For many schools, the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the virus across the United States have been unprecedented. This has left educators at many extreme disadvantages, from online curriculum creation to figuring out the best way to distribute content and support students throughout the process. Many teachers are probably now wondering, do I really know how to use online or digital learning now that I don’t even have a physical classroom to conduct my lessons? Is it still possible to create learning continuity as recommended by the CDC while distance learning?
Fortunately, there are a number of easy, low-tech and cost-free ways that schools can bridge the communication gap with students over the next few months to ensure STEAM lessons not only are delivered, but teachers and students alike have the ability to engage and interact with one another through robust online platforms.
Depending on an educator’s time, technical proficiency, and curricular methods, there are a number of communication tool options that can integrate seamlessly into lessons and ensure students have a way to not only converse with their teacher, but with one another.
We’ve rounded up eight of the top free tools schools can use to ensure communication becomes one less thing to worry about while students are out of the physical classroom.
Tip: Depending on your students’ grade level, it’s important to work with parents and your technology team to ensure students get prior permission before signing up for any account below.
Free Communication Tools for Teachers for Online Learning
- Facebook Groups –Almost everyone has a Facebook account, and Facebook makes it easy to create a private group where users can post, reply and share problems, ideas and feedback. For educators, Facebook also provides a livestream feature where lessons can be conducted straight from home. Livestream videos are saved to the page for easy reference, and students can comment directly on the stream with questions or comments. Even better, the comments are saved on the saved video, so educators have a record of who participated or answered any follow up questions after the stream. If educators want to stream a presentation, app or lesson, Facebook also offers a Chrome extension that easily allows teachers to show exactly what they want students to see.
- Instagram Stories – Yet another platform that most people have accounts on today, Instagram Stories is a unique way to share a message. Educators can create a private Instagram profile for their class and have students follow the account and post daily lessons in their story and highlights in their post. Instagram Stories lets users view who has watched their story, so teachers will know who has checked in for the day. In addition, they can ask students to comment on posts or tag their work using hashtags or directly tagging the account. The downside to this method is that hashtags or photo tags may be public, so a student’s work may not stay private. As a workaround, educators could ask that students direct message them their solutions.
- YouTube Live – YouTube Live is another great way to gather students in one place while an educator shares content and has a host of features. First, YouTube Live streams offer a private, unlisted stream capability to ensure that only users you share your stream link with will have access to your stream and thus your content. Also, if you are worried about having too many students on a microphone talking at once (or students not having access to a microphone), YouTube has a live chat feature directly next to the stream so students can chat with one another to ask questions or comment as the educator streams the lesson. For students who already have Google accounts, this can be a huge plus.
- Discord – As a platform used already by the gaming community, Discord is a powerful free option to connect users and share content. Discord works by creating one group (called a server) and categorizing it into sections (called channels). Each channel can be either a text channel or a voice channel. In addition, Discord allows live streaming capabilities of up to 50 people, which was recently increased from 10 due to their response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help remote professionals and learners. Discord can be fully customized and comes with tons of permissions. This platform would be an excellent choice for teachers who want to organize a class into groups or even allow a classroom space organized by a learning environment, a hangout when learning is done, or a place to go for additional support. Discord does require a free account and download of their software.
- Slack – Slack, like Discord, is a similar tool used primarily in the working world as a communication tool that utilizes channels to organize conversations that would be catered directly for your class. Creating a Slack Team is simple, and creating channels to organize by teams, projects or categories is also effortless. What’s different about Slack versus Discord is that direct messages are easier to contain in one place (say, if one student wanted to reach out to another, they could find them easily right in the team. Additionally, Slack offers group voice calling. The downside to Slack is their lack of a powerful streaming or screenshare capability. However, paired with an additional tool, Slack could make a great compliment to your online teaching toolkit. Slack can be used with Google Single Sign-on, making it easy to create an account with Google-friendly schools.
- Google Hangouts – If you’re looking for a stream-only solution that would be private and relatively easy to conduct, Google Hangouts is a great option. Google Hangouts allows for up to 150 people to join a call and also allows people to join a voice call, share video and screen share. The downside to Google Hangouts is that it requires a Google account, microphone and can be tricky for large groups, especially for large groups of students who may not understand how to mute their microphones when an educator is trying to conduct a lesson.
- Zoom – Another private, stream-friendly solution, Zoom is a great video and screen sharing tool. Zoom’s free plan allows up to 100 people in a 40 minute meeting at a time, and hosts of each meeting can customize settings to control participants audio, video and screen share settings. This would ensure students don’t run into the problem that Google Hangouts may have, where students may end up taking control of screen share or talking over one another if they forget to mute their microphone. The downside of Zoom’s free plan is that free meetings are capped at the 40 minute time block and students need to install an application to make Zoom run.
- Skype – Finally, Skype is another powerful tool similar to Google Hangouts that allows up to 50 people at a time to join a call in privacy. Skype also allows for both video calls and screen sharing, so educators can stream lesson content and presentations. Calls are not capped by time, but similarly to Google Hangouts, hosts do not easily have control over who may be speaking or sharing their screen if educators do not have a business account. Skype also requires a download to their computer and free account. However, educators can create Skype Group chats for students to text chat with one another after a lesson is streamed.
Tip: If your technology team is swamped with requests and unable to answer questions on how to best help you get started with an online communication tool, try reaching out to your preferred online curriculum provider to get custom recommendations on how your content could easily be shared on a platform.
Get More STEAM Resources or Help Getting Online Today
At SAM Labs, we know that right now is a critical time for educators to ensure student success. That’s why we’re working around-the-clock to provide the resources, knowledge and consultation schools need to keep things running online. Check out these other great offers and tools to keep your digital classroom humming while physical schools remained closed throughout the rest of the year.
Special Limited-Time Alpha Kit Offer for Online Learners
For a limited time, we’re heavily discounting our most popular at-home STEAM kit for students so that they can continue learning at home. Each kit can be used by 2-3 students and comes with responsive, bluetooth-enabled blocks that connect to the free SAM Space app. Our blocks also integrate with common household and classroom-friendly materials, such as LEGO and Sphero. The kit also contains over 60 curricular lessons aligned to Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade, 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, and Grade 5.
To take advantage of this offer, use code HOMECODING at checkout to get 35% off the STEAM Alpha Kit.
Request a Custom Consultation with our Education Consultants
We have a team of support staff ready to get you online with your STEAM curriculum from SAM Labs and can help you every step of the way, whether it’s through choosing your communication tools, helping you deliver your lessons or even professional development options. If you’re looking for a digital partner to support your online STEAM learning initiatives, contact us today.
More Free STEAM Content and Tools
Looking for more content to add to your toolkit? We have you covered. Check out our:
- Free Virtual STEAM Curriculum
- STEAM and Learn to Code Courses
- STEAM and Maker Kit Bundle
- STEAM vs. STEM Learning for K-12: The True Definitions, Differences and Best Practices
- The Ultimate Edtech Grant Writing Guide and List of Grants
Written by Eleanor Jacobson
I’m an edtech writer who’s passionate about changing the world one classroom at a time. When not spreading the news about the latest in K-12 technology, you’ll find me geeking out about the latest startups or video games and adding to my ’80s toy collection.
Eleanor is an EdTech writer who’s passionate about changing the world one classroom at a time. When not spreading the news about the latest in K-12 technology, you’ll find her geeking out about the latest startups or video games and adding to her ’80s toy collection.