My Top Tools for Distance Learning

Jane Hart, C4LPT, published her Top 100 Tools for Learning for 2014 last month

( ), which got me thinking about the tools which are most useful for distance learners. The answer, to some extent, is ‘it depends’. It depends on the nature of the course, and the nature of the learners and their access to technology. It also depends on when you reflect on your answer, because technology is changing rapidly, and so is education in general. One significant change is the shift towards mobile, and there is no doubt that internet-enabled mobile devices have a significant potential for learning, though they may also have limitations (eg. screen size, keyboard usability), and are probably not a key device for older distance learners in particular (Zhou et al, 2013). Whether or not mobile devices are used, all distance learners need access to quality information in appropriate formats, a well-structured programme of study (eg. Open University), regular feedback from their tutor(s) (as detailed by Gilly Salmon), and some form of regular contact with their peers.


Anyway, here’s my list of top tools:

1.       Books, in which I include all good quality print-based materials (NB: the ‘good quality’ bit is essential; there are plenty of useless books). This may sound very ‘digital immigrant’, but I have yet to find a substitute for a book in terms of ease of reading and flicking to and forth to check on concepts, links between topics, making notes etc

2.       Email: still, in my opinion, the easiest way to communicate detailed information with 1 person in an asynchronous way (and sometimes it’s better to be asynchronous)

3.       Skype: probably the easiest way to communicate with 1 person in a synchronous way (though the good old telephone does that quite well, too, especially if you’re not looking you’re best 😉 )

4.       Webinar platforms (eg. Blackboard Collaborate): the easiest way to communicate, and convey detailed information, with >1 person in a synchronous way. I’m aiming to try out MS Lync soon (just happens to be available in UWTSD). Haven’t yet found a free-to-use platform that works reliably.

5.       VLE: this is a bit ‘old fogey’, too, but actually, you do need an online way of gathering videos, articles, power-points (yes, we still need those!), study planners, access to webinars etc. I am still making Xerte learning objects ( to add to the UWTSD Moodle, though not sure what will happen to Xerte once it’s absorbed into the Apereo Foundation. I’m also very interested in sites such as which brings together resources and interactivity in the same sort of way as Xerte, and currently free to use.

6.       Audio/video feedback: again, something that might sit on a VLE, but could be made available to individual learners in other ways. This is really an extension of talking/explaining and in that sense has an edge over written feedback. There are plenty of audio/video recorders, and also screen-casting applications such as Camstudio ( ) and Jing ( (both free to use) that are handy of you’re trying to explain something that has numerous steps, as in a mathematical problem.

7.       Open’ resources, again only if good quality. These include OER (Open Education Resources) from sites such as Jorum ( ) and Xpert ( though not sure how up-to-date these are now- and also from the OU’s OpenLearn ( ). I also include in this category ITunesU, and, very importantly, YouTube. Video is a powerful learning tool, and YouTube has become the main conduit for video-based information from interviews to medical procedures.

8.       Collaborative authoring tools such as Google docs, and Mindmeister ( for collaborative mind-mapping. Titanpad ( ) is also handy, with no login needed.

9.       Google scholar for non-institutional searching, and Delicious ( ) for bookmarking (and searching). There may well be better alternatives to Delicious by now (please let me know if so!), but I’m still using it, and I’d have trouble coping without it.

10.   Twitter: not essential (yet), but an increasingly handy source of information, and another way of ‘maintaining contact’.

A lot of my preferences are visible in Jane Hart’s Top 100, and also in articles by Scott Steinberg (Huffington Post, 2013) and Marsha Bermeister (2008). I suspect that my list won’t change much in the short-term, but I do expect that the way I access some of these applications may change, and the advent of the Windows 8 ‘block’ interface signposts what may be to come.



      ·         Burmeister, M (2008) Ten Top Tools for Distance Learning [online]. Available at: [Accessed 6.10.14]

·         Hart, J (2014) Top 100 Tools for Learning 2014 : Best of Breed  [online]. Available at:

·        Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge

·         Steinberg, S (2013) Distance Learning: Best Apps, Tools and Online Services. Huffington Post [online]. Available at: [Accessed 6.10.14]

·         Zhou, J et al (2013) Age-related difference in the use of mobile phones. International Journal of Universal Access in the Information Society. DOI 10.1007/s10209-013-0324-1 [online]. Available at: [Accessed 6.10.14]
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