There are many reasons for making your classroom paperless. Beyond the ecological ones of saving paper and hours of time and stress spent in front of a photocopier to produce multiple handouts that end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. There are also the more pedagogical drivers of building students’ digital literacies and making our materials more interactive and engaging. Digital materials are also a great way to make good use of those students’ mobile devices and keep their attention on using the screen for learning rather than other distractions.
In this article I’d like to share with you a few of the tools and applications that I use in my training sessions and materials design work to cut out the paper and add some opportunities for the development of digital literacy skills and a greater degree of student autonomy.
Back Channel Chat
The first and primary tool that I use in all of my classes and training sessions is a backchannel. A backchannel is a type of online chatroom where you and your students can interact through text and share links and digital materials.
My Back Channel of choice at the moment is: http://backchannelchat.com/ This enables me to create a chat room that all my students can join using a simple code. I can then set tasks for them and share resources for the tasks there.
Once the students are in the back channel, any materials I share open directly on their mobile device, so I don’t have the wasted time of trying to get them to type complex URLs into the address bar of their browser.
BackChannelChat has been purpose built for teaching and so it has a lot of useful additional features for moderating comments, pinning tasks to the top of the window and for locking the room when you aren’t there.
Although there’s a perfectly good free version I pay a subscription fee of $15 a year and this gives me some additional features that include creating multiple rooms, and preparing files, links and polls before class, so when I’m in class it’s easier and quicker to click and share the materials I want my students to use.
The QR Code Generator
QR codes are great if you want to get materials onto your students’ digital devices really quickly and you don’t want to set up a back channel. All the students need to do is to open their QR code scanner, point their phone at the code and they can instantly download, images, video, audio, links to websites or text onto their device.
This can make working with digital media so much easier and your students can each have a copy on their phone, so for example if you are doing a listening or viewing activity, students can listen at their own pace and stop and rewind wherever they like.
QR codes are easy to create. Just copy a link to whatever media you want to share with your students and paste it into a site like: https://www.the-qrcode-generator.com/ This will produce an image code that you can save and add to a presentation slide, poster or paper worksheet.
Your students can download a free QR code scanner from: https://tapmedia.co.uk/more-apps.htm
If, like most teachers, you already have quite a few worksheets and lesson materials that you have created using something like MS Word you can easily convert these to online materials. These may just be text or they may also have links to websites, video or audio that students have to copy into their web browser.
Using https://telegra.ph/ you can quickly and easily convert these worksheets into web-based worksheets that you simply share a link to through the backchannel or with a QR code.
Telegra.ph is very simple to use. You just give the document a title and a date or the name of the class and then add the text or instruction. You can paste in any links to digital materials and if you have videos that you want students to watch just paste in the link and the video will appear in your worksheet. The click on ‘Publish’ and share the link with your students.
If you really want to take your materials design to the next level, then you must try: https://www.genial.ly Genially is a web-based HTML5 editor and it allows you to create very dynamic and interactive materials.
One of the great things about Genially is that it has lots of really nicely designed templates that you can adapt and add your own content to as well as giving you access to lots of images, gifs, icons and animated art work that you can add to your materials.
There are lots of educational templates too, and these are simple to edit. The educational section includes quizzes, posters, infographic templates as well as presentations. Once you have created your materials you can simply share a link to them with your students and they will work on any mobile device in the browser, so no need for downloading apps.
Here’s an example worksheet that I created using Genially: A Trip to Cambridge [https://view.genial.ly/5c41e2e368cf4e1f866668c2]
In order to really develop our students writing skills for the digital world, the writing tasks we use need to be digital and collaborative. To achieve this I use: https://primarypad.com
This is a great tool that enables you or your students to create a simple unique piece of digital paper. Any student that has a link to the piece of paper can then write on and edit it.
The contributions of each students are then colour coded and matched to their name. There is also a chat window that runs along side the text so you can interact with students while they write and give encouragement.
PrimaryPad is very quick and simple to use and doesn’t require students to log in. They can use the site to create documents, write text and then share the link to enable another student to peer edit. You can even have groups of students working on the text at the same time. (Beware of having more than four students on one text as this can become chaotic.)
As a novice teacher I spent many a lesson setting time limits and trying to get my students to gist read text. This always ended the same way, with most students stopping to check words they don’t understand and slowly plodding their way through to the end of the text.
Nowadays I have a solution to the problem and it comes in the form of a cue prompter: https://www.cueprompter.com/. Using the cue prompter and a projector I can paste or type in any text and then convert it to a scrolling text that students can read from the screen.
Once I’ve pasted in my text I can select the text size and then when I launch the cue prompter I can also select the speed at which the students read. Then I just set my gist questions and click on ‘Forward’ and the text starts to scroll. It’s easy to replay and pause the text later if I want to focus on specific elements.
In this way I can take control of the speed that my students read at, stop them from checking every word in their dictionary and keep their attention up and on the screen.
If you believe as I do that there is more to taking notes than listening to a teacher and trying to write down and remember what they say, then you may well enjoy https://www.milanote.com/.
Milanote is a great tool for taking and sharing notes from online and offline sources. It’s a little like a digital cork board that you can pin interactive sticky notes to. You can add to-do lists, note cards, upload documents and images or links to websites and videos. This is an example that has some research I was doing into process writing: https://app.milanote.com/1F9rWA11C0YheR/process-writing (This one is locked so you can’t edit it.)
You can get students to use this to do their own research into subjects you want them to explore, or you can set up some resources that they research like this one I used to get my students planning a trip to Cambridge: https://app.milanote.com/1F9ovc11C0WDeZ/cambridge.
Milanote works really well on mobile devices too and it’s easy to get students to share their notes with you and each other.
Online File storage
One of the great things about going paperless is that you can have all of your teaching materials available wherever you are and you don’t need to carry an extra bag for them. Putting all your teaching materials onto a cloud-based service such as Google Drive, DropBox or Mega enables you to access them from your phone or any computer within minutes. Most web-based services enable you to share links with your students directly from the service you use, so there is no need to email round large attachments. You can just paste the links into your back channel or create a QR code that enables students to download them.
Screencasting for Homework
Lastly, when it comes to marking homework, digital can make that so much easier and more effective too. Instead of reading through your students’ hand written submissions and trying to find space to comment, you can get them to submit digital homework and then use a screen recording tool like Jing or ScreencastOmatic to talk them through the work and any improvements you think they could make. Then when you are finished you can send them the video with your feedback and they can watch it as many times as they need to.
So, these simple free apps can provide you with everything you need, not only to make your classroom paperless, but to enhance the materials you already use, help build students’ digital literacy skills and keep your students engaged in media rich content.
If you are looking for a way to gain more confidence teaching English online and specialise in a specific area of ELT, you could consider one of our 30-hour online teacher development courses with expert tutor support.
Nik Peachey is a freelance writer, teacher trainer and consultant specialising in digital publishing, online course development and the development of digital resources for teachers. Since 1992 he has worked all over the world as a teacher, trainer and project manager. He was Global Head of Learning for Macmillan’s online English school EnglishUp from 2014 to 2016. In 2016 he won his second British Council Award for Innovations (ELTon) and co-founded PeacheyPublications Ltd.