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7 Free Academic Tools for Educators

7 Free Academic Tools for Educators

by Sharon Jumper, JD
August 28, 2017

Keeping up with academic tools and resources can be difficult, due to competing demands on our time and resources, as well as the plethora of applications and materials available. This article will highlight 7 FREE tools and resources that can be accessed by educators to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of student engagement and course delivery.

Instant Access to Electronic Textbooks

When you teach several different courses, having instant, free access to electronic versions of textbooks prevents clutter in your office. In the old days of higher education, academic services teams would send you textbooks before each class starts. That is rare today. Having electronic textbooks also makes working while mobile or traveling far easier. If you are involved in course development, the ability to sample from a variety of electronic textbooks makes selection of materials a breeze, without the need to meet with publisher sales representatives or wait on materials to arrive by mail. A VitalSource Faculty Sampling account will allow you instant, free access to the electronic versions of textbooks from most major publishers. Sampled e-texts can be then stored on VitalSource's Bookshelf for easy retrieval as you teach or develop a course. All you need to do to obtain approval for an account is fill out the electronic form using a faculty email account. They will need to verify your faculty status before access is granted; this can take up to ten days. The approval process can be expedited if you include a link to an online faculty directory for your institution.

Animated Video from Text

Animated videos can be a great tool to integrate into your courses. You can use them for announcements, demonstrations, discussions, case studies, and assignments. It is important to note that when you create videos for use in an online course, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the inclusion of closed captions. This requirement exists regardless of whether or not you've received notice of the need for an accommodation (Rabidoux & Rotterman, 2017).

Plotagonallows you to easily create animated videos, with a large variety of characters, settings, sound effects, music, and animations. It works on mobile and tablet devices, as well as laptops and desktops. It also automatically captions audio content and places it in the video, so all students can have the optimal experience. It's very intuitive to use. You select characters and scenes that you'd like to use, customize them from the clickable menu, and then type the dialog into the app, adding animation features from the menu as you go. It took me less than ten minutes to create the short demo video, Dogs are better than babies. Students can also use the app to create assignments or discussion posts - it's a great way to liven up the beginning of class introductions.

Dynamic Digital Canvas

As I've become more experienced in online teaching, course development, and instructional design, I've looked for ways to brighten up the appearance of the classroom announcements, module pages, and discussions. Students also get bored with just typing words into a course shell. Padlet is an easy-to-use, cloud-based tool that enables you to create an HTML page that can serve as a repository for content, links, and images (bulletin board, announcement, or module page). It also can be used as a collaborative digital canvas to allow students to post and position content. It works well for Wiki, blog, and discussion assignments.

Padlet is also a great tool if you teach the same or similar courses at multiple institutions where you have academic freedom to create your own course content, but the schools use different learning management systems (LMS). I can create a series of HTML-based Padlet module pages for a course that I teach at several institutions, then just link the module page. It comes in handy when you're teaching the same or similar classes in Blackboard, BrightSpace D2L, and Canvas. You simply make a copy of a module page, customize it to the particular institution, then link from the LMS. A sample of a module page that I've created can be found here.


Integration of game-based applications seeks to "to tap the motivational power of play: Its intensity, its competitiveness, and its subversive elements. Immersive role-playing exercises, he argues, promotes the intellectual friction that can, in John Dewey's words, 'shock us out of sheep-like passivity'" (Mintz, 2014). Games and competition can be powerful motivators and increase levels of student engagement.

There are many Web 2.0 gaming tools available. The one of the most widely used for synchronous sessions is Kahoot. Kahoot can be deployed as a formative assessment tool in a traditional on-ground classroom or used to liven up synchronous online class sessions. More formal applications of Kahoot include using it to assess comprehension of lectures in real-time, much as a student "clicker" does, or to record attendance and participation. Games can be played as individual players or team vs. team.

For an asynchronous game experience that you can build for use in a LMS, I recommend Quiz Works. Quiz Works allows students to race against the clock to answer questions correctly; their score is based on speed and accuracy. The scores are then published on a list so they can see where they stand in comparison to classmates, much as happens in a video arcade.

Web-Based Presentations

Two web-based presentation tools, in addition to the staid, tried, and true PowerPoint are Prezi and Sway. Each are great presentation tools not only for faculty, but also for students. Prezi allows you to present content in a non-linear fashion, zooming in and out of the digital canvas. The downsides of Prezi are that it is flash-based requires Internet access, and cannot be used offline unless you purchase a professional license. There is also evidence that viewing a Prezi can induce neurological reactions (headache/dizziness) in some students (Rowan, 2014). Prezi offers a basic level of service to all users at no cost. If you have a .edu e-mail address, you can get a higher level of "free" Prezi.

Sway is a cloud-based Microsoft product. Sway is a digital presentation that resembles an interactive e-book. When you start a new Sway, you can choose from basic templates or type in a keyword or two to have a custom template, including creative-commons licensed images and suggested topics for inclusion, generated for you. It is a great tool to use in student discussion, blog, and wiki assignments.

Graphic Design and Images

Although this article is about "free" resources, I would be remiss to not mention that the best, hands-down software for graphic design and images is Adobe Creative Cloud. Educator and Student licensing is available at markedly reduced prices, with monthly subscriptions of $19.99-$49.99, depending on the features you select in the package. I recommend getting a package that also includes Muse and/or Dreamweaver as well, because it will enable you to create HTML pages and websites.

A great free resource for beautiful graphic design and image editing with ease is Canva. It allows you to either use a template or create your own masterpiece via drag and drop. It is fairly easy to use, even though it lacks all the bells and whistles of Adobe Creative Suite. It can also be used as a collaborative tool for students in discussions, blogs, or wikis.

Teaching, Content, or Instructional Design Portfolios

When you're looking for online teaching, subject matter expert, or instructional design work, it's common for hiring managers to ask for samples of your work. You can't give them access to the LMS where you are teaching, of course. It is possible, however, to create sample courses within several of the LMS at no charge.

Course Sites by Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle each allow individual faculty to create free, fully functional LMS accounts and host courses (Blackboard limits you to five courses). Sakai allows individual faculty to create a sandbox/portfolio account, but students cannot be enrolled in it.

Want to Learn More?

The Babb Group's Professor Mentors and University Services team provide individual and group training on each of the items discussed in this article, as well as more advanced skills in classroom management, teaching, and instructional design.


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  • Jumper, S. (2017, August 23). Dogs are better than babies. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBd6cl8KHv8&feature=youtu.be
  • Jumper, S. (2017). Module 8: International business management. Retrieved from https://padlet.com/sharonjumper/tr3t8ziv1g0l
  • Mintz, S. (2014, December 14). A gamified approach to teaching and learning. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-beta/gamified-approach-teaching-and-learning
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  • Plotagon. (n.d.) Turn written text into animated videos. Retrieved on August 26, 2017, from https://plotagon.com
  • Rabidoux, S. & Rotterman, A. (2017, May 3). 5 tips for ADA-compliant inclusive design. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2017/05/03/tips-designing-ada-compliant-online-courses
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