The New Tech Tutors

Back when filmstrips and movie projectors were the only machines in the classroom, there was little need for extensive tech training. But now that computers have taken over, teachers have the added responsibility of ensuring their students are computer literate. Many schools are looking to Web-based tech tutorials for a painless way to get students (and teachers) up to speed.

For this review, we looked at three high-quality technology tutorials that are expressly intended for use in K-12 schools. Although all are Internet-based, each has a different approach to teaching computer skills. Both EasyTech and Connected Tech are aligned to state standards and designed for K-8 learners. But EasyTech teaches such specific subjects as presentation basics and graphing with spreadsheets, while Connected Tech develops software skills in the context of reading, math, science, and social studies lessons. The third program, Atomic Learning, focuses mainly on just-in-time training for specific software tasks.

EasyTech (Learning.com)

Composed of three major areas — a Technology Integration Curriculum; a Management System for planning, assessing, and reporting; and a Staff Development section for continuing education — EasyTech teaches technology skills through curriculum-based lessons, activities, practice, discussions, and quizzes.

Subjects and content vary by grade level, but all start with computer basics; third-graders go through database searches, while eighth-graders cover HTML. Lessons are animated and interactive, and they provide users a chance to practice what they just learned. If students aren't clear on the subject, they can also replay a lesson. Unfortunately, many students will have to replay lessons; there is too much material for early primary learners, presented too quickly for little ears and young minds. Even the third-grade lessons, rather long at 12 minutes, cover a lot of ground quickly.

Teachers can track progress through several report options, including by class, lesson, or student. Interactive unit quizzes, EasyTech's newest assessment tools for grades 3-8, quickly size up students' fundamental computing knowledge and test their proficiency in common software applications (not included in the Basic edition).

Another plus: a variety of PDF files, including a teacher's guide, writing tips, and a full scope and sequence, are readily available. EasyTech is also available in Spanish (for an extra fee), providing K-5 lessons and activities with Spanish audio as well as written text.

Connected Tech (Classroom Connect)

Connected Tech teaches students technology skills within the context of the core reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies curriculum. When every minute of class time counts, this is a great time-saver, because it allows teachers to integrate technology into what they are already teaching.

For example, after taking grade-level appropriate tutorials on e-mail and word processing, fifth-graders learn about the Civil War by reading real letters from Civil War soldiers. An online dictionary provides definitions for unknown words and links to Civil War sites provide details of the battles. Then students, pretending to be soldiers, write letters home after a battle of their choosing and send the letters as e-mail attachments. Other projects have students making digital storybooks for a younger audience, or examining Web sites about butterflies to create an Online Butterfly Guide. Many of the units are available in Spanish.

Teachers can browse Connected Tech for activities and other resources by technology topic, subject or software application.

Finding appropriate lessons is easy; teachers can browse for activities and other resources by technology topic, subject, or software application. Each lesson states the goals and objectives, prerequisite tutorials, necessary materials, and time allotment for the project. On the management side, teachers can check current and past assignments, flag some to assign later, track standards, and conduct assessments.

Also helpful are the numerous glossary terms, assessment rubrics, quizzes, and individual student tracking, as well as the online teachers guide. An added feature is Connected Tech's "Ready to Go! Sets" for each grade level, which help teachers cover the National Educational Technology Standards in just one hour per week.

Atomic Learning (Atomic Learning)

Atomic Learning provides short, easy-to-understand tutorial movies.

Of the three products reviewed here, Atomic Learning's Web-based tutorials are the most straightforward, as the company's sole focus is technology training. Through short, easy-to-understand tutorial movies, Atomic Learning provides simple training sessions in more than 40 of the most commonly used software applications for students and teachers. Its goal is clear: if teachers spend less time teaching technology, they have more time to focus on content.

Navigation is easy. There is no learning curve; users just pick a topic, click a link, and are instantly enrolled in a step-by-step, comprehensive class in the software of their choice. For example, there are 52 tutorials for Photoshop CS, covering basics, graphic tools, working with layers, and Web graphics. Duration and size are given for each clip, with movies ranging from just under a minute to approximately three minutes.

Atomic Learning's curriculum is appropriate for younger techno whizzes too, with tutorials on such kid-oriented programs such as Inspiration, Kidspiration, Timeliner, and the new Kid Pix Deluxe 4. All tutorials are also available in Spanish.

Teachers will appreciate Atomic Learning's extra curriculum tools and integration tips. The Activity Library offers specific lesson plans with detailed instructions, sample assignments, and clear objectives. The program also includes staff development ideas with hyperlinks to such additional resources as video examples of the major concepts presented. PDFs of implementation letters to parents and community and individual user tracking forms are also available.

Jamie Keller is an educational therapist and experienced classroom and movie-set teacher in Berkeley, Calif., and other locations.

DIY Tech Tutorials

Macromedia Captivate, $199
www.macromedia.com/resources/education/k12/special/robodemo

With Macromedia Captivate, even educators without scripting knowledge can create their own step-by-step demonstrations of computer tasks.

Authors simply click Record and Captivate captures their on-screen actions, with or without simultaneous audio narration. Educators can then go back to edit screens or audio, generate captions, and add highlighting. Advanced interactive options allow authors to insert quizzes or ask students to practice a skill. The final product can be exported as a Flash file, an executable CD, or a Microsoft Word document.

The remarkable ease of use is Captivate's greatest strength. Its intuitive interface allows even novice authors to quickly create simple and professional tutorials. Extensive editing options mean educators don't have to spend time re-recording to get mouse movement and narration just right. And the variety of export formats gives schools plenty of choices for distributing files to students and teachers.

Districts looking for ready-to-use technology training will be better off with one of the other programs reviewed this month. But larger districts with custom software or specialized training needs may find Captivate to be just the tool for authoring their own technology tutorials.

-Michelle Thatcher, T&L reviews editor