For many school librarians, one of the consistent highlights of the ALA annual conference in recent years has been the unveiling of the AASL’s lists of top apps and websites for educators and students. On June 22, during the Association’s awards reception, attendees got their first peek at the latest tools to be honored. We spoke with ed tech experts and the chairs of the Best Websites and Best Apps for Teaching and Learning 2019 committees about the new selections.
Sherry Gick, director of innovative learning at Five-Star Technology Solutions in Frankfort, Ind., served as chair of the Best Websites Committee. “This was my third year on the committee, and first year as chair, and it was actually the last year for the Committee,” she notes. Beginning this year, the Best Apps and Best Websites Committees have been merged to form the Best Digital Tools for Teaching and Learning Committee. “That makes the most sense, because most things work cross-platform,” Gick says.
Gick’s counterpart, Best Apps chair Mary Morgan Ryan, who is chief technology, communications, and data services official for the Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, Ill., agrees that the change to a single committee keeps pace with tech trends. “Cross-platform is the way the world is moving, so AASL is moving that way as well,” she says.
Ed tech advances led to both lists making a shift last year, as well. Previously, the titles were sorted by such categories as social networking, content resources, and digital storytelling. “Last year, we made the switch to just recognize the websites in general and then identify which of the AASL standards they met,” Gick explains. “The categories just didn’t make any sense to us anymore, because the capacity of websites is so broad. I may have a website that I can tell a digital story with but can also be used as a curation tool, and it may have some social media aspects to it. Limiting them by category just felt artificial at this point.”
The Best Apps committee found itself discussing some new equity issues this year, especially in light of the growing popularity of virtual reality and augmented reality tools. “It’s worth noting that we want these apps to be as usable for educators as possible,” Ryan says. “I think the equipment question in AR and VR is an interesting one. We selected an AR app, Figment, and a VR app, Sites in VR, this year. But there were some apps that required a specific type of headset or something like that to use them, and we decided as a group that although they might be amazing apps, we weren’t ready to put those on the list,” she says.
At the awards ceremony, Gick presented the websites list using one of the tools her committee had recognized. “I had them all in a Wakelet,” she says. Free platform Wakelet allows users to curate and organize various types of content (videos, articles, links, images, tweets) that they can save and share. Gick is a fan of the platform’s versatility and wanted to spotlight that for her colleagues. “My charge to the committee was to demonstrate the value of these sites,” she says. “Don’t just show me a cute video of what the website itself features on what it can do. Show me how a teacher is using it, find me a tweet of a student using it, show me how this is really innovative. With a Wakelet, we were able to showcase that and bring in a lot of different examples of the quality of the sites.”
We’ve compiled a few highlights from the AASL’s lists here, annotated with some expert commentary. For the full lists, visit ala.org/aasl/awards/best.
Green Screen by Do Ink
Simplifies the making of green screen photos and videos.
An expert’s take: “I’ve been using Green Screen for over five years and it is still the best green screen app on the block,” says Heather Lister, founder and CEO of Construct Learning, and president of the International Society of Technology Educators Librarians Network. “Its simple, yet professional, quality makes green screening a breeze. It’s one of those apps I couldn’t live without.”
Students mix and match elements of famous artwork to create their own images while they learn about artists.
An expert’s take: “This app allows users to manipulate pieces of art masterpieces to create their own artwork,” Ryan says. “For example, there will be a line of noses from all types of different art masterpieces. You can select the nose that you want to use, and you can also look at the original art piece and learn about it; there is also text about the artist. It’s fabulous, because you can create your stuff and save your image to use wherever you want to.”
Helps teachers develop interactive lessons in a one-on-one setting.
Platform: iOS and Android
An expert’s take: “As a school one-on-one with iPad Minis, Nearpod was an app we used regularly,” Lister recalls. “Creating interactive lessons was simple, and I could import slides from other places if I needed to. Nearpod also has a huge library of pre-created lessons from places like Common Sense Media, iCivics, and ReadWorks. Sending the entire class to a site or a video, having a backchannel discussion, or doing a quick poll were all things I could do in Nearpod instead of using three separate apps.”
Novel Effect uses voice recognition to create interactive soundtracks for children’s books. As users read a selected book aloud, they trigger sound effects and music from the app.
An expert’s take: “Novel Effect is so simple, yet so incredible,” Lister says. “By simply turning on the microphone on your phone, Novel Effect turns a readaloud into an immersive experience by adding music and sound effects. My own children love this. There are over 200 books in their catalogue and they’re adding more regularly.”
Wolfram Alpha uses algorithms, the Wolfram Knowledgebase (a repository of curated expert knowledge derived from primary sources), and AI technology to compute expert-level answers to users’ questions.
Platform: iOS and Android
An expert’s take: “It’s like an encyclopedia, but it also ‘thinks’ and uses algorithms to answer questions for you,” Ryan says. “I always think of the kids who, like me when I was younger, enjoy just flipping through an encyclopedia. This is that, but on steroids, because you can ask it a question and it gives you all kinds of different ways to think about that.”
Provides a free curriculum for teaching computer science and coding to kids.
An expert’s take: “I do a lot of STEM and maker education professional development, and with that come a lot of teachers interested in teaching computer science and coding,” Lister says. “If they don’t have programming experiences, this can be overwhelming and daunting. Fortunately, Google’s CS First has everything you need to jump-start a computer science program. They will even mail you a free kit of resources. I love that they don’t teach computer science just for the sake of teaching kids to code. Instead, they teach kids how to code through activities like game design, digital storytelling, and digital art.”
Connects classrooms around the world through video exchanges and activities.
An expert’s take: “The whole basis of Empatico is sparking empathy, curiosity, and kindness—I love that,” Gick says. “And it’s not just one-off connections; we went on to do a lot of meet and greet–type Google Hangouts, or connect with a group for World Read Aloud Day. This is about teaching our students respectful communication, recognizing different perspectives, and reflecting after these connections happen. It takes the hard part off of teachers and librarians as far as figuring out who to connect with and what types of critical thinking questions to ask—it bundles everything together nicely. It’s currently for grades K–5, but it’s growing.”
Provides free resources to educators to be used for the ultimate goal of “educating children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.”
An expert’s take: “Teaching Tolerance has been one of my go-to resources since I began teaching,” Lister says. “Their magazine always addressed the tough topics and guided me in addressing them with knowledge and compassion. In addition to the magazine, their website is chock-full of lesson plans, film kits, activities, discussion guides, and more.”
Users can curate and organize myriad content to save and share. (Wakelet was also named one of the year’s Best Apps for Teaching and Learning.)
An expert’s take: “One of my most used tools over the last year has been Wakelet,” Lister says. “Unlike a traditional bookmarking tool, I can curate everything digital on Wakelet, including PDFs, images, and even tweets. If I’m writing an article or giving a workshop, I can include everything in a Wakelet collection and easily share the link or QR code. Adding collaborators is a breeze, and I can even embed the collection on my blog or website. They have a huge (and incredible) community of educators (#WakeletWave) that share how they and their students use Wakelet.”