it ...it makes me want to work on being more intentional in my choices with digital tools as both a student and someone interested in education. As you put it--thinking of the "why," not just the "what."I'm looking forward to reading more of what you are sharing too!

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