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Digital Tools for Education – 5 Key Considerations

Digital Tools for Education - LEARN
CC image courtesy of on Flickr

As we're getting closer to launching our new MSc in Digital Marketing (can't wait!), I've been investigating various digital tools for education and teaching to help ensure that our first group of students get the best learning experience possible.

Our motto is to 'practise what we preach', and as such we not only have some excellent industry people involved with the course delivery, but we will also be using the tools of the trade and get our students to do digital marketing from day one.

Doing this research into existing software used in education, alongside evaluating the tools I'm already using as a Digital Marketer, has inspired me to  come up with a few tips that I hope will serve as a guideline and help others working in this space who are trying to find solutions.

Digital Tools for Education - 5 Key Considerations

The underlying motto, and my personal passion, is to practise what you preach. I can't fathom why someone would e.g. teach Marketing, but completely disregard Marketing basics such as ensure consistent branding in their materials, or take into account the customers' (i.e. students') needs when it comes to delivery.  I'm sure plenty of people (including me) have experienced lecturers reading huge amounts of text from an 80-slides long PowerPoint, resulting in the audience not taking in anything, or very little. This is inexcusable really, but even more so in a subject such as Marketing that is supposed to put the customer first.

My general view is that you want to teach your subject in a way that demonstrates your subject knowledge through your actions, and not just in a way that broadcasts facts and theories. Show, not tell! And tools can really help with that. What follows are five key considerations to start thinking about what digital tools and software to use, in an educational environment.

(1) Digital tools should be used by industry

Digital Marketing ToolsThis one is pretty self-explanatory and quite basic. Choose digital tools and software that is actually being used by the industry.  What's the point in spending a lot of time on training students in software and tools that they won't need once they leave University?

I can't speak authoritatively for subjects other than (Digital) Marketing, but I'm sure there will be standard or preferred applications in other creative industries too. For example, if you want to get into the video game industry, then your Game Design degree will hopefully teach you 3ds Max rather than Maya.

(2) Software should not be a walled garden (inward-looking)

Google Drive IconThis one might be controversial and there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer. I personally really don't much see the point in VLEs (virtual learning environments) that are  'walled garden' and not used by anyone else other than the actual institution. Many education providers use Moodle, an open-source learning platform, but I have to be honest I'm not a big fan  - primarily because I think it's more important for students to use tools and software that are used in industry / in the real world (see also point (1)).

That's why I'm excited about recent developments such as the JISC framework agreement with Google Apps for Education. What it means is that it's now much easier for UK Universities and Colleges to sign up to and use Google Apps as a tool for education. The JISC contract takes care of  important issues like security, legal and data compliance etc. which means institutions can use the cloud-based software with peace of mind.

Importantly, Google Apps are used quite extensively in business, so you'll be killing two birds with one stone: (1) an effective, modern e-learning environment while students are at University, and (2) very transferable skills with smooth transition to the real world.

(3) Digital tools should be free or freemium

MailChimp logoMy third consideration when choosing digital tools for education is that they should ideally be free. This doesn't need much explanation. Universities are not-for-profit / charities, and as such can't much afford to be paying for tools left, right and centre. It's also often the case that requirements for teaching are served by a tool's Basic version, in terms of no. of users / accounts needed, storage space, functionality, and so on (as opposed to, say, Business or Enterprise). Finally, when assessing which software to use, it's good to be able to try out quite a number of different tools and test them first, before they are let loose on students. Overall, it makes sense to give priority to software that is either free or freemium.

I'm a huge fan of MailChimp (who isn't!) for precisely that reason, as well as Trello - these are excellent digital marketing tools whose  basic (freemium) version is ideal for education, charities, SMEs, etc.

The smart thing and indeed benefit for these tool providers is that early (basic) adoption breeds familiarity which in turn breeds loyalty amongst its user base. If I ever have a say again on what software gets bought at Enterprise level, I sure know where I'll turn: to the digital tools that I know best and have come to love through their freemium version.  It's quite a smart marketing strategy since, while the freemium version costs nothing, the companies benefit from many happy users who evangelise and promote the tools on their behalf (like I'm doing here, just now). And this in turn generates brand awareness and leads,  which in turn increases the likelihood of sales and uptake of both the freemium and the paid versions. Win win! Or to use Marketing jargon: this is a good example of value exchange. 

(4) Tools and platforms should be used and usable by students

This is another fairly easy one and one I can cover quickly using just one example. Should I use a Google Plus Community, or a Facebook Group as the learning community for our students? Yes, I'm a bit of a Google fan girl but on this occasion Facebook wins hands down because no one uses G+.

Remember the first rule of Marketing: it's about your customers, and about responding to their needs. A customer-centric approach means that you optimise the learning environment for your students, and make their user experience as easy and convenient as possible. Hence Facebook - don't just dictate what you (or Google) think is best.

(5) Digital tools should be mobile first

This is probably THE most important criterion. A no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, but unfortunately this aspect is somewhat neglected in discussions about digital tools for education.

Samsung S5 vs iPhone 5S
CC image courtesy of Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr

Here are the facts: Most forecasts predict that smartphone penetration in the UK will reach 75% by the end of 2014 (see e.g. the Internet Advertising Bureau UK's prediction from January 2014, or the Guardian's theoretical but data-based forecasts from April 2014).

Thinking about students', and indeed my own digital consumption behaviour, the smartphone is often the first 'go to' digital device. For agile, effective learning, then, tools and software need to be mobile first (e.g. have a mobile / responsive website or an app). It's really important to enable students to complete tasks and study no matter what device they're on! 

While this doesn't apply to all tasks and certainly not to written assignments, I feel that general stuff such as reading required articles / blogs, communicating and collaborating with your peers, asking your lecturer questions etc. ought to all be doable from a mobile device.

This to me seems an obvious conclusion given digital culture, and where your audience is these days. I'm not sure this consideration can be found on anyone's agenda yet (please do point out any worthy initiatives in this area).

A mobile-first or mobile-optimised approach to teaching and learning, in my view, is essential in this day and age. Customer-centricity, the pillar of modern marketing, means to allow students to study wherever they are and whatever device they're on. See also point (4).

Overall conclusions

Child with iPad
CC image courtesy of Devon Christopher Adams on Flickr

It's probably never been more difficult to get and keep your students' attention, and engage them in a productive, active and fun learning environment. I strongly believe that we as educators have a responsibility to teach in a fresh, modern way, that takes as its starting point real student needs and digital consumption behaviours, rather than knocking out the same old, same old, using 20th century techniques.

While my colleagues and I will be deploying these methods for our new MSc in Digital Marketing, an innovative approach of using digital tools for education is not just for creative subjects. The requirements of digitally native students is something that needs greater attention across the board, given the UK and Scottish Government's digital first approach, and I feel that we as educators ought to do our best. We're at the frontline of teaching the next generation after all!

Most importantly, using the right digital tools make teaching and learning much more fun.


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