Looking to Enhance Your Online Course for Free? Checkout This Top 10 List

Image of student on Zoom call with professor on screen.

Published November 5, 2020

Researching online is difficult. Google has morphed from a search engine into an artificial intelligent behemoth, and figuring out the precise key words to find exactly what you're looking for is a challenge. However, despite its giant-like spirit, if you don’t know how to search with Google, you’re stuck with endless and potentially, meaningless results.

“As I often explained to my students, perfection is not expected, but effort is expected. ”

Finding the top 10 educational digital tools was, and is, impossible. As I often explained to my students, perfection is not expected, but effort is expected. I adopted this mindset as I set out searching for this top 10 list that I tasked myself with. I had to. Googling “top 10 educational digital tools” returned 1.69 billion search results! I felt like Indiana Jones searching for the Ark of the Covenant or the Buffalo Bills searching for their first Super Bowl win. While my top 10 list may differ from many of the 1.69 billion results, I spent time choosing digital tools that could be incorporated into any online course. My objective was to identify tools that could be integrated into your online course simply and free* (*the basic plans are free). Additionally, I wanted to find digital tools that addressed and supported the most common concerns we receive in our faculty consult requests at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Educational Innovation.

The top 10 list that follows will help you create interactive and engaging activities, establish a strong learning community, incorporate authentic assessments and encourage students to become self-regulated learners. If you need support or guidance incorporating these tools into your course, you can request a faculty consult here. Our small, but mighty Learning Design team is here to help you.

Engaging and interactive activities

Padlet can assist you in making your class come alive in real time. Do you remember the school bulletin board competitions? They were amazing! Think of Padlet as a virtual bulletin board that encourages all of your students to participate. If you’re looking for a digital tool that can help your students participate in a different way, Padlet is a great option. Students are able to share simultaneously during a class discussion and/or collaborate outside of class. You are able to create a variety of items such as a simple question and answer activity or a larger, summative project like a collaborative wiki. For more ideas on Padlet’s versatility click here.

ShowMe is an interactive whiteboard. Many teachers have begun to incorporate the flipped classroom model with ShowMe. You’re able to create lessons and activities for your students, and your students are able to show you their work via the whiteboard. The only downside to ShowMe is that it is only available from the Apple App Store. ShowMe is not available for Android or Windows. Regardless of this downside, for iPad fans, this application is an amazing learning and teaching tool.

Think of Office Lens as a pocket scanner. You’re able to take pictures of anything you can think of and edit and save them to the cloud. While there are many applications that do turn your smartphone into a scanner, what separates Office Lens from the pack is that it has Microsoft Office integration. The scanned items can be converted into a Word Doc and/or a PowerPoint presentation. What’s even better is that you can still create PDFs. Your students can now show their work more easily and they can upload it into UB Learns. Office Lens is a versatile tool that easily integrates a variety of digital items into the Microsoft Office Suite.

 Spiral is another versatile tool that can be easily integrated into your online course. It consists of four (4) tools:

  1. Quickfire – create informative assessments like comprehension checks easily. Students are able to respond in real-time right from their smartphone. Assessment questions and answers vary widely from traditional multiple-choice questions to polls to drawings.
  2. Discuss – import your PowerPoint presentation or other documents/PDFs. This tool allows you to incorporate many different teaching models (e.g., flipped, asynchronous, synchronous). You’re able to embed questions and have your students engage and interact with each other.
  3. Team Up – students can collaborate with each other on presentations live, no matter where they are. There is even a whiteboard that students can use to share ideas and revisions.
  4. Clip – This tool allows you to use public videos and add a comprehension component to them by embedding questions into the video itself.

If you’re looking for ways to increase the interaction and engagement of your students, Spiral is worth looking into. 

Learning community

Having an extra way to communicate with students is a good practice. What happens if technology doesn’t work one day? Backchannel Chat is a free and easy communication tool you can use with your students. You can have a live chat with students. If there is an emergency, such as a quiz is unavailable, students can reach you immediately and you can communicate directly to students. It’s important to have a back-up plan, and Backchannel Chat offers you this.


GoSoapBox is a student response system. You can use GoSoapBox for a wide range of class sizes. What’s great is that it has two (2) features specifically to monitor your students’ comprehension and confusion. The Confusion Barometer does just that: it monitors students’ confusion. Students are able to communicate directly to you in real time whether they are understanding a particular topic or concept. This allows you an opportunity to clarify and elaborate in the moment. The Social Q&A allows students to submit questions and vote for the questions so that the most popular question rises to the top. This allows quieter students to voice their opinion without feeling uncomfortable. Additionally, GoSoapBox offers polling and quizzes to easily monitor your students’ learning.

If you’re sick of the traditional discussion board forums and are looking for a new engaging and interactive tool to get your students discussing, try Flipgrid. You can create a discussion on any topic, pose a question or have students pose a question and then your students can respond by creating their own Flipgrid-short video. This helps strengthen your learning community and affords students an opportunity to engage with each other via a different modality. Let your students’ creativity and understanding shine. Click here to get started.

Visual communication tools can be very complex and overwhelming. Meet Powtoon. A simple, easy to use visual communication tool that can liven any presentation or lecture. It’s super simple to get started. Powtoon provides a storyboard, a template (pretty cool!), and a create your own option. Powtoon includes animations, characters, voiceover, and more. If you’re looking for a way for your students to explain a particular concept or debate, or even illustrate, how to solve a problem, you should look into incorporating Powtoon. Here’s how to get started.

Self-regulated learners

Quizlet is an amazing digital study tool for students, and it can also be incorporated into your instruction to help monitor student understanding. Regardless, Quizlet is designed for students to learn concepts and help them stick. It goes above and beyond those traditional paper index cards. Students can play games against each other and quiz themselves individually while tracking their progress. It’s a great way to ramp up your student interaction and engagement. And, better yet, it’s research-based.

While Khan Academy is traditionally used as a PK-12th grade instructional tool, it’s also a great digital tool to help your students fill in their learning gaps and build upon their background knowledge. Students often come into courses with gaps in their learning, or sometimes struggle to access their background knowledge in order for them to succeed. Khan Academy has an endless number of educational videos that provide excellent, step by step instruction. If you’ve noticed that your students are often coming into your course with learning gaps, I suggest you look into Khan Academy.


You may be eager to try all of these great digital tools I’ve summarized above. I encourage you not to do that. You don’t want to incorporate a digital tool just because it’s cool and hip and interactive and engaging. In order to effectively incorporate a digital tool, you must first think about how it will be used and the effects it will have not only on your course design, but on your students as well. Also, how will the digital tool help your students’ meet a particular learning outcome? But most importantly, how will this digital tool help advance your students’ learning? Begin here, and then incorporate your strategically chosen tool into your course design. Lastly, don’t forget to gather evidence of the digital tool's effectiveness by collecting student feedback. Any digital tool can sound incredible, yet upon assessment, ends up being something the students didn’t use, didn’t understand, or found unhelpful.